This youth circus program is about teaching kids to be more brave, not less afraid

What’s a ‘social’ circus, you ask?

‘Social circus’ is a program and philosophy that aims to empower youth using circus props: juggling balls, hula hoops, aerial silks, and more. And now it’s come to St. John’s. As program instructor Danielle Knustgraichen says, “there is a prop for everybody, and every body, a prop and a skill that helps them realize just how strong and capable they are.”

Knustgraichen’s social circus program is organized through Thrive, a community youth network in St. John’s, and supported by local circus studio Cirque’letics. With ten youth participants across the gender spectrum, Knustgraichen teaches circus arts skills including juggling, hula hooping, and acrobatics, supported by health care professionals and social workers from Thrive.

A main goal of the program, which is offered through a series of 20 weekly classes, is to teach participants risk-assessment. The program guides youth to discover their own boundaries and abilities in a safe environment. Shelby Arnold, Learning Facilitator at Thrive, says that Knustgraichen’s teaching philosophy pairs well with Thrive, which “operates from a harm-reduction, trauma-informed approach.”

Arnold explains that they “want people to feel comfortable and safe in a low-barrier space.” For example, the class’s ‘decompression area’ allows participants to take a break or a breather anytime they choose. As Arnold says, participants are invited to use the time and space however they feel most comfortable, so “people can come in and sit in the corner and relax, or they can dive in and try everything.”

“The core of social circus is not to discourage risk-taking, but to teach risk-mitigation,” says Knustgraichen, who is a trained circus instructor through the École nationale de cirque, one of Canada’s foremost circus schools. Having lead and collaborated on workshops with the Boys and Girls Club of St. John’s, Cornerstone Ministry Centre, and Choices for Youth, Knustgraichen uses circus arts to explore all sorts of life lessons and social issues, like acceptance, courage, and consent.

A local mentor inspired Knustgraichen’s circus motto: be more brave, not less afraid. Youth, in particular, are often risk-takers, testing society’s boundaries to discover their own capabilities. So, it is no coincidence that the youth social circus program is all about setting up a safe space in which to try new things, from partner acrobatics to throwing five balls in the air. Knustgraichen explains that fear is important—a sense of fear is what makes you slow down before you turn a corner, pause before you take a leap. But, while acknowledging fear can keep you safe, it is also an important tool for pushing past your fears and discovering skills and talents hidden inside. If you feel vulnerable or afraid you can use it as a marker, a place where you can ask ‘is this boundary solid, or do I have a little more room?’

“Being afraid is good,” says Knustgraichen. “But if you can also be brave, you can overcome your vulnerabilities without pretending they don’t exist.” Knustgraichen was introduced to the ‘be more brave, not less afraid’ motto when learning how to spin fire. She explains that without fear, people often get hurt, especially when working with fire props.

“Fire is dangerous, we should be afraid of it! But when you learn about how it works, assess all the risks and take measures to control them, and have an experienced mentor to give you guidance, that’s where the bravery comes in. There are ways to push yourself safely. It’s when you lose all fear, or ignore it, that you get into trouble.”

This is one of the lessons Knustgraichen hopes participants will take away from the program: there are firm boundaries and there are flexible boundaries, and in a safe environment we can discover both.

Though the program is new, participants have already embraced the philosophy. Knustgraichen says that participants have expressed personal doubts and vulnerabilities, after creating a set of group guidelines that focus on social justice, consent, and respect. Participants will use the 20-week program to work on the skills and props of their choosing, ending with a student showcase, date to be determined. With a professionally trained instructor and enthusiastic partner organizations, St. John’s social circus is the kind some parents may actually hope their kids run off and join!

And, while social circus is not currently accepting monetary donations, they are grateful to receive in-kind donations including duct take, hockey tape, yoga mats, PVC or pexpipe tubing, dance/gymnastics costumes, balloons, dry rice, sandwich bags, used circus and sporting goods equipment, non-expiry bus cards to help with transportation, and love.

(photos by Riley Harnett)

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