I’ve been thinking a lot lately about re-opening and the decisions that individuals, small businesses, big businesses, and governments have to make around it. I’ve come to realize that my background as a Circus Performer, Instructor, and Business Owner has been influencing the way I think about this complex subject, and that that framework might provide some insight to others that are making these hard decisions.
Circus is a calculated risk sport. The risks inherent in circus can never be fully taken away, they can only be mitigated. In my circus business and practice I am constantly asking myself, How could I make this safer?. Not safe, but safer. I also regularly ask myself, Is this risk worth it? There are certain tricks I’ve decided not to do or teach because I have deemed them not worth the risk; they are too risky, they fail too often or maybe they don’t fail often but when they do it is catastrophic. Coronavirus has created a situation where the risk is inherent. Any activity you take part in with other people now carries risk with it. So, we have to ask ourselves, How could this be safer? Is this risk worth it? For Circus Sanctuary we spent a couple weeks mitigating risk, we washed fabrics regularly and sprayed down soft goods with everclear. We created a hand washing station and provided hand sanitizer. We stopped doing hands on adjustments and restricted spotting to only when absolutely necessary (think emergency situations). I researched, a lot, to figure out how to mitigate risk and determine if the risks were worth it. As I learned more about the virus it became clear to me that THIS was not a risk worth taking. Circus is important. It has value. It impacts people positively, both emotionally and physically, but it is not necessary. It is my belief that my students and their families lives were not worth risking for circus. No matter how much money that decision cost me. You see, running a circus school is a big responsibility. I’ve grown accustomed to being responsible for people’s safety in situations where there is potential for loss of life. I take that responsibility seriously. And while I’m used to letting people risk themselves in a manner that is made as safe as possible, this situation is very different.
I’ve learned that people have different tolerance to risk. Some people come in and are afraid to take a foot off the ground, others would climb to the top on their first day if their body would allow. In order for people to make informed decisions around risk they have to have an understanding of what those risks are. Part of my job as an instructor and a director is to relay my understanding of the risk involved and then respect the student/performers decisions about whether or not to take it. As a studio, we have a certain amount of risk we are comfortable with and a responsibility to set limits on the risks taken through people’s work with us. Just because you are comfortable with doing that new trick you just learned in front of an audience with no mat doesn’t mean I am going to allow that in our space. In fact, I have over the years chosen not to work with a number of people that have high risk tolerance because I am not comfortable with associating my business with people that have no sense of self preservation. Another thing I’ve become aware of is that my tolerance for risk for myself is very different than the tolerance I have for risk when it comes to my students and peers. I might choose to do silks off of balloons with no safety lines or netting 100ft in the air; because to me that risk was worth the experience, and because the only person I’m really risking is me. I won’t let my students go 20’ in the air without mats and rescue plans and my hawk eyes watching their every move. I definitely wouldn't put something in a show that puts the audience at risk, that is not a risk they had a chance to assess and consent to.
The thing with coronavirus is, one person’s risk affects all of us. And while it should be true that we should all be able to determine our own risk tolerance, the fact that the risks we take put others in danger changes things. While ideally those most vulnerable should be able to stay home, some of them can’t. Not only that but there are essential workers to think of. Doctors and nurses risking their lives to save ours. But they don’t get to determine the amount of risk they take, you do. The choices you make determine their exposure. It’s not just them either, there are non-medical staff working in hospitals. My wife works at an optical place. People need to see, so sales associates helping you pick out glasses are subject to the risks you are taking, and they don’t have doctors' salaries that might make that risk more worth it for them.
I get that this is a complex issue, that people need to feed their families. That people are struggling with so many things that weigh in to their decision-making process. There are no easy answers. It takes doing your due diligence to determine an appropriate path forward. Assess all risks involved, consider others, and make the decision that’s right for you. I just hope it’s one that you (and others) can live with.
