Unpacking Injury in Circus: Flying with Excess Baggage

Circus News

Unpacking Injury in Circus: Flying with Excess Baggage with Amiel Soicher Clarke

In this audio series, Unpacking Injury in Circus, former circus performer and current behavioral neuroscience student, Amiel Soicher Clarke, explores the lived experiences that influence injury management for circus performers, using his analytic auto-ethnographic thesis as a guide. In this first of three episodes, our CEO Stacy Clark helps Amiel introduce the series, Amiel frames his thesis through his own experiences with injury, and the two set the stage for trauma-informed discussions about injury management with future guests in future episodes.
Amiel Soicher Clarke – Retired Performer, Coach, Researcher | Canada, Ireland, UK

Amiel Soicher Clarke is a previous trampolinist and teeterboard performer and current acrobatic trainer at the National Circus School in Montreal. In tandem with teaching, he is a student in the Honour’s Behavioural Neuroscience program at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada under the guidance of Sport Psychologist and qualitative behavioural sciences researcher Dr. Theresa Bianco. His focus of study uses a trauma-informed approach to the psychology of injury management decisions that circus performers experience, with an emphasis on knowledge mobilization for general audiences. This is both his first time contributing to CircusVoices and first time presenting his field of research. He looks forward to hearing the perspectives and sparking a discussion with the broader circus community that he holds so dear

We all have a unique experience and perspective, because life is a subjective experience. The hope in this series is to give a snapshot of what some perspectives are. Your experience matters, and we want your perspective to be heard too, whether that’s on an upcoming segment, in an email, or simply by leaving us a comment on the platform. Please get in touch and join the conversation!

Transcript for "Unpacking Injury in Circus: Flying with Excess Baggage with Amiel Soicher Clarke"

Stacy: Are you afraid to talk about injuries as a performer? What happens when you don’t talk about them? A lot of us have been through this, we know that injuries can and will likely happen. When they do, how do we process them? I am Stacy Clark, and I’m here with Amiel Soicher Clarke... No relation... Amiel’s motive is to draw on his own lived experience as a performer to take a trauma informed approach to researching circus injury from a behavioural studies perspective. Tell us about your mission, Amiel? 

Amiel: What inspired my current field of research is a personal one. I had a handful of injuries in circus, and the decisions I had to make accordingly had many layers and influences behind them. A lot of these decisions need to be made in real-time, pressure-filled situations. So it got me curious, how do others process their injuries sustained in circus? 

Stacy: Let’s talk about where you’re at with your studies, in this process.

Amiel: Currently I have been finishing up a bachelor’s degree in behavioural neuroscience here in Montreal. Part of the program involved a written thesis, where I had to conduct my own study and write a formal manuscript to defend to obtain my degree. Something very important to me is translating formal research that would otherwise be unapproachable for those not familiar with behavioural research into something tangible and easy to understand. After all, if I am studying circus injuries in the effort of trying to improve the wellbeing of performers, it needs to be approachable enough for performers to be able to digest. Now, my thesis manuscript has a few caveats that are important for the listener to know. I am in the process of publishing this study, but it has yet to be submitted to scientific journals. After submitting it, it will be reviewed by peers in the field of study. This peer review process is essential for the validity of the scientific process. This means that I cannot draw steadfast conclusions with my study. Regardless of being peer reviewed and published, that’s not my aim, per se. My aim is to initiate a discussion about the lived experiences of the circus community. The emphasis is that this is not the only perspective, though. We all have a unique experience and perspective, because life is a subjective experience. My hope is to give a snapshot of what some perspectives are. This is by no means the gospel. 

Based on my findings, decisions around injury management could be complicated by situational factors experienced prior and during injury, in addition to the physical aspects of the injury sustained by a performer.

Stacy: Take us through that process.

Amiel: To start off, I began with seeing what the current research state is with injuries in circus. There are some injury rates that researchers have proposed and definitions of injury severity. But there is a paucity in current research of how a performer will approach their injury management decisions. Considering many performers come from a dance or gymnastics background and many of the maneuvers are similar, I began my reading there. I borrowed some concepts and models suggested from sport to guide how I studied circus injury management. 

