Transformational Women’s Circus

I got the chance to catch up with Every Body’s Circus (EBC) coach Amber Parker to learn more about the pioneering work she’s doing at SANCA. Amber, a Master’s degree candidate at Antioch University, is integrating her experience in mental health practice, circus, and her academic focus on Drama Therapy to launch the new Transformational Women’s Circus (TWC) program at SANCA. TWC seeks to utilize the power of body-based therapy via circus as a means of recovering from trauma, anxiety, and depression. Amber and the TWC participants took some time to share more about the design of the program and their experiences so far this spring.

“My ultimate goal for this program, beyond exploring how Drama Therapy can be applied in a circus context, is for the women of TWC to attain a greater level of self-awareness, self-efficacy, and self-acceptance. So far, this is what I am seeing happening within each student. Their growth, as a group and as individuals, has been incredible.”

Meeting every Sunday night at SANCA for three hours, and completing homework assignments in their own time, the women of TWC come together to share their stories, learn circus skills, and engage in creative process, all within a supportive group therapy setting. Amber’s work is supported with the oversight of EBC Manager, Alex Clifthorne, MSW, and supervisors at the Antioch Drama Therapy program.

“I found out about the Transformational Women’s Circus serendipitously on Facebook and knew right away that I had to apply. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety and standard mental health treatment hasn’t been very effective. After struggling to make even tiny improvements over the last several years, SANCA has offered me the only therapy that has truly made a difference. In a matter of weeks, I saw greater improvement than in the years before. TWC has been tough and scary and exhilarating and an absolute miracle in my life. This program means the world to me. Through circus and the support of Amber and TWC, I am experiencing healing that I didn’t think was possible and I am deeply grateful.” – TWC Member

Each class follows a general format of one hour of checking in verbally or warming up with games and activities, one hour of engaging physically and learning circus skills, and another hour of cooling down and discussing what feelings, thoughts, and issues surfaced during the session. Drama therapy, and circus specifically, is unique in that spontaneity and body awareness is key to the therapeutic process. Phones and other distractions aren’t allowed, and priority is placed on staying focused on the present moment and physically engaging the body as well as your mind.

“Even though TWC will perform at the end of their program, drama therapy isn’t about theatre, set design, or acting. It is about externalizing the internal, excavating what is inside and bringing it out through role play, improv, and emotional group processing.” Amber says, “The mind-body connection is injured by trauma and the experience of depression and anxiety, and it can be healed by moving the body and learning how to relate to one another in a new way. By leaving time in our sessions for the women in the group to make meaning of their experience of circus and being a group member, I hope to collapse the distance between their minds and their bodies, as well as increase their awareness of how buried feelings inform how their relationships with others and their self-concept.” 

TWC member Generra says, “My experience with TWC pulled me deep into the core of what’s been holding me back from so much in life. Amber, our coach, has carefully nurtured our troupe to facilitate safety among members. We have grown close and care for each other’s well being. We support each lady in their individual unfolding at whatever pace they are at. I am excited about the collective evolution of our group!”

Throughout the program, TWC has guest presenters attending certain sessions to help the women learn new skills, explore their ideas, and support their group work. SANCA’s Founder, Jo Montgomery, has been a regular contributor to the project, assisting with partner acrobatics. Coach Faye Visintainer shared her experience of how circus has improved her mental health, and Cirrus coach Eve Diamond offered her vast experience as a professional performer to discuss how to builds acts for the stage.

Yet another TWC member states, “TWC is helping me tap in to the root of my being and bring it closer to the surface. I am discovering all of the different sides to my personality and connecting them into one whole person. I am learning how to love each part and the whole. One of the gifts TWC has given me is a connection to some amazing human beings who are bravely discovering themselves and finding the strength to support me in my discovery simultaneously.”

Now in their 13th week of group work, TWC is moving towards a cumulative performance in June. The group is workshopping new acts, using partner acrobatics, Lyra, tight wire, juggling, and single point trapeze to tell their stories of strength, challenge, and recovery on the stage. Amber says, “Creating a show, especially one which focuses on very personal themes, is a huge challenge. The women of TWC are working incredibly hard, particularly in that they are facing themselves. From my perspective, learning to be self-loving and self-accepting is the hardest work there is, far above any physical skill. Self-acceptance is a life’s work, and the women of TWC are doing that work, here at SANCA.”