I am a white woman who teaches a twerk class. Let’s talk about why that’s potentially problematic and why I chose to do it.
The first strip club I worked in I was the minority. It was mostly black and hispanic women that worked there. When you get hired in a strip club they don’t exactly give you a training manual. It’s sink or swim. “There are two stages, make sure to take your top off on both of them, when you come down I’ll let you know if you got the job. “ That’s what the manager said to me before he disappeared for 3 hours. I guess I got the job because they kept calling my name and I kept getting on stage. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was awkward. I sort of knew how to dance because I loved hip hop and had been frequenting hip hop clubs since I was 13, but this was next level. I watched the other women on stage, the one’s who obviously knew what they were doing. I mimicked them, or tried anyway. I learned this way for a long time. That’s how I learned my first pole tricks, it’s how I learned to twerk. If something was especially hard I’d ask someone to show me. They usually would. The women were friendly and they were generous with their skills. So you see, I owe my twerking knowledge to black women both because twerking stems from black culture and also because individual black women taught me. I am forever grateful to those women.
Here’s where it’s problematic. No matter my positive intentions I benefit from white privilege. Even in the club it was apparent. Money often came easier to me as one of the only white women there. I was appealing to men of many different backgrounds solely because I was white. I was known as “the white girl with the booty” because 1. I’m curvy and so I have a good sized hips and a butt and 2. I love to twerk. You see when white women twerk there’s a novelty to it. Society treats black women and white women who twerk differently. Black women tend to be judged harshly, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful part of their culture. White women tend to get praised for it, it makes them fun and edgy. It’s not right but its what I’ve seen to be true. Eventually I decided to try out other clubs because I heard you could make better money. That turned out to be true, but those clubs were all skinny white women. I went where the money was. I was only able to do so because I myself was a skinny-enough white woman. I cashed in on my white privilege. I wish the institutions weren’t racist, I wish the men wanted dances from black women as much as white women, but those are things I can’t control. And I was there to make money, to hustle, so that’s what I did. I did what I could do as an ally. I would often grab friends of color and make the rounds trying to get double dances with them. If there was a group of men I would pull my favorite dancers over and introduce them. I would talk them up. I was always hustling for the women around me and a lot of them returned the favor. I even got a couple black women jobs at super white clubs where they were able to make more money.
My point is not to pat myself on the back as an ally. The point is when you have privilege it matters what you do with it. You should use it to lift up the oppressed wherever possible. There are a lot of things you can’t control but there are some things you can. I’m grateful you’re reading my article but please also follow the links below to hear black women’s voices, including those that don’t agree with me. And if you’re a black woman in Tucson that’s great at twerking, come talk to me, I’d love to have you host a Twerkshop of your own.
So, yes, I’m a white woman teaching twerking, because I spent many years practicing and performing it, because I love to do it and I love to teach it, and because I think it’s therapeutic to jiggle your fat - no matter who you are. Women in general are trained to dislike their bodies and to try and tame and control them. Twerking, and especially in a female empowered space for yourself and other women, is an opportunity to shed some of that training and learn to love your body again. So I hope some of you will come shake it with me! I hope too that this opens a discussion about cultural appropriation and appreciation. It is a fine line. Let’s talk about it.
Here’s just a few links, feel free to add your own...
On the history of twerking:
On cultural appropriation:
(Thank you to Rebecca Grad who sent these last 3 to me)
*Never pair wine with circus, unless of course you're in the audience
My fiancé Amanda and I have been on this wine kick recently. I never was a wine drinker before but we’ve taken to making fancy dinners and pairing them with cheap but tasty wine. I can’t offer you any advice on wine pairings (that’s not my specialty) but I can offer you advice on something I know a little about- class pairings. I’ll try to keep it to classes we actually offer at Circus Sanctuary but no matter where you are it can give you a good idea of what classes you want to pair together to get the most out of your training.
