It was spring semester at Muhlenberg College. My Aerial 2 class and I were discussing how television was a detrimental development to performing arts, particularly circus. “Why didn’t we learn about this in my communications class? We just studied the impact of television on American culture,” a student blurted out.
This is just one instance in a decade of teaching collegiate aerial arts courses in which students have expressed confusion tinged with resentment that they don’t learn about circus anywhere else. I took note, reflected on my own degrees in dance and theater and swapped stories with other artists and academics. It seems American education is strewn with holes that circus could fill. Why didn’t circus make it into the education system? Is this a purely an American phenomenon? What would change if it was more valued and visible in academia? I decided to do some digging.
Over the past six months, I have had the pleasure of interviewing over a dozen circus scholars, authors, professors and directors of professional training programs in North America on the topic. Similar ideas and phrases were said over and over again in these interviews. Everyone’s experiences were surprisingly alike. This is the narrative of an entire community, not a singular training center or university.
A Brief Note About Risk
Perceived risk and actual risk coexist in live circus shows. For people who are familiar with the physical technique of the work, the perceived risk lessens and the actual risk becomes manageable. Circus studies (the historical and theoretical study of circus akin to performance studies) seems to be laden with perceived risk for people unfamiliar with the field. Once it is introduced to a community, the perceived risk dissolves and the actual risk transforms into prosperity: cross pollination in education, increased visibility and income for universities and rich connections in local communities.
Circus Studies for Circus Artists
I asked my interviewees, “Is circus studies important for students in professional training programs?”
“Yes”, they chimed, in overwhelming accord. Every single one of my interviewees agreed that circus performers should have exposure to the history and theory of their art form.
“Context! Respect! Language! Resilience! Artistry!,” they cried with conviction.
Throughout my interviews, the only perceived risk of incorporating circus studies into a professional training program was that it would cut into valuable training time. Shayna Swanson, Founder and Director of Aloft Circus Arts (Chicago, IL) shared that it was challenging to hold students accountable for writing assignments and, “All they want to do is train.”
Still, as we spoke about the value of academic information to performers, it became clear that the actual risk lies in not exposing students to circus studies. Without some knowledge of the past, a fresh generation of professionals might be sent out into the world uninformed and lacking well-rounded artistry. Felicity Hesed, Youth Program Director at the San Francisco Circus Center said, “There’s a respect element. You might think you’re the first one to do something, but there’s a long, deep history.”
I countered, “Do you really need circus studies to be a world class hand balancer? Shouldn’t you just do handstands all day long?”
Academics and coaches concurred, yes, you could be a professional circus performer with only physical training. The important difference lies in what kind of artist an institution is trying to produce. We spoke about doers versus creators. No one was in favor of churning out technicians with no greater context for their skills nor the ability to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Suzi Winson, Director and Co-Founder of Circus Warehouse in New York City, infuses her classes with stories of her own lineage to give context to technique. She insisted that, “In order to be that outward performer they need the storytelling. When you know the old stories you start writing your own story.”
We spoke about how professionals need to know how to speak about their art form, and that historical knowledge makes artists aware of what boundaries have already been broken and how they can push the art form to the next level. Joe Culpepper, Magic Instructor and Researcher at École nationale de cirque of Montreal, said, “One of the most interesting places to find material is in the past where something has been forgotten, or where the evolution of a particular technique got interrupted and was left as an unfinished project that you can build upon.”
Program directors were also intent on shaping artists that will be valuable representatives of circus. Alisan Funk, PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, who has researched circus institution curriculums said, “If the goal is to create an artist, academic content is essential.” Ms. Funk also shared that through her research a student recognized that taking history classes was imperative to be a good ambassador for the art form. Program directors strive to create a culture at their institution and knowing your history, they said, instills the foundational values of gratefulness, work ethic and etiquette.
I asked the natural follow up question, “Do you teach circus history?”
In the US, Shana Kennedy, Executive Director doubles as the circus history instructor at Circadium (Philadelphia, PA). Nancy Smith, Founder and Artistic Director of Frequent Flyers (Boulder, CO) and co-author of Aerial Dance teaches from her book for her pro-track students. The New England Center for Circus Arts (Brattleboro, VT) has a history class in its curriculum. Pro-track students at Aloft Circus Arts in Chicago get a few days of circus history during their second year in the program. Felicity Hesed said she wished it was more incorporated in their programing. Marcus Alouan, Circus Director of Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University, said that incorporating history into the group’s activities “is falling by the wayside. I’d like to curb that.”
