Tag Archives: Every Body’s Circus

“Running Away to Join the Circus” – and dealing with Parkinson’s

From http://www.parkinsonalliance.org/weblog by guest blogger John Cornicello, a Seattle-based portrait photographer Cornicello Photography and a person with Parkinson’s

It all started a few years ago. I was working for a well-known software company. My job had me at a computer, typing, most of the day. I started noticing some “issues.” My left hand was becoming less accurate — DOuble-caps, repeating letters, things like that. I also noticed that my left arm was pulling in towards my body when at rest and it didn’t move/swing as I walked. My piano playing had been actually getting better for a few years, then all of a sudden it started a dive, too.

My first thought was that I suffered some sort of mild stroke. I got a referral to a neurologist, had an MRI, and things looked good. He had me do some basic movements. Then, as he observed me, he suggested that I might have Parkinson’s. I had no tremors. Just the stiff left arm and some cogwheel type of movement in my left wrist.

I had already been taking Ropinerole for restless leg, so we didn’t change anything there. My diet has never been that great, so my wife and I tried to go radical (for me) for a few months with no sugar, carbs, or gluten. I did lose about 20 lbs very quickly. However, I was starting to get some tremors in my left hand. After three months, I went back to dairy and gluten but have managed to keep away from sugared soft drinks.

Concurrently with all of this I had been photographing for a circus school here in Seattle. SANCA is the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts, one of the largest such schools in the world. I became friends with the owners and at the end of a benefit show in February 2015 I casually mentioned that I had Parkinson’s and asked Jo Montgomery if she had ever worked with Parkinson’s patients. She said she had not, but that I should stop in at the school next Monday. And I’ve been there just about every Monday, since.

I was 57 and pretty sedentary when I started this. Jo started me up slowly with stretching exercises. And then gradually started asking me to try more activities. My initial reaction to most of these has been, “You want me to do what? OK, I can bounce on a trampoline and do some jumping jack type of movements, But now you want me to do a seat drop? And then come back to a standing position?” I dreaded the trampoline for about 2 weeks.

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Then it clicked and has become a favorite part of our routine. Next came walking on a balance beam. About 3″ wide and 6″ off the ground. More difficult than expected, but not so bad. I could do that one. Until one day she suggested a tight wire instead. A steel cable about 1/2″ or so wide. Barefoot, Jo would be holding one wrist as I walked back and forth across the wire. I never measured it, but I’m guessing it is a 12 foot distance. Amazingly I did it. And I enjoyed it.

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All of this has built good core strength and improved my confidence.

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So next came juggling. I’ve never been able to juggle. Maybe it is from lack of discipline and practice.

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But I try. Balls, clubs, rings. On my own, I’m really bad. But I found that I can toss 2, 3, or even 5 rings with another person. I believe this routine is helping to make new brain connections that might help with Parkinson’s.
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Then back to stretching. When I first started I couldn’t move my left shoulder. I would hold my left arm out to the side and grab a bar and tell it to move up/down and forward/back. And nothing would happen. I could tell my right shoulder to make all sorts of movements and it would. But the left shoulder would just sit there, completely ignoring my commands. I don’t know if is the medications (I started seeing a movement specialist in June 2015, and started Carbo/Leva in September), or all the other exercises, or a combination, but my left shoulder is finally starting to follow instructions and move around in circles when I want it to.

We also do some strength training by doing pull-ups on a trapeze bar and an exercise where I grab a bar above my head against a wall and pull my knees up to my chest 20 times.

Outside of circus school I have set up my home “triathlon” routine where I do a 30 minute routine that consists of a mile on a treadmill, then spin at 80-90 pedal rpm on a stationary bicycle for the balance of the 30 minutes. Then I take a shower.

All of this has helped me maintain a healthy and positive attitude. I consider myself lucky that my tremors are mostly mild and confined to my left hand so they don’t affect my photography. Yes, I’ve started using a tripod more often, but not all the time. I do worry that my left hand tremor might be a distraction to my subjects if my hand starts banging against my tripod. But I do explain the situation if that happens and all seems good.

This past week I found out that one of the members of SANCA’s board of directors has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and she has joined in on the Monday class. Our first try at juggling rings with each other went remarkably well.

Some days I wonder if I should be more concerned with my Parkinson’s. But so far I have managed to maintain a very upbeat attitude. I really look forward to both the SANCA and the home workouts. And I am somewhat amazed as I learn about more and more friends and colleagues who have some sort of tremors, be they essential tremors or Parkinson’s. This makes me have hope that more people will be learning about these issues leading to more research and the possibility of cures and even prevention. In the meantime, I am now starting to think about boxing lessons with a program like Rock Steady Boxing.

