About the photo above: This is a very old, tattered and loved shot of me on the trapeze and part of a pyramid when I was a member of the Little Big Tops, a community circus in Melbourne. I was probably about 5 (early 1990’s). I loved it. Credit: Northcote/ Preston Leader.
Running Away To The Circus
This post is about my decision, in 2012, to return to regular training with the Women’s Circus (WC), a community arts organisation in my hometown of Melbourne. I have been interested in/ involved with circus training since I was a kid. When I turned 18 in 2007, I became eligible to join WC and I was really excited, because I had grown up seeing their shows that featured women- of all different ages, body shapes and skill levels- using their bodies to tell their stories in an empowering and inspiring way.
WC was founded in 1991 as a space for female victim/ survivors of sexual abuse and/or sexual assault to reclaim their bodies through the safe and supportive medium of circus training. Since then, it has widened its target group and now accepts all women with an interest in community circus (although it still prioritises survivors, women over forty, indigenous women and women from non-English-speaking backgrounds) For a nonprofit community arts organisation to survive over 20 years is a big deal- securing funding, training space, participants and audiences consistently for so long means there’s some very dedicated people involved, and some solid values underpinning the daily grind of keeping everything going.
So, I was really excited when I finally joined in 2007. I was right in the thick of one of my worst bulimic phases to date, eating very little during the day, binge/purging at night, day in day out. So my body was not in good shape, and my head was a mess. But I was drawn to the circus because it was something I loved- participating in circus classes and performances as a kid is one of the few positive memories I have of my body. All the other exercise I was doing at this time was motivated by bulimia and the drive to be ‘thin, thinner, invisible’ and I was determined to have just one time each week where I could switch off from that and use my body in a positive way.
The structure of WC is that when you first start training, you join the ‘New Women’s’ program, doing one class a week that introduces you to basic circus skills while also working on trust, focus, teamwork and connecting in with your own body. It’s not about being ‘perfect’ or ‘the best’, but just giving it a go. When you first join, you sign a contract committing to such things as ‘having fun’ and ‘turning up even when you don’t feel like it, or have a better offer’.
You can appreciate that this is a very different to mainstream concepts of exercise and training. In the Australian sporting culture, just ‘giving it a go’ isn’t really valued very much. The focus is on winning, being the best, ‘proving ourselves’ against others. These cultural norms are introduced at a very young age, with children encouraged to play team sports ‘for fun’ but rewarded very heavily when they win, not so much for just participating. The additional gender inequity about what sports are valued and given media attention- surprise, it’s mostly elite male team sports that are prioritised- means that for a lot of women (myself included), the notion of engaging with a fun, non-competitive activity that connects you to your body and to other women is a fairly foreign one.
I think the WC New Women’s program handles this brilliantly. We played a lot of games where the point was usually a) to have fun, b) warm up the body, c) focus your attention in the present moment or d) all of the above. It was really lovely to be in a group of women and to be allowed to just ‘play’, something at lot of us hadn’t done for years. And this dynamic flowed into the learning of the circus skills as well. It was OK if you didn’t get it first time round, OK to stuff it up, OK to laugh at yourself- and definitely OK to celebrate when you achieved something you were proud of, no matter how small it might seem to others.
It’s a testament to the quality of the program that I was in such a unhealthy headspace the whole time I was doing it- malnourished, super-anxious, constantly fighting off suicidal thoughts- and yet I still benefited so much. It was pretty much the only time I could take up space- in a room, in a group, as part of a pyramid, whatever- and not feel shame for it. The ‘head noise’, while constant, followed a pattern on circus days. For the few hours before, it was LOUD, constant and terrifying. You can’t go, you’re too fat/ ugly/ disgusting/ stupid, nobody likes you, stay home, don’t bother, just kill yourself you hideous freak. But if I could just get there– put my gear on, navigate the public transport to the other side of the city, get in the door- I knew I would feel much better by the end of the class. Warming up- especially stretching, where it really is just about you and your body- was always really hard. But at some point- maybe during a game, or if I pulled off a trick I’d been working on- that voice would get quieter. It was blissful. That was probably the best lesson I learnt- you’ve just got to turn up, and fake it til you make it. If you do that, it will get better. I feel like I say that to myself about every 20 seconds some days, but that’s because it (usually) works.
Running Away From the Circus
After a term or so of New Women’s, participants could choose to try other classes- acrobalance, tumbling, aerials, all sorts of stuff. I signed up for some beginner’s tumbling and acro, mostly because that’s what I’d been ‘best’ at as a kid. I think an alarm bell probably started ringing in my head at this point- ‘this is supposed to be self-nuturing and non-competitive, remember?’- but I dismissed it. Bad move.
The transition from New Women’s to the regular training program was tough, and the fragile sense of self-belief I’d built up in the preceding weeks was shredded really quickly. All the hard work done to build trust, a safe space, celebrating of different bodies and abilities- it all seemed to get lost in that transition as the focus shifted to learning and perfecting tricks to a ‘performance standard’. I tried really hard to cling to that original ideal of the circus being a safe and non body shaming place, but it didn’t last long. Within a couple of months I was caving into the pre-class head noise and staying home rather than coming to training, which meant I’d miss learning tricks, which meant I felt even worse when I did come- a cycle of doom!