My interviewees agreed that North America was a step or two behind our western world allies that have established accredited degree programs in circus which include circus studies. To name a few, degrees are offered at circus institutions in London (NCCA), France (CNAC), Stockholm (DOCH) and Melbourne (NICA) where they teach both Australian and worldwide circus history.
Has the unique history of each place contributed to how circus has been embraced and embedded in its education system? Without a doubt. What role does government funding play? A huge one. These were common digressions in my interviews. To truly know why it is being embraced in certain places takes considering each institutions history and goals. These are topics that deserve their own research and platforms. To just drop pins on a map and state where circus history is being taught or circus studies is blooming is simply the table of context in a complex and growing book.
Nevertheless, each program director I spoke to agreed that fitting academics into a physical training program felt a bit elusive, and the biggest hurdle was how best to implement it. Curricular structures of circus institutions is beyond the scope of this article. The first step is to simply recognize the value versus the risks.
Ms. Winson described, “I’ve had people come in and do special workshops and give the students a talk on circus history. They don’t retain anything from it. [Traditional academic settings] is not how they learn. What they talk about is the experience of things.” Ms. Hesed agreed, “They need to learn it in context.” And Ms. Funk offered, “Content is dissipated over the experience…in an experiential learning environment.”
Everyone agreed that to infuse physical training with historical appreciation you need to go to the source. “We go and see [shows]. We talk about it. What happened? What worked?”, said Ms. Winson. Ms. Hesed harnesses opportunities to tell students about their coaches’ accomplishments. Guest directors and coaches at Aloft spend time sharing their stories and history with the students. Students at Circadium are more engaged with visual representations and discussion. University of Virginia Professor Emeritus Lavahn Hoh who has taught a circus history class since the 1980s says that, “Bringing artists in to share real experiences with students is absolutely an imperative thing.” Dominique Jando, renowned circus historian, insists that seeing circus is the best way to learn what has already been done and from that a student can being to progress.
Incorporating circus studies into professional training program curriculums preserves the art form’s rich history and inspires artists to cultivate an exceptional future for circus arts. If circus studies is overlooked, we jeopardize the past and gamble with the future.
Are these risks we are willing to take?
Circus Studies for Everyone Else
I asked, “Do you think circus studies is important in general education?”
Each professional I spoke to responded with their version of “absolutely,” but it was Janet Davis, author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, who neatly summed it up. “It really does come down to education being the most important place that people can reliably be reached…in a more sustained way as opposed to a more episodic way… ephemeral way of going to a show or a museum.” Ms. Smith voiced a concern that many of us have, “If it doesn’t weave through the education system at some point, it won’t have standing to thrive in our culture.”
As circus educators and professionals, it should come as no surprise that my interviewees are ‘pro-circus studies’, although they might be the cheerleaders and liaisons for the information, the value of the subject matter stands alone.
“If you look at universities wholesale, a lot are embracing interdisciplinary studies…that’s what circus does better than anyone or anything.”
It’s benefit is heard in the dismay of my aforementioned communications student. It’s seen in the look on the gender studies major’s face when they learn male aerialists cross dressed because female bodies generated higher perceived risk which drew bigger audiences. It’s in the economics major who learned circus was once one of the biggest businesses in America; in the theater major — who considers himself a clown — yet didn’t know about Emmett Kelly; in the neuroscience/dance double major who wrote an outstanding paper comparing his study of mirror neurons to audience’s visceral experiences when watching circus. It’s merit is proven when students crave to learn more.
Maureen Brunsdale, Head of Special Collections at Illinois State University remarked, “If you look at universities wholesale, a lot are embracing interdisciplinary studies…that’s what circus does better than anyone or anything.” She spoke about how the enormous circus book and journal collection at ISU is an outstanding resource for students who need primary source material. Ms. Davis expands upon the idea, “It unlocks another history. We can understand bigger cultural and social transformations through the lives of these individual performers.”
Why are we neglecting to teach this rich cultural history?
One theory is that circus’s past (in America especially) as a nomadic art form created a community that was simultaneously exclusive and a societal outlier. Has this rift prevented it from being a worthy academic topic? It is said that American circus did not go through a post-modern phase like other art forms in the mid 20th century, meaning the formula for performances remained much the same. Did that prevent curious minds from theorizing about circus?
Or, is enfolding circus studies into academia as risky as the physical feats which define the art form? I’ve experienced resistance when presenting circus as an academic topic to institutions. I was curious if my interviewees had experienced the same.