Thank you, John, for sharing your story with my assistant and blogging partner, Gloria Hansen. You are very creative and we applaud your unconventional approach to exercise, which we know is the best medicine for Parkinson’s. — Margaret Tuchman, President of  The Parkinson Alliance

Meet Elijah

Elijah Calhoun 2Elijah has grown up at SANCA, starting with Baby & Me classes with his mother Rebecca six years ago. At first, they came to SANCA for fun, but as Elijah grew he struggled with movement and balance — they discovered that he had Sensory Processing Disorder and motor delays. He took longer to learn movement skills such as learning to walk up stairs, and cross-body motions were harder for his body to understand. Elijah needed to be talked through how to move his body.

His physical and occupational therapists agreed that classes at SANCA offered great complimentary activities for his therapy. More importantly for a young boy who didn’t like traditional sports, circus classes kept him happy and having fun. With lower muscle tone than normal, it was important that Elijah stay physically active, and circus kept him engaged without the stress that comes from competitive sports.

As he grew older, Elijah enrolled in one-on-one classes through SANCA’s Every Body’s Circus program. This enabled his coach, Tyler, to spend more time working with him in a setting that kept Elijah more active. It also gave Tyler the opportunity to re-enforce Elijah’s occupational and physical therapy. Tyler even met with Elijah’s therapists to gain a better understanding of his needs and challenges.

Elijah says, “Circus is fun! I like aerial a lot, but only about a foot above the ground.”.

elijah-aerial-fabricElijah used to find jumping very difficult and he was afraid to try it. Tyler was able to break down the skill of jumping into very small steps that were easier to learn. Tyler could see that Elijah was able to jump, but that he just needed the confidence to do so. Starting with small jumps, Tyler held Elijah’s hand; they eventually progressed to several jumps in a row together. Then Elijah held just one of Tyler’s fingers while jumping, and later Tyler followed behind Elijah, holding the back of his shirt as he jumped. Tyler shows Elijah that he can do a skill, and teaches him in small steps, which helps Elijah overcome his fear and build his confidence.

Rebecca, Elijah’s mom says, “Even if you don’t think your kid is a ‘circus’ kid, give SANCA a try. Every kid finds something here that they love to do.”.

Now, Elijah participates in playground activities like climbing on the jungle gym, playing tag, and sometimes even soccer. He no longer needs occupational and physical therapy. His classes at SANCA keep him active, healthy, and learning new skills. Elijah says the thing that his circus classes help him with the most is having fun.

In the News: UW’s The Daily writes about SANCA

Circus school offers competition-free alternative athleticism

March 3, 2015 at 9:56 PM | Emily Muirhead

Nick Harden (far left) leads students through a warm up to get their muscles ready before splitting off into the different age grouped classes.  Photo by Seth Halleran

Nick Harden (far left) leads students through a warm up to get their muscles ready before splitting off into different classes. Photo by Seth Halleran

You don’t have to wait for the Ringling Bros. or Cirque du Soleil to come to town to catch a glimpse of the circus. Even better, you don’t have to be a trapeze or juggling master to participate in circus life either.

The School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA), located in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, claims to be the largest circus school in the nation. Founded in 2004 with only five students, SANCA has now grown to serve more than 1,000 students in weekly classes and has served almost 50,000 people in all.

Some of these students include members of the UW community, such as database developer Jason Page, who works in the UW Information Technology department. Page grew up juggling and after hearing about SANCA’s classes from a friend, said he found a perfect fit.

“As soon as I walked in I knew it was nothing like the rest of Seattle,” Page said. “It was so friendly and I immediately fell in love with it. It’s all positive, no ego, no competition.”

Page spoke of the competitive nature he experienced while participating in other “fringe” physical activities, such as climbing or cycling, both of which tend to have welcoming communities, but can inevitably become competitive — a mindset he says simply does not exist at SANCA.

“In Seattle if you don’t like team sports there’s not a lot of options,” said Jo Montgomery, co-founder of SANCA with Chuck Johnson. “We offer an alternative. Part of it is the culture we’ve created here. It’s OK to fail because the important thing is to try, and to encourage others.”

Montgomery said the facility serves people of all ages and there is no skill limit.

Montgomery also leads the Every Body’s Circus school within SANCA, designed for youth with disabilities like spina bifida or visual or hearing impairment. These students work on the same basic skills every student aims to accomplish, with the added benefit of enhancing social skills specifically adapted to their needs. Every Body’s Circus partners with Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Montgomery is a nurse practitioner.