I understand that regular training is a space for developing your skill level rather than trying things out just for fun, but it saddened me to see this come at a cost to other great elements of the circus that I had experienced- things like teamwork, having a laugh, and mucking around occasionally. I was also really shocked at how that range of bodies and abilities that had worked together so beautifully in New Women’s shifted very quickly to a particular physique- almost universally young, lean and very fit women who often had backgrounds in gymnastics/dance. This obviously played heavily on my negative body image stuff but it can also make it hard to find a balance partner- for example, I did almost no ‘flying’ tricks because my body shape/structure was bigger and therefore just assumed to be better for being a ‘base’. I love both parts of acro but just wasn’t comfortable having a go at flying in such an environment. Again, it fed into a negative cycle- I couldn’t practice flying tricks, so I didn’t build up confidence or skills, so I stopped flying and went back to full-time self-loathing instead.
While I fully acknowledge that I was in bad mental and physical shape around this time, and therefore potentially more vulnerable than others during the transition phase from New Women’s to regular classes, I also think that the huge gap between the two streams needs to be looked at and changed so it is not such a harmful element of the organisation. Every year, a large number of women come to Test Drive days, short courses and the New Women’s program, and yet the number of long WC term members is comparatively small. Why is that- why do so many women drop off? What needs to change so that they feel valued enough to stay engaged with the organisation?
Something the bothers me even more- hey, I’m in full rant mode now, don’t try and stop me!- is the even smaller number of women who perform regularly with the WC, both in the larger yearly show and the more recent phenomenon of ‘side shows’ (usually at festivals such as Midsumma or Fringe). The side shows in particular- while billed as WC productions- do not represent the whole circus but rather an ‘elite’ group that is presumably picked on skill level. I think these shows are stunning- the skills are breathtaking- but they are also deceptive and harmful. Why? Because they promote a hierarchy within the circus and emphasise the idea of ‘most skilled = most worthy’. Resources- money, time, use of training space- is diverted to support this small sub-section of women rather than the community as a whole. Both the side shows I have attended have also featured a cast that is- again – almost universally young and thin. As I was watching the most recent show (in January), it occurred to me that this is the most prominent advertising that the circus does all year. And yet the message these shows send is that WC is a place for women who are able-bodied, of ‘normal’ size (eg not overweight) and who have the time, inclination and resources to commit to training for shows such as these.
It’s a message that’s a long way from the values of the New Women’s program, and indeed pretty far removed from the official spiel on the WC website about what the organisation claims to value. And I reckon this disconnection is a big part of why so many women enjoy New Women’s, have negative experiences in regular classes and then drop out. They join up with a respect for a community organisation that has a long and proud history of (theoretically) embracing diversity, only to find it is a different story on the ground.
In 2007, I didn’t have a strong enough voice- or enough of an understanding of the dynamics of the WC- to make my dissatisfaction heard, so I left. In reflection, it’s interesting to note the complete lack of follow up by the organisation- I wonder how many other women are out there and what their stories are? At the time, I wrote my experiences off as being a personal failure- surely only a true fuckwit could join an all-female, grassroots, feminist organisation that promotes body diversity and leave feeling worse about herself, right? Surely I must have been doing it wrong.
I have made other attempts at fun, non-cometitive, non-body-shaming activities. Swimming has been a godsend, almost a meditation-like practice where my body floats weightlessly, supported by water while also displaying its’ own strength. I did a few terms of casual trampolining classes and enjoyed the fun that comes with bouncing off a tramp into a giant foam pit. I have ventured back into netball (another childhood fave) and found the most accommodating, relaxed team of queer gals I could ever have hoped for.
Coming Back Again
But something in me yearned for circus. I’ve kept going along to WC end-of-year shows, the ones that are more representative of the whole circus, and seeing tiny glimpses of what I’d been looking for the first time round- a bunch of different women, working together, having a good time and displaying their varied talents. I’ve kept in the infamous gossip loop and heard occasional rumours that change is happening in the organisation, that it is going back to its’ roots again, making more effort to integrate New Women’s and the regular training. And I’ve done a shitload of work on my personal body/ mind stuff, so that I am now moving slowly (‘one step forward, ten steps back’ style) along the continuum from ‘perpetual state of crisis’ to ‘recovery/ self-acceptance’.
And so, here we are in February 2012, and I have rejoined the Women’s Circus, starting again with New Women’s. Two classes in and I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. This time around I’m very clear about what I will do personally to keep myself as safe as possible, but also feel much more comfortable in being vocal about what the organisation can do, if that seems necessary. I’m going to stay in New Women’s the whole year- not just the optional two terms- and allow myself as much time as possible in its’ nurturing and inclusive space. I’m going to try other classes only if I know that the style of the class and the trainer will be supportive and equitable. And if I find myself in situations that aren’t that way, I will speak up, and encourage others to do the same. I am committed to doing this because opportunities to participate in community arts- as a woman, as a survivor, as a person on a low income- are incredibly fucking rare, and dammed if I’m going to be intimidated out of what few options exist. It’s so important that we hold these organisations accountable, and not be silenced by fear, or shame, or self-loathing.
Above and beyond all that serious stuff though, I’m coming back to the circus to do what I signed up for: have some fun.