Coronavirus: The circus teaching older people new tricks in lockdown

Taking part in an Ageility workship with the Streetwise CircusTaking part in an Ageility workship with the Streetwise Circus
Taking part in an Ageility workship with the Streetwise Circus | Other 3rd Party
GRAEME COUSINS finds out how a Northern Ireland circus school has managed to adapt its workshops during lockdown

While some people have taken advantage of lockdown to indulge in relaxing pastimes, others have gone for the juggler.

You might think the teaching of circus skills would have been curtailed by current social distancing restrictions, but older people throughout Northern Ireland are picking up new tricks thanks to online advances.

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Jim Webster from the Streetwise Community Circus explained how he and other tutors have been able to deliver a workshop teaching skills such as juggling, unicycling and stilt walking during lockdown.

He said: “Immediately after the lockdown we would have had been going to run workshops for older people throughout Northern Ireland. That was a new project we’d started up in Fermanagh, North Down and Ards, Mid and East Antrim and the Newry area.

“We have for years done a lot of work with people with learning disabilities as well as youth groups.”

He said the 30 freelance tutors at the circus all have a wide range of skills including street entertainers, percussionists, a film maker.

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In terms of adapting to lockdown Jim said: “When the lockdown restrictions came the first thing we did was put on videos which relate to what you can do at home, things like how to make juggling equipment.

“We’re learning as we go. The next stage is we’ve decided to lend our kit.

“Where we had workshop equipment that should have been being used at the moment we might as well lend it out to participants who are now stuck at home.

“We’ve older people in Fermanagh, we’ve just got to work out how to get it to them.”

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He continued: “For the next stage we’ve tied in with a group in the north east who work with asylum seekers and refugees, they would be more advanced than us in terms of working with Zoom. We’re learning from them on how to use Zoom for classes.

“One of our guys is doing a session on a Friday morning using Zoom for the older people who would normally have come in.

“We are now working with them to see if we can actively teach across Zoom.

“We all know about Zoom as a meeting medium, but can I stand in a room here and observe someone’s juggling close enough through Zoom that I can give them active guidance? It then opens up the potential to teach online one-to-one or to groups of people.

“It takes away the need to physically be anywhere.

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“We’ve had a committee meeting on Zoom and it was the first time we’ve had 100% attendance. I think we had more done in 40 minutes and had more good ideas than ever before.

“Because circus is a physical activity, you have to think a little bit more deeply about what goes on when you’re teaching.

“You realise that you’ve got to encourage people, inspire people and engage with people.

“If you can do that online we can reach people who are isolating. When you think of those people in Fermanagh, they were always very rural, and they can now link with us better than ever.”

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Streetwise Community Circus receives funding from Arts Council, Belfast City Council and Lottery Community Fund.

Jim said the tutors were offering all the circus skills apart from aerial: “We can only offer aerial in the centre that we’re based in.

“You’ve got juggling, unicycling, stilt walking, things like that, diablo, hat tricks, poi – which is the ribbon that you spin around yourself.

“The simplest thing to learn I would say is scarf juggling because that gets the pattern going. You can do a lot of stuff with less than three balls. With one scarf you can pick up the co-ordination needed to juggle.

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“You start with one scarf and realise you can flip it around different ways and catch it, then it’s game on.

“Once you’ve started, the circus is about getting the skill, practising it, then improving with practice.

“You don’t put a ceiling on it, there’s no starting point of entry and there’s no ceiling.”

Asked how useful it was for older people and people with learning difficulties to learn circus skills, Jim said: “There’s a couple of aspects. Circus is not for everybody, not all older people want to juggle, but people who do try circus skills, the feedback is they love it because it’s really invigorating.

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“On a Friday morning I’ve got video footage of older people knife throwing. They’re loving it.

“We’ve had people in their 70s stilt walking in the Lisburn Carnival, they’re active and are loving the fact they can do these new things.”

He added: “Disability is the same. We do a summer school for adults with learning disabilities. They devise their own shows. They’re not defined by their disability when they’re there. They’re defined by their talents.

“I can think of a couple of individuals who would be on the autistic spectrum, they have very limited verbal communication but can unicycle backwards. Those particular individuals have delivered lines on stage as part of a show. You’re challenging stereotypes towards people from these groups.

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“It’s a hard sell initially. Circus is not for everybody but if people engage with it they get a real lift and it influences other areas of their lives.

“There’s another spin-off from the older people workshops – we’ve found techniques for working with people with dementia.

“Circus is in the moment, it’s physical. When you juggle you’ve activated parts of the brain that are beneficial.

“We’ve actually designed sit-down circus skills, we’ve all sorts of table top stuff.

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“We’ve found there’s a lot of groups of old people who meet up and talk about what they can’t do, the health stuff, trying to go on computers. So we’re just having some fun with something that is not important but it lifts you because you say, ‘wow, I didn’t know I could do that’.”