Stacy: When we talked about this prior to our recording, you brought up a fun analogy about injuries being like baggage. Can you explain that?

Amiel: I like to use an injury analogy that my mentor, Dr. Theresa Bianco uses in her field of sport psychology. Think of injuries as the baggage that you have with you on a trip. I feel it also applies with injuries in circus. When you’re healthy, discussing injuries is generally taboo. Most of us don’t want to talk about it, and if you were me… It was out of a superstition... talking about it is ominous and could somehow jinx good health. When you get injured, you are carrying baggage that you previously packed. Now, pretend that you’re going on a sunny vacation. In that baggage, you’re trying to keep it minimal. What is in that baggage we carry? We carry our past experiences, beliefs, attitudes and it can impact our perceptions. Our bodies physically have to carry it. What if your back is sore carrying it all day? Or you hurt yourself prior and have an issue that could get aggravated while carrying that baggage. Also, I would assume that you packed your bag yourself and kept it in your possession while at the airport. What if others have access to that bag and can tamper with the contents inside? So you pack your bags expecting that the weather is gorgeous and sunny. But you also pack  for adverse weather (or not, if you’re an idealist, which I sometimes am.) You prepare and anticipate, or should, that there is a chance that it could storm while on your trip. I like to think the same thing goes with injuries while performing. When it storms, or you get hurt… are you prepared with the things you have in that baggage? Or is the baggage weighing you down and becoming a burden? 

On one hand, we don’t want to prepare for absolutely everything that could happen while on vacation, but we want to have just enough that keeps our baggage minimal, but prepared for events that could happen by chance, just like that of injuries.

Stacy: So, you’re curating what you pack in your bag?

Amiel: Exactly. And everyone has different baggage. 

Stacy: Your findings were drawn from an analytic autoethnography. That’s a mouthful, tell us what that is?

Amiel: Don’t worry, I still have trouble with saying it, too. Essentially, I narrated my own experience and analyzed it as a case study to identify my factors that led to my behaviour around injuries

Stacy: I suspect many of us travel with excess baggage. What’s in your suitcase? 

Amiel: In my bag, I have an old, bulky sweater of self-blame taking up a lot of room. I experienced this sweater of Self-Blame in both sport and circus environments. My acrobatic background was in trampoline gymnastics. My athletic accomplishments were driven by the desire to impress others and prove something to them. Looking back on it, I lacked self-worth. I frequently felt that I was an inadequate athlete and an imposter. My success was usually met with scorn and coldness from the national team coaches. I craved positive reinforcement. As a teenager, I sustained an injury and a coach claimed that I got hurt because I was too heavy and not strong enough. This suggestion influenced self-imposed blame and body image issues. Which was packed away in my suitcase for a later trip.

By nature, we don’t want to feel self-blame. So I would avoid acknowledging that Injuries occurred. I felt that my injuries were my fault and could have been avoided if I worked harder, because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. So, I should either work more –often to physical exhaustion– to avoid injury and I should not tell anyone if and when they happen. I was trained as a kid to doubt pain and be skeptical that injuries experienced were legitimate.

Stacy: This seems like you, and surely others, learned to “Push Through Injury at All Costs.” 

Amiel: Absolutely. Not disclosing injuries was normal in sport. For me, the belief that being injured was a character flaw was ingrained very deeply. I developed a mentality that was driven by the pressure to continue, at all costs. I would downplay pain and injuries, in fear of being judged by others... and exposing an injury exposed weakness and incapability. The same thought patterns followed me into circus.

At a certain point, I redefined my identity. I like to call it my own little personal identity foreclosure. Although I moved on from sport to circus, I continued to propel myself into a risky setting to avoid painful emotions. This new risky, thrilling environment was a place in which I sought to achieve that same thrill I felt when doing tricky skills on the trampoline, successfully. Leaving the sport environment and getting this “dream job” (circus) did not rid me of the habits and baggage of self-blame, low self-worth, and feelings of being an imposter that I harboured from my time in sport. Essentially, these patterns ingrained in sport influenced my decisions related to injuries sustained later in circus.

