Circus News

American Circus Educators Launches Circus Arts Safety Recognition Program

The American Circus Educators Association has developed programs to help circus studios standardize their safety policies and procedures.

The popularity of circus arts education in the United States is on the rise. More and more musical artists, television shows, and movies with circus elements are catching the public eye. From flying trapeze and other aerial skills to Cyr wheel, Americans are becoming more aware of the circus arts, of how accessible they really are to learn, and of how much fun and exercise folks can have while participating.

Circus arts are serious fun, though. As with all physical activities, accidents and mishaps can unfortunately be part of the experience. Within the last year, there have been several incidents in the performance world that have been scary and even fatal. With the growth of the educational aspect of the industry on the rise, how can circus educators operate to ensure that they are protecting their students, staff, businesses, and themselves?

A few years ago, that question was posed by a group of concerned voices at the American Youth Circus Organization’s Educators Conference (EdCon). Now, the “sister” division of that organization, the American Circus Educators Association, has stepped up with a solution: a set of guidelines called the ACE Circus Arts Safety Program. ACE introduced the guidelines on August 26, 2014 at a pre-conference focus group held before EdCon at the National Circus School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. The guidelines, which have been developed over two years with input from industry experts and consultants, are divided into two types: the Teacher Training Program and the Circus Arts Program. Each of these is categorized further into Facilities & Operations, Curriculum & Staff, and Policies & Practices. Both program types are completely voluntary and available for application immediately. Facilities that complete a safety program receive a recognition from ACE.

The Teacher Training Program is currently only for studios and facilities that are specifically training instructors of the aerial circus arts, whether for their own businesses’ programs or not. The Circus Arts Program is geared more towards programs and spaces that may not be training individual instructors but would still like to be recognized for meeting the guidelines in the program’s criteria. The CAP makes recognitions separately available for application within each of the three categories of guidelines mentioned above, whereas applicants interested in the TTP must meet all the guidelines in order to be eligible for recognition. ACE is interested in the expansion of both these programs, especially the Teacher Training Program. The inclusion of other circus arts TTP’s will depend on the reaction to the program by instructional circus arts businesses, on the demand for more recognitions, and on the availability of expert feedback and collaboration. There is also an Individual Teacher Registration Program currently in development, expected for availability in 2015.

The focus group in Montreal was led by three of the four individuals that spearheaded this complicated process: Adam Woolley, Elsie Smith, and Jonathan Deull; Beverly Sobelman was unable to attend. The purpose of the group’s meeting was not only to define and discuss the application process and the criteria by which applicants will be assessed but also to begin recruiting for the Safety Consultant Group. This group will consist of a few lead consultants and a team of safety consultants, whose tasks it will be to field the applications of parties that would like to participate in the program and assess their level of compliance. Since there are so many circus schools and businesses, with more opening up every year, the goal is not to turn applicants away, but rather to ensure that those schools that are interested in being recognized by ACE are active in their endeavor of creating a safe environment for their students and staff. The Safety Consultant Group will be a support team, making sure that there is consciousness given to the rigging, curriculum, and administrative and operating procedures of the schools recognized by the program.

In a brief online interview, the Safety Program Committee Chair, Adam Woolley, shared some insights on the aims of the program:

[JG] What inspired the initial idea to begin creating the guidelines?

[AW] It is safe to say that since our founding in 1998 AYCO has always been aware of the need for safety guidelines for the sector. While our organization has always been positioned to play this role, we did not have the resources to do so until 2012, once we had part time AYCO staff managing our operations. An esteemed and dedicated committee had the courage to take it on, and the project moved forward from there.

[JG] What would ACE like to see in the circus community as a result of these guidelines?

[AW] The mission of the Circus Arts Safety Program, from the website, is “To establish specific guidelines that will help promote, encourage, and foster better safety and risk management practices as related to circus arts by creating a system that recognizes circus spaces that demonstrate a continued commitment to better safety practices as based on ACE’s guidelines.”

