Dipping my toe into the big tent

At the beginning of last week I commenced a four-hours-a-day, two-week circus course provided by the Polytechnic here in Christchurch. A catalogue of the skills that we learnt, or at least tried to learn depending on our own individual strengths and weaknesses, includes:

  • Unicycling
  • Stilt-walking
  • Partner acrobatics
  • Tricks on the trapeze (i.e. not flying trapeze)
  • Juggling
  • Rolabola
  • Trampolining
  • Tightrope-walking
  • Rope climbing & tricks
  • Diabolo
  • Globe-walking
  • Plate-spinning

It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever taken part in. From an athletic point of view, an artistic freedom point of view, a social point of view.

It’s not so common these days to find yourself in a group atmosphere that is overwhelmingly positive, easygoing, lively and encouraging. No matter how I had started the day or how neutral the expression on my face when I entered the hall, I would feel carefree and happy only 10 minutes into it. By the middle of it I would have truly forgotten that I hadn’t spent all the minutes of my life that way – playing and challenging my body. When our bodies were hurting and we were stuck in the middle of core-strength exercises we laughed together at the predicament. We spotted for each other to make sure our acrobatic work remained as safe as possible; and reassured one another when we felt fear over doing a certain stunt, or when we experienced a twinge of embarrassment after falling on our faces, accidentally kicking someone in the head, or not being able to do the trick that every other person could do. It speaks volumes that that’s all the embarrassment ever amounted to, a twinge.

There are risks involved in circus training. What was good about this course was that this was discussed out in the open right from the very beginning, and we were advised in no uncertain terms to trust what our bodies were saying and not attempt anything that didn’t feel safe. I think the only times I didn’t trust what we were doing was when we were trying out jumps on the trampoline. It’s a very “loose”, highly bouncy trampoline located in a pit, so it’s lower down than the ground. I generally didn’t feel like I could control myself very well whenever I got any real height. Most of the time I would come out of it feeling bits of impact pain in an ankle or a knee; on two occasions where I was just playing around I positioned my jump-off point incorrectly and slammed myself straight into one of the walls of the pit. That really hurt. It was like in the cartoons when Wiley Coyote runs into a brick wall that has suddenly appeared on the road in the middle of the desert…… and he just stays there splayed flat against the wall, before many seconds later sliding down off it. I was pasted onto the side of the pit, adhered there by pain and incomprehension.

There are also skills that seem impossible to do. For some it is rope-climbing for the strength required, for others it is trapeze for the confidence in high places necessary. Me, I am the absolute pits at plate-spinning. I was launching them through the air like frisbees, occasionally getting myself in the knee or the head. Fortunately they are made out of plastic. I’ve also got a lot of progress to make on the unicycle, I can probably cycle two revolutions now without holding onto the bar. This gradual progress on the unicycle is typical for the whole class though, whereas I was in a minority with my plate-spinning handicap. The unicycle is extreme… You have to have your weight positioned exactly in the centre of the seat otherwise it slides out in front and behind you with very little warning. I really enjoy riding the unicycle however. I hope to one day ride one around the neighbourhood with a devil-may-care insouciance that totally belies how hard my muscles are working to stabilise me on this stick on a wheel.

Despite the difficulties and the dangers, everyone in the course found 2 or 3 skills to become besotted with. I love the trapeze, partly because I do have some success on it, and partly because I like the swinging, the hanging and the artistic shapes you can make with your body on it. I’m possibly also a masochist because anytime any part of your body has to clamp down hard against the trapeze bar it hurts like all get-out. I also like it because it requires quite a lot of arm and upper body strength, an area in which I’ve always felt I’ve been lacking. My interest in rope-climbing is based on similar reasoning, in the past I’ve been somewhat envious of how guys can pull their whole body weight up with their arms alone, and cut through strong currents in the sea on their surfboards with apparent form, efficiency and strength. When I realised that I was able to haul myself up a rope I felt such a huge sense of achievement.