Stacey Mascia-Susice, sideshow, circus scholar and professor at North Country Community College, proposed programming that would teach the history of sideshow and bring performers to campus that could speak to disabilities studies. “I was met by such opposition and fear that I dropped the program entirely. I refused to bring performers here that wouldn’t be welcomed.” It was a catch-22. “My intention was to education to avoid exploitation.”
Mr. Hoh also had a rocky start to his class at UVA, “Are you kidding? Teach circus here? Students went home and told their parents. A number of parents said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re paying good money, and you’re taking a course in the circus?’”
Louis Patrick Leroux, professor at Concordia University in Montreal “was advised by colleagues that it was a trivial, lofty topic to be working on. I was potentially going to wreck my career…they would sing the circus theme when I walked by–you know, duh duh da-da-da dah…”
I had expected stories of struggle, but I was shocked to hear such disdain, teasing, and fear.
Thankfully, there were some rays of hope in what was feeling like a bleak landscape. When given the chance, usually with the support of a progressive dean, each interviewee told me that circus became an asset to their home institution. Mr. Hoh’s class was an immediate success, “Each year I was turning away sixty to one hundred to one hundred fifty students.” Nick Erickson, who incorporates aerial arts into his work at Louisiana State University, echoed my own experience after founding the aerial program at Muhlenberg College, “Students were coming to the school just because it had aerial classes.” Ms. Brunsdale recalled that in her first year only one class visited the library’s circus collection, but “last year fourteen departments and over one thousand students came to visit the collections.” And despite his colleagues warnings, Mr. Leroux has persisted in circus research and has brought in $375,000 in grants to the university.
A Conclusion About the Value of Circus Studies
Which leads us, to the question that has puzzled me most.
“How do you suggest we increase the visibility and value of circus studies?”
Mr. Leroux proposes, “Let’s develop circus studies like performance studies, and that might be the way into academia.” He also recognizes “The answer doesn’t have to be institutional. It can be individual. How can you make yourself useful to the community?” Ms. Brunsdale acknowledged a straightforward chain of events, “It’s trying to find hooks into the community to entice them to fall in love. Everyone falls in love once they know it. The more people that get interested in it, the more research will get done and the more people will value it.”
Ways You Can Take the Risk
Circus studies is a necessary addition to a circus performer’s education. It’s an excellent umbrella for interdisciplinary studies and it’s exceptionally successful and valuable when integrated into general education. The perceived risk then of circus studies stems only from naiveté. The actual risk is a dire missed opportunity for both artists and scholars.
This ongoing quest to increase the visibility and accessibility of circus studies calls on us to harness the knowledge and present it in a palatable, meaningful way. Performers, I urge you to be well-rounded artists and seek out the history of the things you love to do. Students, insist that your programs give you time for research and conversation. Program directors, I implore you to tap into circus’s living history and incorporate academic dialogue in your training programs. Professors, I challenge you to seek out the allies at your institution, and find ways to honor circus in your curriculums.
Take the risk, for the reward is nothing short of extraordinary.
A Very Special Thanks to All My Contributors Marcus Alouan, Circus Director, Gamma Phi Circus, Illinois State University Maureen Brunsdale, Head of Special Collections, Milner Library, Illinois State University Joseph Culpepper, Ph.D., Magic Instructor and Researcher, École nationale de cirque of Montreal Janet M. Davis, Ph.D., Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Texas, Austin Nick Erickson, Associate Professor of Movement, Head of M.F.A. Acting, Head of Physical Theatre, Louisiana State University Alisan Funk, M.A., PhD student McGill University, Montreal Felicity Hesed, Youth Program Director, San Francisco Circus Center, San Francisco, CA Lavahn Hoh, Professor Emeritus of Circus History, University of Virginia Dominique Jando, Author of Philip Astley and the Horsemen Who Invented Circus Shana Kennedy, Executive Director & Circus History Instructor, Circadium, Philadelphia, PA Louis Patrick Leroux, PhD, Professor at Concordia University, Montreal. Stacey L. Mascia-Susice, Ph.D., Professor of English, Humanities Department, Sideshow and Circus Scholar, North Country Community College Nancy Smith, Founder & Artistic Director of Frequent Flyers® Aerial Dance Shayna Swanson, Founder & Director, Aloft Circus Arts Suzi Winson, Director & Co-Founder of Circus Warehouse, NYC, NY