SANCA offers more than 50 classes each quarterly session, including unicycling, trampoline, strength and flexibility, aerial trapeze, and Chinese pole. SANCA even offers a one-time “pay per flight” trapeze class Fridays.

“You just have to work up the courage to swing once and see if you like it,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said she has seen countless times how acrobatics classes enable first-time participants to get over fears of heights and perceived limitations of their bodies.

Amber Parker, a case manager with the UW Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, said SANCA has changed her both physically and mentally. She has been attending SANCA classes for eight months, with no plans of stopping.

Parker said after a life of poor body-image and self-esteem, she found solace in SANCA’s strength-and-flexibility and adult aerial classes, which encourage personal improvement instead of striving to be the best. She even started a blog called “The Fatcrobat,” as a testament to personal strides she has made in her physical ability and confidence because of unconditional support from SANCA classes and coaches.

“It’s changed my perspective on what I can actually do,” Parker said. “I never thought I could do anything like this, so now that I can it opens up the ‘I can do anything’ mindset. Nothing is off limits now.”

SANCA caters to professional performers as well. It often hosts gym time for performers from Teatro ZinZanni, or for artists in residence from groups such as IMPulse Circus Collective, The Acrobatic Conundrum, or Circus Syzygy.

Montgomery noted that when kids participating in classes see professional circus performers make mistakes, it shows them that struggling with a skill doesn’t have to be a disappointment, but can be inspiration for working toward personal goals at their own pace.

“Safety is huge here,” said Alyssa Hellrung, a part-time lecturer in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies department at the UW and an aerial trapeze coach. “But we do push kids physically and emotionally outside of their comfort zone.”

For those who have dreams of flying, the School of Flight program might be a good fit. Aside from SANCA’s main gym, which includes a tumble track trampoline, spring floors, climbing ribbons and poles, a “big top” and “tot room” for children, the trapezes are housed in an adjacent building designed for this literally high-reaching activity.

Hellrung sees SANCA classes as an opportunity for every type of person, regardless of body type or skill level, to learn what their bodies are capable of, and have some slightly unconventional fun.

“People assume that this is an insular world, but it’s not,” Hellrung said. “Not everyone feels sporty and this circus has room for everybody, even if you just want to learn to juggle. It still gives you the benefits of athletic activity without the pressure of having to compete at the end of every week.”

The circus often carries the stereotype of being a place for only those with strange skills such as contortionism, or having bizarre personalities. But SANCA strives to foster not only excellence in performance for most of its participants, but a personal confidence and welcoming environment over all else.

“I love telling people I’m in the circus,” Parker said. “Misconceptions open up dialogue. SANCA is really about fitness and community and connecting to other people.”

SANCA is located at 674 S. Orcas St. Visit their website, sancaseattle.org, for more information.

Reach writer Emily Muirhead at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @e_muirhead

Original story here: http://dailyuw.com/archive/2015/03/03/features/circus-school-offers-competition-free-alternative-athleticism#.VPcNdsauJRY

The girl on the flying trapeze

This blog post is a post from Dawn Parsons’ personal blog. Dawn’s daughter, Lucy, had a stroke as an infant leaving her with hemiparesis, a weakness in one side of her body

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The girl on the flying trapeze

Lucy has been attending SANCA (School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts) for one year. We first went there on a field trip while she was doing her constraint therapy camp last summer. She started working with Jo every Saturday for one hour and the progress that we have seen is amazing.

Lucy does everything from tight wire, trampoline, rolling globe to trapeze.  This past week she attended a summer camp for a week, 3 hours a day. On the fourth day the kids were told they would get to take a flight on the flying trapeze.

Now, the only trapeze Lucy has been on is 5ft off the ground..this would be the real deal!!

So, they harnessed her up, and she climbed the 30ft+ ladder without a moment of hesitation (I was a little freaked out as is obvious by the video 🙂

Lucy’s biggest concern was that she would not be able to hold on very long, as her weakend left side would cause her grip to slip.  When she first started doing trapeze she could only hold her left hand grip for no more than 3 seconds or so…as you can see in this video..she has come SO far in her strength.

This little peanut amazes me everyday with her attitude and determination!


all the kiddos doing a little warm up

Lucy blog post: warming up

there she is …first on the list!
Lucy blog post: list of names

making her way to the top!
Lucy blog post: climbing the ladder
Lucy blog post: flying
The smile right before this picture was the biggest I had ever seen!
Lucy blog post: in the net
She might not be willing to do this every week but she has done it once, and that’s more than I can say for myself 🙂