Using circus to teach social skills

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BRATTLEBORO — The day the girls were leaving Learning Beyond camp and going back to their orphanage in Mumbai, 15-year-old Preema was crying. Kevin O'Keefe asked her why and she said she didn't want to leave camp. He told her, "This experience will live in your heart and it will live in my heart. We are going to take this experience with us." He "heart-styled" making half of a heart with his hands and then she made a half heart with her hands and they looked at each other through their hearts.

Brattleboro residents Kevin and his wife Erin Maile O'Keefe just returned from a month long trip to India where they conducted a five-day teacher training in Mumbai to start the first year-round Social Circus program in India. They trained 15 teachers who will continue this work at orphanages in Mumbai and Pune. After the teacher training, they brought those teachers to work for one week in a Diwali camp for orphans. Kevin will return for the next two years and do supplementary trainings and he's hoping this could be a pilot program which will be replicated at other orphanages. Their trip was entirely funded by 64 local and national donors.

Kevin and Erin are multi-disciplinary artist-educators who have facilitated diverse cultural groups and communities worldwide in a blend of interactive yoga, circus arts, and transformational play for over 22 years. Their passion lies in fostering healthy connections, culture and resiliency in families, schools and whole communities. Since 1997, they have innovated kinesthetic curriculums, including Circus Yoga, centered on the principles of inclusion, connection, empathy and co-authorship, leading immersions, trainings and mentorship programs for teachers, therapists, group leaders, and parents alike around the world.

Our Children India an NGO in Mumbai started 48 years ago, invited Kevin and Erin to train the first youth circus teachers at an orphanage outside of Mumbai. In 2017, Kevin traveled there to perform and teach workshops with 35 different orphanages. One of Our Children India's programs is Learning Beyond, an eight-day camp for children ages 10 to 16. In eight days, nearly150 students attended the camp. The children studied a variety of skills including, Circus Yoga, magic, toy building, mime, juggling and Mallykham (an Indian sport similar to Chinese pole in circus).

Kevin explained what "heart-style" means, "It's more than a simple gesture with our hands in forming a heart. It's an opportunity for the audience to acknowledge the process as well as the product." He sees this gesture in the children as an embodiment of the "I can" attitude. That more than anything excites him and makes this work so meaningful.

He has been doing this work for 40 years. In 1998, with Erin, Kevin co-founded the practice and community of Circus Yoga. Circus Yoga, combines interactive yoga and circus arts, and is called the "human art of play."

Going to India this year to train teachers is a capstone for him. He went to India as a performer in 1985 for the first time and it completely blew his mind. This was his fifth trip. "It's my favorite country and is fascinating on so many levels. Bringing this work to orphans in India combines three important parts of my life: circus, India, and kids."

Social circus is defined as a "social change intervention that uses the circus arts as a tool for fostering personal and social development of identified `at-risk' individuals." The primary goal of social circus is to help participants achieve personal and social development by nurturing their self-esteem and trust in others, teaching them social skills, inspiring them to become active citizens, and helping them to express their creativity and explore their potential.

Kevin said, "Circus is the delivery vehicle. We are delivering these highly needed social skills such as inclusion, empathy, connection and collaboration. There is a history of separation and trauma which the children have had to deal with." Erin continued, "I believe in the somatic approach to building relational skills. We're structuring co-authored play. By building students capacity to show up in the structure of play we are building their resilience. Play is the heart of what we are teaching — training teachers and social workers. We are giving them a tool box to support the development of young people." She explained that somatic is body-based, movement first and therapeutic.

Soumya Banerjee, a volunteer with Our Children India said, "Last November Kevin came to our camp to teach Circus Yoga and was blown away by potential of the children. There was a mind melt and we decided to collaborate to make a year-long impact on these kids' lives. There has been a great response to the workshops in our community in Mumbai. Participants included yoga teachers, dance therapists, circus enthusiasts, gymnasts and social workers from organizations working with children."

When Kevin was working as an actor in the 1980s, he received $40,000 from an AT&T television commercial he did. Although this was welcome income at the time, 40 years later he considers his youth circus training work in India to be the real pinnacle of his career. "Expectations were met and exceeded in many ways," said Kevin. "We taught by experience, ultimately trying to deconstruct the experience but first off we wanted the teachers to experience it so that they could see what it is like to be a child. It was the culmination of 40 years of teaching, just to share it and to be part of it was a dream come true."

For more information, visit circusminimus.com and circusyoga.com.






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