It’s taught me new ways of understanding my body. To know where we are weak, where we are strong, how we make ourselves stable and how human bodies can fit together in such beautiful ways. That the basis of working together and pulling off freaky tricks is keeping everything centred, always applying even pressure to the person you’re working with, and basic trust. Often you can’t make an acrobatic trick work without giving up some control of your own body so that your partner can control it and ensure your safety.

The course isn’t structured section after section, so sometimes we have undecided in-between periods where we play games. This afternoon was started off with several rounds of wrestling, and an attempt to have a race in which the racers would be on all fours and would have a person doing what I’ll call the “huggy-stand” on the back of the racer. The “huggy-stand” is like a handstand except instead of standing on your hands you’re holding onto the arm and the stomach of the racer and then balancing your upside down body by carrying your weight on the top of your chest, which is pressing down into the back of the racer. Then it’s a simple matter of kicking your legs into a scissor split πŸ˜‰ and the racer is good to go.

Yesterday our games revolved around being blind. We ran down a ramp with eyes closed (and people on either side to catch anyone who veered off course), stood in a circle pushing a “blind” person around to each other, and pretended to be two blind robots who started walking off in different directions and had to be pushed by a “controller” to walk in the right direction so that we would meet each other.

Someone picks up a small ball… suddenly we’re standing in a circle trying to pass it to each other by hitting it with our heads. We’re shown how to roll around on the ground on our backs with our legs folded… suddenly we’ve joined up into a group of four to see if we can co-ordinate our rolling and achieve a cool visual effect.

Basically……. our time is spent being kids.

It’s not a course for a person of great modesty and shyness. There have been heads in-between crotches (male-male, male-female, female-female), hands wedged in armpits and between thighs, feet in hands and around necks. I’ve not given a second thought to most of this “personal” interaction required for acrobatic work, except for the one time where I, standing over the head of him, guy lying on his back on the ground with his knees up, had to aim my head for his crotch in order to roly-poly forward to get the back of my shoulders resting on his thighs. As I do this he holds onto my hands, I keep my legs straight out in front of me and then he has to sit up so that while he’s leaning back and squatting he’s lifting me above the ground with my legs parallel to the floor. It’s a bit hard to describe… and pretty hard to execute. The main point here was that sometimes those moments of hesitation in circus are about whether you think can jump high enough on the trampoline to get over those two towering mattresses, or whether you feel safe enough to swing back off the trapeze when you know it’s only the back of your knees keeping ahold of the ropes; and other times, they’re about whether you believe yourself capable of launching your head straight into a random man’s soft, squishy bits. There ain’t no romance in the circus, we make our introductions the blatant way πŸ˜‰

I’ve learnt from other people in the course as well. I’m now aware of the burgeoning community circus movement in New Zealand, particularly in Northland, and of research that has been done into the benefits of circus for children, people with disabilities and education in general. I now know that there is an annual, highly regarded clown workshop that takes place in the North Island that does more than teach you how to play the fool, it gives you a surreal new way of perceiving the world and tests the strength of your own sense of identity. I’ve learnt that there are many people who despite not being professional circus performers are still completely dedicated and passionate about having circus in their lives and in the lives of others.

I feel so priviledged to have been a circus freak, and I must say I want more. One of my dreams for my fantasy house was to have one room where the whole floor was covered by one big fluffy pillow. You would open the door and step straight out onto pillow, choose a spot to curl into and just go to sleep there. Or you could stretch yourself out and simply writhe about pleasurably in the undulations that your moving body would make in the schmudgy pillow. Now I have another room to add to this house, which goes in the complete opposite direction… A room with a trapeze bar to swing around and a rope to climb. Mmmm… trapeze bar…….

But my room would be missing the fun, excitable other circus freaks always up for playing. So, looks like I’m gonna have to take circus wherever I can get it over the course of my life. At least this is one super secret I’m in on πŸ™‚

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