Stacy: I am going to springboard off our baggage analogy: llet’s unpack the “dream job”. What do you know now that you would have liked to have known back then.

Amiel: That is one heck of a question with many answers, but what stands out is the difference in circus of having to peak in every performance, rather than peaking only a handful of times in a year when competing in gymnastics. In circus, we were expected to perform consistently for upwards of 300 shows per year. I viewed this as a challenge, yet I was terrified of failure, getting injured, and being rejected by the show and company. I had to shift my perspective for the sake of longevity and sustainability instead of just getting through each performance. 

Stacy: What I hear you describing is a specific contract type, one that is that of a full time performer doing upwards of 300 shows per year. In future episodes of this series, you’ll invite different perspectives from individuals who hold different roles who have experienced different contracts and employment engagements.  

Amiel: Yeah. I mean, it is a pretty unpredictable career. You need to adapt quickly depending on your situation. You also need to learn to trust others. I had to quickly adapt to the group dynamic of my specific act. Compared to my individual sport. My apparatus was teeterboard. Which in a duo or group setting has such a huge dependence, as in many circus disciplines, on trust and transparent communication with other performers. In my case, this mutual trust felt conflicting; it was empowering that my act partner trusted me innately, yet I recall feeling a nagging sense of self-doubt creeping on my shoulder. If I made an error, I feared that the cast and company at large would realize that I wasn’t capable. That I was the imposter of the show, even if my jumping partners and cast trusted me onstage. It was a terrifying feeling.

Stacy: Let’s talk about the injury, or injuries.

Amiel: I will talk about two injuries I sustained, and I will explain to you why I do this afterward. They are the two juicy ones of my career. I sustained my first big Injury in a positive, supportive show environment. I felt safe and that I belonged there. The directors, coaches, medics, and cast of this show worked as a team with honest and transparent communication. There were proper systems in place to take care of injuries and other personal health concerns. Our show schedule was usually six days per week, with rest between tour stops. 

In this instance, our teeterboard was having mechanical issues and we had not trained or performed our act in a month because the board was broken until that day. So when the new parts arrived and the board was fixed, the pressure was on us to swiftly recalibrate our skills for the show that evening, which I don’t feel was enough time. We had one day to test the new equipment for the show, break in the new teeterboard, all the while without compromising our safety.

Stacy: You’re describing logistical and operational challenges. How did other people’s expectations of you play a role?

Amiel: Well, I was excited to perform that night. My parents were watching. This was the first time that they would see me perform in my new life as a performer. I loved this show and was elated to show them what I have worked so hard to do. Aside from being excited, I felt fairly normal. Normal was a mixture of excitement, nervousness, and an underlying anxiety of anticipation of whether the act will be successful and safe. I recall the normal feelings of fatigue, along with pressure to perform again after a month off. Although my motivation was positive, thoughts of self-doubt began to creep into my head; that something bad could happen.

Stacy: You sustained an acute injury in rehearsal...

Amiel: Correct. I was doing a new-ish maneuver to warm up for the show, without a spot and instantly felt excruciating pain in my heel after a poor landing on the edge of the board. I stopped, notified my act partner on the other side of the board, and told our coach and physiotherapist. It was assessed as a bad heel bruise. If you haven’t ever got one of those, I recommend that you not get one. They are damn painful. Anyway, the physiotherapist allowed me to have agency in deciding whether to stop or continue. This could have been where they stepped in and forbid me from continuing. Perhaps agency was given to me because they understood how committed I was to perform for my parents that evening. 

Stacy: But that’s the thing... your parents were in the audience...

Amiel: So I, like many other performers would have done, pushed through it. Don’t let them down. My actions were mainly guided by the fact that they were watching, because I deep down wanted to seek their validation. I know that stopping to recover would have been the safest decision. Yet, the old habits of hiding the extent of injuries and needing to prove that I was capable influenced my decision to push through it. I did not want to let the team down and make my teammates work more because of my injury. 

Stacy: What I am hearing is that you were making decisions based on other’s expectations. 

