by Joey Phoenix
Circus arts haven’t always been accessible to everyone. Historically, while people would go to the circus to see people perform death-defying feats, they either weren’t terribly interested in learning how to develop the skills themselves or there weren’t outlets for them which didn’t involve running away to live with strangers.
Fortunately, the times have changed, and not only are circus arts being taught around the country, but the emergence of social circus has also created an alternative outlet for accessible individualized movement, developmental skills, and expressive arts therapy right in your backyard.
Brigid Rankowski is the force behind The Way We Move, a Portland, ME-based social circus which strives to make circus and flow arts programming accessible to anyone who wants to try it. Their focus has been on children and adults with disabilities (although everyone is welcome) and providing them with an expressive arts outlet for them to build integral social and motor skills in a safe and fun setting.
“When we talk about disabilities we tend to use a deficit-based model, we tend to talk about what the individual is struggling with or what they can’t do,” Brigid said. “As a disability advocate, but also as a performer, I prefer to focus on what they are really good at and working in that framework.”
Maine’s First Nonprofit Circus
Brigid Rankowski started The Way We Move as a showcase performance for the PortFringe Festival in 2016 and featured aerialists, hoopers, and dancers. The idea was to showcase the stories that people are unable to express solely with words.
“Culturally, we don’t really pay attention to people with disabilities who don’t communicate well verbally,” Brigid explained. “Dance and Artistic expressions are all valid forms of communication that sometimes get ignored by people.”
After the showcase, Brigid joined up with fellow performers Jack Pneuman, Amelia Aglow, and Meaghan Elizabeth and The Way We Move board started figuring out how they could produce and host Social Circus events and workshops for children and adults around New England.
First, they applied and received a grant from Fund the Flow Arts to fund new programming at Circus Maine in Portland. The funding allowed the organization to produce a six-week program completely free for attendees. Each week a different instructor came in for two hours (one for adults, and one for kids) teaching skills in juggling, dance, mime, and more.
When asked about the success of this first venture, Brigid responded: “I discovered there wasn’t just a need but a real interest in the community for programs like this.”
From there, The Way We Move officially became a nonprofit and started to host programs and events throughout New England and produced 18 separate events in 2019 alone. For Brigid, the business model she uses not only makes it sure that the price points are accessible to attendees, but also that the performers and instructors get paid for their work.
“I think we’re the only nonprofit circus in the state of Maine and I really want to use that as a platform to provide services to people but also pay performers to make the circus happen,” Brigid said.
Making Circus Accessible for All
For Brigid, creating The Way We Move was an attempt to fill a very obvious need in the Portland, Maine area. After taking part in Cirque du Soleil’s social circus program Cirque du Monde in Guadalajara, Brigid was inspired to create a Social Circus model (in English) on a local level.
“Social Circus is very individualized,” she explained. “You can be working towards a common goal while allowing for the fact that not everyone is going to reach it at the exact same time in the exact same way.”
Brigid is the kind of person many would call a superhero. A trauma survivor with a chronic illness (Ehlers Danlos) who is also on the Autism Spectrum, Brigid is passionate about creating accessible opportunities for people who deal with difficult life challenges.
She attributes flow arts as one of the things which helped her connect to her body in a helpful way, but unlike some of the attendees who take part in the Way we Move programming, she started her circus arts journey as an adult.
“I was needing something to hold on to and for me, it really grounded me and attracted me to a community of like-minded misfits. I’ve used circus arts as a medium to process some of my trauma, and I can firmly say that I’m a better person now for having the circus arts in my life,” she said.
What she’s hoping to create through these programs is a way for everyone to access their more playful side, to develop integral social and motor skills, and to do this in a way that’s accessible and affordable for anyone who wants to be involved.
“[We’re] using the circus arts as an umbrella to promote creativity and promote individuality and most importantly for adults to have fun,” Brigid said. “The people who really benefit from some of these programs are often the ones who aren’t physically aren’t able to access them, which is why the programming we create is low cost and scaled or free to the public.”
The Way We Move is gearing up for a busy 2020. Follow them on Facebook or check out their website for a full listing of events. Most of their programming is in Maine, but if you want them to come to Massachusetts, just let them know.
Joey Phoenix is a non-binary performance artist, the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore, and the Digital Content Manager for North Shore Pride. For story ideas, comments, or pictures of deep-sea creatures – send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
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