I am writing this post from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Last week, I spent a day at a kid’s circus camp in Peñasco about an hour outside of Sante Fe. My time there kicked off by helping out in the group working on stilts. Yes, stilts. One of the kids mentioned that he was five and had first gone on stilts when he was three! What stood out most to me from being with this group was trust, courage and imagination. These are important themes for the collective creative process that is life and social change. If we are to step fully into our creative powers – including our imagination, we will need to have courage and we will need to trust the people around us.
At one point that morning, I was asked to help spot while three girls – I’m guessing ages 9-12 – were practicing a set of steps (on stilts) for their performance. The idea was that the two girls on the outside were supporting the girl in the middle as she did a movement that brought her to the floor. It seemed akin to doing the splits on stilts, if you can imagine that. The middle girl’s stilts were about two feet off the ground, I think. It seemed to be the first time the middle girl was doing the move and I watched as the teacher showed her what to do. Middle girl went ahead and did the move. I think it didn’t go quite right but was a good start – based on the teacher’s response.
I was impressed because the middle girl had to overcome any fear she might have had, whilst putting trust in the people supporting her – directly and indirectly (that is, a teacher and I were spotting the two girls assisting her with the descent). Soon after, I played a similar role in a similar exercise and I became more impressed. This time, it was a different middle girl. And before she assumed this role of she-who-descends, she mentioned that she wasn’t feeling very confident about being on stilts. I noticed she was on one of the higher sets of stilts, and higher than the previous middle girl.
So, there she was openly acknowledging that she wasn’t feeling very confident and then willing to try a new move that looked rather scary to me. Courage. Clearly, she was nervous. Yet, she went ahead. I gather that it started off well and than went amuck. In fact, I was worried that she was hurt- she looked like a pretzel when the landing completed. She was a bit shocked because one of her stilts had caught on something, but other than that she was fine. And it was declared that she was capable of doing this move. Geez, I was really impressed by this young woman – for her courage.
The Circus Camp is an initiative of Wise Fool – an all women’s circus in Santa Fe with this mission: to ignite imagination, build community, and promote social justice through performances and hands-on experiences in the arts of circus, puppetry, and theatre. The Peñasco Theatre camp that I was visiting is a free (pay what you can, if you can) camp outside Santa Fe. Some children bring their lunches, others are given lunch on site at no cost to their families. Some people might focus on this financial arrangement as the ‘social justice’ dimension of the circus – you know, making activities like this available to children from all backgrounds.
That would seriously miss the point.
The circus camp pulls children into conscious creativity. The children begin the camp by testing out the different more physical elements of the show (arial, acrobatics, stilts) and then choosing which one they prefer to take up for the performance. They all participate in dance and clowning pieces. Whatever the activity, they seem to have opportunities to input into the design of the performance – it isn’t all dictated by the teachers. So it is, that the children are invited to work-play with their imaginations beyond the basics of things like ‘pretend you are a bee.’ (The theme for this camp is bees – one day the kids visited a bee farm to learn about bees and how the live).
Imagination. When we are creating – bringing things into being – with people and are being conscious about it, it can be scary. It can be very scary if we allow our imaginations to open up. Why scary? Because when we put forward an idea, we feel we are sharing a part of ourselves – after all, we thought it, it came from inside us. In sharing a part of ourselves we become vulnerable – vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, dismissiveness, scorn etc. It can be easy to take rejection of our idea as a rejection of us (but delving into that is for another blog post).
Most of the time we are creating unconsciously – going through our day-to-day movements as if on auto-pilot. This tends not to be scary because we tend to do what is expected of us by our selves and others; we tend to stay in our little boxes that are familiar to us. It is when we step outside the box that the fear is most likely to kick in, when we venture to be different from how we normally are and different from the general norm. And when we step outside the box to step fully into our imaginations – Scary!
Yet, if we want to create a different world – the one that we bang on about, the one that is fairer, kinder, more just, more loving etc – we need to step fully into our imaginations and we need to do so in ways that are connected with the essence of the change we want to create. Imagination can take us to really dark places – we can creatively (and in many ways we have) torture our selves and each other, for example. What we want to do is nourish ourselves, restore ourselves, regenerate ourselves – and through imagination open up the possibilities for how we can do so.
This brings me back to the three girls on stilts. The girl in the middle – whoever she may be – relies on the other two for her descent. The other two girls rely on that middle girl to do the descent as part of their collective movement. They trust each other. They support each other to be courageous. All of this taking place within the imaginative performance that they are creating with each other. This performance, in turn, involves a whole host of players (from the teachers, to the lunchmakers, to the cashier at the gas station their mom or dad stops at along the way to drop them off and pick them up).
You can perhaps imagine how it is that each day the children get together and the teachers hold a space for them to feel safe and to give way to imagination and to the support of each other. The children don’t ridicule each other. They do make each other feel safe; this is essential to circus performance. That may seem obvious – given the nature of the performance. But life (and social change) is no different than the circus – just sometimes the risk-taking isn’t obvious. That is to say, if we don’t feel that we are safe, if we don’t trust the people we are with and/or the overall collective process to hold us, we won’t venture to step fully into the space. We’ll hold back what we have to offer.
For me, a circus camp contributes to social justice/social change because it encourages children to be conscious about the collective creative process, and in particular to be connecting with one another by building a foundation of trust where courage and imagination can flourish.
Reflection questions: In your role as a changemaker, what conditions tend to enable you to feel safe and courageous? What conditions inhibit you? Presently, which are the spaces in your life where you feel able to step fully into your creative power?