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Balancing Act

Balancing ActTufts graduate students are blending their big top backgrounds with their studies on the Hill.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.24.11] Tufts' roots, thanks to founding trustee P.T. Barnum, are inextricably bound to the circus. Lately, those roots are showing more than ever. Some students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are complementing their studies with pursuits in the circus arts and, in many cases, incorporating the two. 

Take Tracy McAskill, a Ph.D. candidate in particle physics and a contortionist. While she keeps her academic work and her art distinct, she pushes boundaries in both. As a physicist, she focuses on phenomenology, the bridge between theoretical and experimental physics. As a contortionist, she consistently astounds audiences with what her body is capable of doing. 

"When you see a person do something like a triple fold [bending the back so the performer's chest, knees and shins all touch the floor], that makes people say, ‘I didn't know that was possible,'" she says. "To be able to do that for an audience, to convey that sense of awe or sometimes disgust, is really exciting."

McAskill is a largely self-taught contortionist. A dancer growing up, she advanced from stretching to overstretching and, eventually, contorting. When YouTube came around, she began emulating other contortionists and teaching herself new moves. Then in 2008, she became interested in performing and got her first gig as part a duo contortion act in the "circus folktale" Mischief in the Machine.

"It was in working on that effort that I realized that this was something I really loved and could work on every day," she says. Today she still does mostly duo contortion as a member of the Boston Circus Guild, with the same partner she met through Mischief in the Machine.  

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Suzanne Rappaport , in the Department of Occupational Therapy (OT), found her passion for the circus on a Club Med vacation. After trying out the flying trapeze featured at the resort, she decided to trade a desk job for a higher calling. She performed trapeze at Club Med for three years, then moved on to the New England Center for Circus Arts and Cirkus Smirkus. She also taught trapeze, both locally and around the country. 

One day, after a class at the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, Vt., an adoptive parent of a Haitian boy in the U.S. on a medical visa told her that the child had "got his therapy without even realizing it." Rappaport recalls, "That is when the light bulb went off. How could I make circus a therapy, and how could I make that work?" 

Since coming to Tufts, she's expanded her concept of circus as therapy, finding inspiration in an OT alumna who has suffered from breast cancer. She incorporated activities such as biking, yoga and Pilates into her recovery and then shared her experience with other cancer patients.

"I thought, wouldn't it be great to have breast cancer survivors come to NECCA or some facility in Boston and do circus for a week and then put on a show?" says Rappaport. "How great would it be to reclaim your health and your wellbeing by, as silly as it sounds, being dressed in sequins and being on the trapeze?"

Fire-eating, Knife-juggling and the Pursuit of Happiness

Tufts' Department of Child Development boasts still more circus aficionados, among them Jeremy Warren, an MA student, who counts fire-eating, knife-juggling and sticking nails in his face among his skills.

As an undergraduate at Vassar, Warren was a member of a circus club called the Barefoot Monkeys, which morphed into a professional circus troupe, A Different Spin, that does workshops and performances for kids, college students and a range of organizations. He has also worked with the National Circus Project in Long Island, N.Y., conducting week-long circus workshops for children. Now he volunteers with the Somerville-based Open Air Circus, another operation that teaches kids circus skills, and is also a member of the Boston Circus Guild.

Warren's graduate studies, under the guidance of Professor David Henry Feldman, center on creative living, self-determination and positive psychology, a school of thought focused on cultivating happiness and fulfillment. One of his main ambitions is to dispel misconceptions about the sorts of people who can achieve happiness. For example, he decries the stereotype that artists are unreliable or antisocial, and he has conducted research to debunk what he calls "the myth of the ‘mad genius,' " the perception that creative people are depressed or crazy.

He has a provocative take on socially marginalized groups as well. "I have been playing with all sorts of subcultures that have completely found their own way of being that mainstream society would see as deviant, but these people are perfectly healthy, happy and wonderfully social people," he says. 

"Rather than diagnosing what is wrong with people and pathologizing people who live differently or do things differently or think differently, I am focusing instead on what it is that they're doing that works for them and could maybe work for other people," he explains. "What is it these people do that makes it worth it for them? How do they do it, and how can we teach everyone else to do it?"

It's this acceptance of the diversity in human experience that has led Warren to think about the circus-with its unembarrassed celebration of "freakishness"-as a tool for positive youth development. And the free-spiritedness he sees in children convinces him that such a tool could be effective. "I like that kids are generally open to new things, eager and willing to learn," he says. "If you put out a box of circus toys, kids will come flocking to play."

Meanwhile, Christina Zagarino, whose best circus skill is scarf juggling, is pursuing an M.A. in child development along with work in communication and media. Zagarino had studied educational theater at New York University and was teaching circus camp as part of a job at the New Victory Theater in New York City when suddenly everything clicked for her. She observed that the kids at the camp were spending five days a week, eight hours a day exercising-and loving it. 

"‘This is great,'" she remembers thinking. "'Why isn't everyone doing circus arts right now?'" And she saw tremendous potential. While she acknowledged that it was wonderful to "bring this amazing piece of theatre to an audience of 200 people," she decided that she was "interested in 200,000 people." In other words, a television audience.

Inspired by her role model Fred Rogers -- who went back to school to get his master's in child development after starting his TV career -- she came to Tufts. Here, she's been hard at work on interactive television programming, developed in consultation with Julie Dobrow in the Communications and Media Studies program, that could get kids on their feet and help them stay fit.

Her pilot series of interstitial three- to five-minute programs, Big Top Fitness, earned her the Fred Rogers Scholarship last spring. Currently in post-production, it features two characters, Dot and Ham, who demonstrate circus workouts such as stretching and balance exercises. The next step is to conduct a study to see if the series really does help kids stay fit. Zagarino also hopes to submit Big Top Fitness to be considered for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' College Television Awards. 

If at First You Don't Succeed . . . 

And finally there's Jen Agans, who actually had the opportunity to study circus arts as a child, having attended a school with an alternative approach to learning. Interestingly, what she's chosen to zero in on is the part of her early circus training that she hated: her nightly juggling homework. 

"It's hard. The balls are on the floor all the time," she points out. "But that's why it was great that it was homework, because I didn't have a choice. I would just have to do it." By 7th grade, she was a member of a circus troupe that both performed for and taught local kids, and she went on to teach circus at the Silver Lining Circus Camp in Temple, N.H., for nearly 10 years.

There she watched other kids go through the same frustrating trials she had gone through with her juggling homework. She was fascinated to see that they would develop self-confidence, even when they stumbled. "Learning to work through that process and saying ‘No, I am going to keep doing this anyway because the end result is worth it,' I think that is a life skill, honestly," she says. 

Agans, who began pursuing an M.A./Ph.D. in the Department of Child Development this fall and is studying with Professor Rich Lerner, is intent on investigating such life skills-in circus as well as in sports and the performing arts-and figuring out how best to foster them in kids.

Jackie Davis, the director of Silver Lining and her former instructor, has become one of her most valuable colleagues. "Jackie and I presented at the America Youth Circus Organization Educators Conference about some of the things we have studied in psychology and developmental science," she says, and "people got really excited."

The result of reactions like that could be real advances. "The circus people are starting to say, ‘We need grants, and the grants people need evidence, and you guys are doing research,' " Agans remarks. "Things are starting to blossom and come together."

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications

Photos by Kelvin Ma, Tufts Photo 

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