I think that pretty much says it! The bit about encouraging and fostering better safety and risk management practices as related to circus arts is the key bit here; we think there are a lot of differing opinions out there and a lot of valuable and unique solutions. We wanted to give people a guidepost to reference, so that they could start to put their own risk-management practices into better context.

[JG] How will these guidelines affect programs that do not choose to participate?

[AW] Hopefully the programs that choose not to participate will still utilize the guidelines and self-assessment tools as a way of improving and evaluating their safety practices! Nothing can replace a consultation, which is a dynamic process based method of receiving feedback from a third party, but the guidelines are a useful tool on their own.

At the very least, we hope that any [circus arts] program will hear about and peruse the guidelines as a way of knowing where they fall on the spectrum. It is a firmly held belief of the program that no one in the sector is intentionally unsafe. Rather, no one knows what they don’t know, and without a public set of documents that demonstrate what questions should be asked (Do you have a plan in the event of a fire? Do you have a comprehensive and documented system of equipment maintenance?), studio owners and managers are just shooting in the dark.

[JG] What would be a potential benefit to programs that DO participate?
Public recognition is a benefit for sure, and you do get a special logo and a listing as an approved program on the ACE website, but that’s not what I want to emphasize.

[AW] Going through a safety consultation is about getting someone who knows what they’re talking about to look at your space and help you do the best job managing risk that you could possibly do. No one knows if they’re a part of the problem; that’s why we’ve built the program on the ideals of inclusion and education. Participating is about getting another set of eyes in your space, someone who’s only job while they’re there (or while they’re looking at your policies) is to help you improve.

No one thinks they are going to be the place where someone gets hurt until it happens. No one thinks it matters that their staff rehearses emergency scenarios until there’s been an emergency and it becomes clear that rehearsal can make a huge difference.

Programs that participate will walk away with the peace of mind that they have done and are doing the most important thing: involving a third party in the examination and improvement of their risk management and safety policy making and practices. Nothing replaces having as many eyes as possible.

[JG] What was the most difficult aspect of creating these guidelines?

[AW] Creating the guidelines took two full years. The content of the guidelines came easily, thanks to having such an experienced committee creating them. The hardest thing, however, was wording the guidelines so that they could apply to studios of all sizes and set-ups. We don’t want to be prescriptive; there are many solutions to the challenges studios face, and saying everyone has to use the exact same solution isn’t the point. The point is making sure that studios have credible systems of self-reliance.

Although registration in the Circus Arts Safety Program comes at a small cost to the applicant, and there is an annual membership fee, consideration has been given to making the program reasonably priced and affordable. ACE would like to ensure that any and every circus arts school in this country that wishes to be a part of best safe practices can be. The safety consultant positions are paid freelance opportunities that will be awarded to individuals who have expertise in the areas of rigging, curriculum, and administrative policies and procedures in the area of circus arts education. It is also worth noting that none of these programs are for certification: as stated on its website, “ACE has no plans at this time to offer certification courses … of its own.”

For more information, to apply for one of the Safety Recognition Programs, or to be a safety consultant, please visit the American Circus Educators Association’s website.

James “JBird” Gibson
Program Director, Writer -United States
James “JBird” Gibson is program director and co-founder of Circus of Hope and was the rig manager at Trapeze Austin, both in Austin, Texas, USA. He was also assistant director, lead instructor, staff trainer, and rig manager at Trapeze Club of New Paltz and at España-Streb Trapeze Academy in New Paltz and New York, New York, USA, respectively. He has also worked for Trapeze Experience and Club Med.

James “JBird” Gibson

James “JBird” Gibson is program director and co-founder of Circus of Hope and was the rig manager at Trapeze Austin, both in Austin, Texas, USA. He was also assistant director, lead instructor, staff trainer, and rig manager at Trapeze Club of New Paltz and at España-Streb Trapeze Academy in New Paltz and New York, New York, USA, respectively. He has also worked for Trapeze Experience and Club Med.