Amiel: Bingo! I constantly evaluated how my injuries looked in the eyes of others. I assumed that my self-judgements were the same opinions others had of my injuries. Ultimately, putting others’ needs and impressions before my own influenced my decisions when an injury occurred. Unfortunately, deciding to continue resulted in a stress fracture in my heel, which was identified by a medical follow up a few weeks later. This required a lengthy recovery before I could perform again. 

Stacy: Switching gears, let's talk about the financial impacts of not working.

Amiel: Well, our bodies are a currency. In circus, we are the product in a live entertainment setting. For some, you don’t perform, you don’t get paid. In this case, I was extremely privileged that I had resources for injuries and no financial pressures. 

In reflection, I am at peace with my decision to continue, regardless of the consequences. In another situation, it could have been different. The influence that the situation has can be a powerful catalyst in our decisions.

So that “trip” I went on wasn’t perfect, but I learned a lot and kept a few keepsakes in my bags for the next trip. This initial circus experience set an expectation for future shows I would be part of. Fast forward to my second injury, which was to put it bluntly, the opposite situation.

Stacy: What do you mean?

Amiel: Previously I mentioned that teamwork and communication of the show environment my first injury was in was fairly good, this one was the opposite. Every Clown for their damn selves. The show conditions were certainly not like the first, which led to me making a different decision in terms of how I managed the second big injury. 

Stacy: Tell me about that environment, what was different?

Amiel: Well, the common complaint was that we didn’t have enough cast members. They curated a cast without understudy coverage. So there was no one to cover for our specific act in the case of illness, injury, or vacation. The show quality could as a result be jeopardized should a cast member be absent. In fact, as a cast, we warned the show management that injuries would likely occur due to fatigue, stress, and being overworked if they did not address this issue by adding more cast to dissipate the workload. These concerns were often dismissed and criticized. So, as a cast we had to protect ourselves from this show setting. The environment was such that we were encouraged to just “keep going,” and “just push through it”. There was a large disconnect between what we were experiencing as a cast compared to the way in which the company management and producers were communicating with us. I feel that this created an untrustworthy environment to perform in.

Stacy: What did that feel like? Would that impact the show you were performing?

Amiel: Well, as much as I loved performing, in the setting I felt melancholic. Lacking motivation to do more than the minimum in my performance. Just before my accident occurred, we spent close to a month without stage time to train our discipline. Sound at all familiar to the first injury? 

I compared this tumultuous environment to that of my previous show experiences, which on the contrary had abundant training resources. After a few weeks without training time, I began to get disoriented in the air and mistime my skills. I doubted my confidence and abilities, again. It became a vicious cycle of stress and fear. I felt helpless, isolated, and riddled with anxiety. I felt like the only choice I had was not a choice at all; to continue at all costs, fearing my job could be at stake. I had to go onstage and pretend like everything was fine and effortless. I felt inauthentic. On one hand, those outside of the circus world expected that my dream job was such a delightful, whimsical, and inspiring lifestyle. I didn’t want to burden them with my struggles...Yet internally, I was worried that I would be let go if I spoke up and didn’t comply. 

Stacy: Safe to assume that financial pressures were more of a factor in this injury compared to the first?

Amiel: Certainly. Our insurance situation was tenuous. We sorted it out with the company, but this was after I sustained my injury. So this second injury happened when I was training a new skill to debut in the show later that day. I landed on the ground but was expecting to land on the teeterboard. This impact led to what my surgeon described as my ankle getting “taco’d”. I sat there and was immediately overwhelmed with the anxiety that I would lose my job, so my number one mission was to hide the injury severity. Without thinking, I naively attempted to reset my ankle back into place before the medic assessed it. A ploy to try to “walk it off”. After assessing it as being a soft-tissue injury, they asked me what I wanted to do. Once again allowing some agency in the decision. After thinking back to the boundaries garnered from my other injuries in performing and gymnastics where I placed others’ needs before my own, I realized what I did. Without any medical knowledge, I reset my own ankle to hide the injury severity from others because I feared being judged as being weak and losing my job . 

I followed my trend of making decisions to appease others. This moment defined a super poignant juncture in, where I realized how dangerous it can be making decisions that can affect my safety to appease others. 

Stacy: What was the outcome of that injury? 

