Circus research first study of its kind
Dr Gillian Arrighi
Lifting the number of young people who take up circus skill training as an alternative to sport is just one aim of a new research project being undertaken by University of Newcastle lecturer and researcher, Dr Gillian Arrighi.
With the support of ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice, Dr Arrighi is hoping for the first time to gather quantitative evidence of the health and wellbeing benefits of creative performance, including amateur circus performing.
Dr Arrighi, who has a background in theatre and dance, has a long-held interest in circus and its role in shaping Australia's history and cultural development.
"While I've never been a circus performer, I was an itinerant performer, and I have always harboured an interest in circus. It's an enduring and popular form of entertainment which subsequent generations continue to reinterpret," she said.
Dr Arrighi's PhD thesis, which charted the history of Australia's first circus - the FitzGerald Brothers Circus - highlighted the inclusive nature of circus performing.
"Circuses attracted a multi-racial team of workers. They were in a zone that was different to dominant society, where people could reinvent themselves.
"Even in the 1890s when Aboriginal people were not supposed to move out of their local territory, there were Aboriginal performers working with travelling circuses."
During the past 20 years, Dr Arrighi said there had been prolific engagement by Australians in learning circus skills.
"Circus is now being taught to young people as a means of boosting self confidence, giving them a sense of achievement, supporting creativity and building trust within peer groups. It also develops collaborative skills and a sense of psychological and physical wholeness," she said.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests that learning circus skills is good for children.
"Playing sport - which is often competitive - might not suit some children but learning circus skills, I believe, is a healthy alternative."
Dr Arrighi said circus was also being used in work with disadvantaged groups, such as Aboriginal communities, while women's circus was becoming popular in Australia.
"These women's circus groups do perform but they're really about building self esteem - making women's bodies better, healthier and stronger," she said.
Dr Arrighi said her research would be the first study of its kind.
"People who perform, who teach creative and performing arts, know that creative expression is good for people - that's why there's been such a strong movement in this area - but there's been no real statistical or formal analysis done of the types of wellbeing and health outcomes being achieved," she said.
Although this project is in its early stages, by building relationships with health and medical researchers, Dr Arrighi is hoping to prove, once and for all, that creative performance is good for the body and the mind.
With that evidence behind her, Dr Arrighi said she hoped to have circus skill learning and performance formally validated, in much the same way as sport, and to see more people engaged in the movement for fun, fitness and social inclusion.
"We are constantly being told that Australian children are overweight and too inactive. What I would like to see is a move by general practitioners towards creative prescription - or to recommending engagement in circus as part of a child's long-term health and wellbeing," she said.
There was also scope for the formal training of circus instructors.