YARMOUTH — Mikeal Van Mierlo grasps two sticks, one in each hand, connected by a long string. In the middle, the 11-year-old balances an hourglass-shaped rubber “diabolo,” a pair of cups joined at the base by a narrow spool. He furiously pumps his hands, spinning the diabolo back and forth along the string.
Behind him, a little girl leaps off a springboard and another hangs confidently from a bright red bolt of fabric attached to the ceiling of the North Yarmouth Academy gym.
The children are participating in Circus Atlantic, a recreational program offered by the Circus Conservatory of America, the circus college set to open on Portland’s Thompson’s Point next year. The conservatory will begin hosting the recreational program in Portland this fall.
Van Mierlo tosses the diabolo into the air, whirls his body in a circle underneath it, and, with a flourish, catches it on the string. The trick is called a pirouette, he explains.
“Our coach thought I was really good, so he showed me a trick that takes professionals three years to learn,” says the blond-haired Van Mierlo. “I got it on my first try.”
Next to him, Sacaira Machatine, 8, watches Van Mierlo while balancing her own diabolo. She moves her hands tentatively at first, then faster as she works out the optimal speed to keep it spinning.
“It’s pretty hard the first time, but once you get it, it’s easy,” she said.
Jacqueline Davis observes from the gym’s bleachers. She sees much more than just two kids juggling. A Harvard-educated scholar and former professional mime, Davis views the day’s activities as a landscape of physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Circus – from acrobatics to tightwire to clowning – can train kids’ bodies and minds unlike any other activity, she says.
“We’re at a point where we’re beginning to look at what really is going on underneath, sort of like the ‘invisible circus,’” says Davis, who once trained under legendary French mime Marcel Marceau.
She’s coined the term “developmental circus arts” to describe her field of study, the theory and practice of fostering better physical, social and emotional health through circus arts. Her goal is to contribute to a base of evidence that will encourage wider adoption of recreational circus programs, including in schools.
Circus has come out from under the big top, with the rising popularity of the Circus Smirkus traveling youth program and the internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil, which operates a community circus program for at-risk youth.
Davis, a member of the Circus Conservatory of America’s advisory board, is pursuing a doctorate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, contributing to a growing body of research about the effects of circus arts on youth development. She hypothesizes that circus improves “executive functions,” such as the ability to focus one’s attention and shift from one kind of task to another. Not to mention sharpening physical skills, including balance and hand-eye coordination.
Recreational circus programs are less about training future professional performers and more about personal growth, she said. Unlike sports, circus provides an environment where children can develop skills without the pressure of competition, Davis said.
“This provides an opportunity for every child of every ability, every size to succeed,” she said. “In circus, if you drop a ball, you don’t lose a game.”
Circus also offers a unique array of choice, she said. Children can experiment with different activities all in one room, whether it’s juggling, riding a unicycle, acrobatics, or other performance arts.
“Having a say in what you work on or don’t work on vastly increases your intrinsic motivation to work on it,” Davis said. “Like this little girl,” she said, pointing to a girl in a pink leotard toying with a hula hoop.”Nobody’s telling her she has to do it, and she chose to do it. Happily for half an hour, playing with a hoop.”
Kids can practice on their own, like the little girl or Van Mierlo with his diabolo, or as a team, building a human pyramid or forming a tower on the aerial silks. That interplay between autonomy and contributing to a team builds skills kids will use for a lifetime, she said.
Children who might struggle on a sports or dance team often find a home in circus, Davis said.
“If you were overweight in a circus program, and didn’t feel like you could climb because you didn’t have the strength, you would be an awesome base in a pyramid, because you need big people on the bottom,” she said. “Your weight, which is a disadvantage in sports and dance, becomes an advantage in circus.”
Kids can specialize in an activity they like, building confidence as they overcome each setback, such as dropping a ball while juggling, Davis said. As they get better, they have more fun and try more activities, she said.
The upward spiral benefits children in ways researchers are just beginning to understand, Davis said.
“I would say there’s radical inclusivity in circus that you just don’t see, to that degree, in other areas,” she said. “Circus is adaptable to the child, instead of the other way around.”
Blain Tully, general manager of Circus Atlantic, coaches Mikeal Van Mierlo on his diablo-on-a-string technique at a class in Yarmouth on Thursday, Aug. 7. Circus Atlantic is the recreational arm of the Circus Conservatory of America.