Circus Arts Workshop Helps Cancer Survivors Thrive

Jun 10, 2013

Juggling or swinging on a trapeze may seem like an unusual form of therapy for people who’ve had cancer. But a circus arts workshop in Brattleboro helps cancer survivors prove to themselves that their bodies are still capable of meeting new challenges.

Britta Reida experienced the benefits of circus therapy in her own life.

It was amazing to see that my body could do these things, like spinning or flipping around on a trapeze. It was like, Wow! I suddenly loved my body.

Reida says she was never athletic -- until she took a class at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro and fell in love with the trapeze.

At first she couldn’t reach the bar without help.  But she kept at it.

“It was amazing to see that my body could do these things, like spinning or flipping around on a trapeze,” Reida says. “It was like, Wow! I suddenly loved my body.”

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Reida thought she’d have to quit her trapeze class. But she stayed with it, and says that, for her, it was the best possible therapy.

“It was great to be able to be on the trapeze in between surgeries and during radiation,” Reida recalls. “I was tired sometimes and I’d have to take more frequent breaks. But it felt good do be doing something happy for my body and not just things that were scary and miserable.”

Reida says the circus school was a source of support, and a kind of joy she didn’t find in conventional exercise or physical therapy.

Now, two years cancer-free, Reida is passing those gifts on. She’s working with Suzanne Rappaport, her former trapeze teacher, in a program called ‘Circus for Survivors.’

In the red brick factory that houses the New England Center for Circus Arts, Rappaport and Reida coached a group of cancer survivors and their friends.

Rappaport demonstrated an elegant trapeze pose with one hand on the bar and one foot on the ground. Participants in the workshop -- all women in this case -- gave it try.

“Now lift your feet up,” Rappaort told them. “And then you’re just going to lean back until your arms are straight…Now straighten your legs and point your toes… There you go! Beautiful,” she said. She led the women in cheering each  performance.

Rappaport has worked as a professional circus performer. At the Center for Circus Arts, she taught circus skills to people with a wide variety of physical challenges.

She’s now an occupational therapist, working on a study of the therapeutic uses of circus arts.

At the Circus for Survivors workshop this spring Rappaport started with a juggling exercise. The group formed a circle and tossed a ball back and forth across it, calling the name of the person it was going to. They repeated the pattern with two, then, with plenty of laughter, they tried three balls. 

“All right! You just juggled three balls!” Rappaport told them, leading the group in a round of applause.

Circus for Survivors was developed by Forest Moon, a non profit group that offers workshops and retreats in three states for cancer survivors and their loved ones.

Forest Moon Program director Pam Roberts says the New England Center asked Forest Moon to develop a circus program for cancer survivors.

“So we decided to give it a try,” Roberts says. The feedback has been so enthusiastic that Roberts says the nonprofit plans to keep the workshops going.

Roberts is also a cancer survivor, and she took part in the spring workshop.

One of the highlights of the day was tight-rope walking -- a real challenge, even though the ‘high wire’ happened to be a metal pipe ten inches above the floor.

Annie Mara, a ten-year cancer survivor who has problems with her knees, gave it a try. She got up onto the metal walking pole, with Reida and Rappaport on either side.

“How’s that?” Rappaport asked. Mara winced audibly. Rappaport coaxed her on.

“Yeah, that’s it. You got it!”

Mara made it to the end of the pole, to the sound of applause.

“That was fabulous!” one woman told her.

Mara responded that it had been ‘scary.’ She said that radiation chemotherapy had taken a heavy toll on her body.

“It takes a long time to recover from it, sometimes and for some people,” Mara said. “And getting back that physical strength has been really a particular challenge for me.”

Mara said the workshop helped her reconnect with her body. She loved that it was silly and fun.

At the end of this session Reida gave everyone a red clown nose. The students practiced raising their arms in triumph -- a circus way of taking credit for their death-defying accomplishments.