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Circotherapy: Using circus to address social problems

Circus most commonly calls to mind images of high-flying professional performers and feats defying both gravity and the imagination. What is less commonly known is that circus is also being used in Finland and abroad, as a tool to empower groups and individuals with special needs.

Miten sirkustemput sopivat Al-Zaatarin tytöille? Sirkus Magentan Hanne Kauppinen kertoo kokemuksistaan.
Sirkus Magenta trainer Hanne-Mari Kauppinen spent over two months working in hot, dusty conditions at the Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan.

The VAMOS Project is a social service that utilises circus as part of its weekly curriculum of activities. It is a combined social, health and employment programme working with young people aged 16-29 who are at risk of social exclusion.

Trainers from social circus association Sirkus Magenta meet up with the youth for a couple of hours each week to work on skills such as acrobatics, pairs acrobatics, juggling, clownery and even parkour and fire art. This form of circus as therapy has come to be referred to as "social circus".

"Circus is about failure"

24-year-old former Vamos attendee Heidi Pirinen was attracted at first by the novelty of the experience. Now she frequently attends Sirkus Magenta’s mainstream adult classes and events.

“It was something really new, something I’d never tried. Something I’d never even thought about really. It just kind of sucked me in, it was so much fun,” says Pirinen. “We fly around on other people… and sweat like crazy!"

“I think it has helped my social skills a bit,” says Mikko Hiltunen, a current participant, aged 25. “You have to get along in a group. I’m a bit of a loner so I have learnt to communicate with other people better. It has really helped.”

Hiltunen also thinks circus has taught him some valuable lessons in life.

“I remember that they said at the start: ‘Circus is all about failure’. It’s a nice thing that it’s ok to fail. I have laughed at myself many times when I have failed,” he says. “Circus prepares you for the fact that you can’t always have success in everything that you do… But you also learn when you fail. That’s one of the best things that I like about circus.”

Art form travels to a different type of tent

Sirkus Magenta is now exporting its methodology further afield. Starting in March this year, two teams of trainers have each spent two months working in a Syrian refugee camp in the north of Jordan. It's part of Finn Church Aid's Foreign Ministry funded psychosocial wellbeing programme. The project aims to train up young men and women aged between 15-24 and help the camp’s locals to establish their own circus school in the longer term.

Circus trainer and parkour enthusiast Slava Dugin recently returned to Helsinki after eight weeks of working in the camp. He says teaching circus there was a life-changing experience for both himself and for the young refugee men he taught.

"I remember they said to me: ‘I come here to the class and I forget about everything outside’. They are in a kind of different world….they get to do a nice activity, learn something, and you can see them become stronger inside themselves,” says Dugin. “The circus gives them a reason to get out of bed.”

Finn Church Aid hopes to send a third group of circus trainers out to the camp in mid-August.

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