Amiel: Medically, I was unable to return to performing. That was a tough reality to work past at the time.  All of this to say, the two trips I went on with various baggage had many similar items weighing it down, yet the situation of my baggage on the two trips was different based on the situation and my experiences. By the way, I hope the dad pun about “trips” has landed by now. Basically, these two injuries illustrate a common thread throughout my career. The injuries were sustained in different shows with contrasting support systems. In my case, my tendency to make decisions to please others from gymnastics transcended to my circus career and informed or influenced my decisions when injured.

Stacy: This is a pretty personal story, and we’re hearing a lot of specific details and as we mentioned off the top, on a subject that is not commonly discussed with openness, because it is a little raw, and it stings, and there are a lot of things wrong with what I am hearing. But I want to reiterate my appreciation for starting this conversation together, and that you are taking ownership of this. I am hearing a lot of me and my and I because this is your story, and your lived experience. And in fact, very much not an effort to simply point fingers and suggest that all kinds of other people or other things are to blame. So I thank you for that.

Amiel: Want to hear the kicker? Remember that study method that both of us couldn’t pronounce? This was fairly similar to the discussion in my manuscript. I hope that I made science approachable for more than academics.

Anyway, during my study, I began to realize that a lot of my injury baggage that I took on trips had a pretty clear trend across participants that took part in my study along with me. This got me thinking throughout the study and sparked an idea about the importance of having a professional setting with two fundamental components as a prerequisite for an injured performer: 1. A safe space to discuss injuries without prejudice, and 2) a supportive and communicative professional environment to perform in. I got to thinking, how can we make these safe spaces for performers and what specifically can we do to improve this environment should a performer sustain an injury. 

As performers, most of us have a thirst to evolve and improve our abilities. I think the same should be for professional environments and how we can improve them for the sake of both the longevity of performers, shows, and companies putting on these shows. 

Stacy: What about through the lens of others? Coaches, directors?

Amiel: That is a huge piece of the puzzle. I like to think of it as both a top-down and bottom-up process. The top down comes from companies, directors, coaches, medical staff. Essentially the decision makers and their influence on the performer’s situation. But you also have the bottom up process, which comes from the individual performer themselves and the baggage that they carry. I feel that both need to work in tandem to evolve some of the concerning parts of the circus performing landscape. So, in this process, let’s have some discourse and compassionate conversation with those that could be part of that top down process, who may offer some more insight into the barriers experienced in making those changes. Now, this is not a blame game, nor is the purpose to criticize companies. That isn’t the motive here. My goal in these next segments is to discuss other perspectives, and spark some thought to those of you listening. So I ask you, how can we get better and evolve past some of the issues that we are facing related to injury management in the circus performing landscape?

To answer this and spark a discussion, I’m going to flip the roles and be the one interviewing folks with various levels of involvement in the circus landscape. 

Stacy: One thing that is important to mention, is that many of the accessible voices to participate in these segments are that of a white, western, able-bodied demographic. We cannot claim to represent any person other than ourselves. Your experience matters, and we want your perspective to be heard, whether that’s on an upcoming segment, in an email, or simply by leaving us a comment on the platform. Please get in touch! We do love hearing from you.

Amiel: Next segment I will be sitting down with a former performer, and now leader of a  contemporary circus company to hear their lived experience and understand it from their vantage point. 

I am Amiel Soicher Clarke. And I’m Stacy Clark. Thanks for tuning in.
Amiel Soicher Clarke
Retired Performer, Coach, Researcher -Canada, Ireland, UK
I was a trampolinist turned teeterboard performer with various Cirque du Soleil productions. Currently am teaching teeterboard at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. In addition, I am the principal researcher under the supervision of Sport Psychologist Dr. Theresa Bianco studying the biopsychosocial dynamics contributing to circus performers' injury management decisions.
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Amiel Soicher Clarke

I was a trampolinist turned teeterboard performer with various Cirque du Soleil productions. Currently am teaching teeterboard at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. In addition, I am the principal researcher under the supervision of Sport Psychologist Dr. Theresa Bianco studying the biopsychosocial dynamics contributing to circus performers' injury management decisions.