Inversions and Beginning Contortion- This is a dream team. It’s a little counter intuitive but one of the biggest factors in getting a handstand is flexibility. Pike flexibility is huge as are straddles, shoulders and middle splits. You’ll get the most benefit to your inversions if you take a class that incorporates active flex. And if you dream of being a hand balancing contortionist *swoon* this makes all the sense.
Pole and Silks
This is the combination I started with. It builds a lot of strength pretty quickly and the moves are similar enough that you’ll have a lot of Aha! moments with skills. There’s enough differences between the two to make it interesting but it trains the body and its pathways so you’ll see a lot of progress.
Vertical and Bar
Mixing it up with aerial classes is a great way to go. Vertical Apparatus like pole, silks, rope, and straps are great for building strength and developing your aerial know how. Having to wrap yourself and hold yourself up can make things a little more complicated but it can be super rewarding. Bar apparatus such as Trapeze or Lyra are great because it’s easier to focus on the shapes you’re making, as well as the technique and the flow of your movement. Having both can lay a good foundation and as you get more advanced they can start to blend and borrow from one another to make some pretty unique stuff.
Conditioning and/or Flexibility with Anything
It is all about balance with this one. With any circus class you take you can clean it up and quite possibly avoid injury by taking care of and balancing out the body. Generally I think it’s good advice to take an honest look at yourself (if you don’t know have a coach do it) and determine where you need to see the most improvement- in strength or flexibility. Ironically the thing you’re most attracted to is often the thing you’re better at so don’t pick this one according to taste.
More of the same
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. If you want to get good at something do it a lot. That’s pretty obvious but it’s easy to get distracted by shiny new classes and to skip out on Open Studios. I love to dabble in all the things but consider focusing for awhile on one thing. I see the most progress in a single discipline when I do it 3+ times a week. That can mean taking the same group class a couple times a week or it can mean adding in private lessons or just showing up for Open Studios and practicing what you’ve learned.
You can also take the problem solving approach when picking classes to support your main endeavor. If you’re having trouble with lines try flexibility or ballet. If hollow body is supper hard and you’re floppy in all your tricks take conditioning or acrobatics. If getting your hips over your head is a struggle in aerial class, inversions could help you out. You get the idea.
There are so many winning combinations in circus. Think about what you want to get out of it and let inspiration guide you. You really can’t go wrong. Just listen to your body and listen to your heart and get your butt in the studio.
Kelsey Erickson, Circus Sanctuary
I used to be a lifeguard and a swim coach. It was a pretty sweet job. I got to hang out at the pool all day, play with kids, swim, eat otter pops. It was good living. But my job was more than sunscreen and freestyle. It was keeping a watchful eye, recognizing dangerous situations, preventing incidents before they start, knowing what to do if it all went down and somebody was seriously in trouble.
Now I am a circus coach, a studio owner, and a performer. The job’s not all that different. Instead of swimming in water we are dancing in air. It’s fun, playful, and inherently dangerous. The risks can be mitigated, lessened, but never eliminated. Just like the dangers of swimming don’t keep you out of the water, the risks inherent in circus and aerial need not keep you from getting in the air. Just remember, the higher you go the more grounded you need to be. It’s important to educate yourself and keep yourself safe. In circus we don’t have lifeguards, but a good coach will act as one. I see too many coaches though that are unaware of their role as lifeguard or just don’t have the proper training to take it on. That’s why it is so important that as students you have a sense of how to protect yourself and how to make sure you are putting yourself in good hands. Your coach should be keeping you safe but ultimately your safety is your responsibility.
That’s why I’ve created this handy, easy to use check list to help student think critically about safety in circus.
That’s it for the checklist, I hope that it helps you to navigate your own safety in the circus world. I am proud of you for taking personal responsibility for your safety. Listen to your instincts, train with people you trust, recognize your human-ness and act accordingly. Have fun and enjoy the magic of circus. It is special and beautiful and worth doing. Stay safe and keep climbing!