Circus arts lift Chile's troubled youths

Circo del Mundo has been credited with getting kids off the street, off drugs, and on to a meaningful life.

In the north end of Chile's sprawling capital, Santiago, the graffiti-covered neighborhood of Quinta Normal is considered one of the most "vulnerable" inner-city communities for youth. The Lo Franco Elementary School has long struggled to inoculate its preteens against the temptations of drugs and other social ills. But they've started making inroads, with an unusual approach.

Inside the school gymnasium, a dozen kids face each other in two parallel lines and take turns rolling up make-believe balls of energy and throwing them at each other - and the more noise, body language, and facial expressions they make, the better. It's one of the exercises in their first week of "circus class" - a groundbreaking social program that uses juggling, acrobatics, and a lot of clowning around to help 500 at-risk youths per year, mainly in Santiago.

"Circus arts combine a number of talents that are key for kids at risk," explains Bartolome Silva, a former actor and director of the organization that runs this program, Circo del Mundo (Circus of the World). "The magic of the circus awakens their creative potential, essential for all humans, and which many kids are lacking here. But the circus also improves self-esteem and encourages discipline, because you have to take care of your body, train yourself, focus, sleep well, and a number of other challenges that teach kids self-control. Today, many kids have a boring routine and are lacking such positive challenges."

The idea of using circus arts to help troubled youth was the brainchild of the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil. The Montreal-based entertainment empire began its first two "social circus" pilot projects in Chile and Brazil, in 1995. Today, Cirque du Soleil has 50 projects running in 19 countries, many of them in developing nations. Cirque du Soleil says the programs help get kids off the streets, off drugs, and improve their performance and behavior in school.

But perhaps nowhere has this "social circus" model been as successful as in Chile, through Circo del Mundo. "I think they're the flagship in the development of social circus in Latin America," says Michel Lafortune, coordinator for Cirque du Soleil's international social circus programs. "And when we put it into perspective, it's with few resources." Cirque du Soleil still makes the odd donation, but Chile's Circo del Mundo is independently run, and continuously has to search for funding from local and international organizations.

While Chile's fast economic growth and political stability have made it the donor darling of Latin America, the country's gaping social and income inequalities have bred crime and social ills, particularly in its poor and marginalized communities. Mr. Silva says circus arts get kids to channel the same energy that leads to violence or delinquency toward positive pursuits.

In the school gym at Lo Franco, circus instructor Juan Francisco Hormazabal helps 13-year-old troublemaker David Escobar, climb onto the knees of his classmate, teaching him patience and balance. In the long run, Hormazabal says this will improve his behavior at school and at home by instilling a sense of discipline and teaching him social skills.

"These programs aim to achieve three objectives: improve a child's self-esteem, develop a sense of humor, and create a sense of belonging in their community," says Mr. Hormazabal.

Circo del Mundo's success has been such that last year, Chile's National Drug Control Commission (CONACE) began funding its initiatives in high-risk communities. Thanks to the program, they say they've seen dropout rates go down, grades improve, and many kids reduce or stop their use of drugs. Circo provides detailed progress evaluations for each student. CONACE plans to start quantifying the program's success later this year.

"The results have gone even beyond what we imagined," says Fanny Pollarolo, who is in charge of CONACE's marginalized youth program. "We like the fact that the kids learn and acquire abilities quickly, with achievements in a short time frame."

How Circo del Mundo works

Circo del Mundo's approach teams circus arts performers with social workers who run workshops in schools or community centers, meeting once or twice a week. The workshops usually run the course of a school year, but they are most effective after two consecutive years.

Silva says many of the youth they work with end up so transformed by the experience, they want to become circus professionals. So Circo del Mundo created its own mini-company, whose "Ekun" show is now touring the country. Circo also began a project to create its own professional circus school a few years ago. It involved developing a curriculum and finding funding for everything from teachers to infrastructure - difficult for an already struggling NGO. But last year it culminated in the birth of the first professional circus school in all of Latin America to be recognized by the International Circus Authority.

Students come here to learn the ropes, so to speak. In the middle of a park, beneath a large plastic blue tent, one young man in dreadlocks dangles from a long sheet, wrapping and unwrapping his body in it as he descends. Once on the mat below, he cleans up to head inside for his music and dance classes.

More than just circus techniques

But this school doesn't just focus on teaching circus techniques. It also trains its students to become teachers, so they can then do the same social intervention that drew many of them in.

"Using circus techniques we can make a switch, a change in society," says 23-year-old student Soraya Sepulveda. "What more could I ask for? Through my art, I can make a difference. That makes me feel good as a human being."

Still, the social circus approach has been criticized for creating dreams that can't always be realized.

"One criticism we get is 'yes, but what [do the teens do] after [the program]?' " says Mr. Lafortune. But he says the goal is to build kids' self-esteem, not necessarily to turn them into professional performers.

Silva says that, in Chile, many kids who go through the program go on to study something completely outside the realm of performance arts.

"We had one former student come in to see us a few weeks ago and he was so excited because he got accepted to an engineering program," says Silva. "And he told us that it was all thanks to the circus because it helped him develop the discipline to be constant enough in his studies."

Lafortune stresses that Cirque du Soleil's social circus programs have survived over the years in more than 80 percent of the places they've been implemented. He says part of their success lies in their local adaptations.

One of the things that makes Chile's program different, says Lafortune, is that it doesn't always pair up social workers and artists. Sometimes a circus instructor will go into a community or a school alone. Lafortune says that has created concern for their safety because artists aren't necessarily trained to handle violent youth, or youth with mental health problems. Still, he says they haven't run into problems yet, and Cirque du Soleil gives its partner organizations free rein over how to adapt their programs to their own circumstances.

Along with Chile, Brazil was one of the first places Cirque du Soleil began it's social circus programs back in 1995. They started with three sites in Brazil, but have expanded to 34 different organizations and now reach almost 10,000 kids per year.

Eleven years after creating these spin-off organizations in Brazil and Chile, Cirque du Soleil is back in the region, on its first South American tour. They are scheduled to perform in São Paolo, Brazil in August, and opened Tuesday in Buenos Aires. They began the tour in Santiago in March and April, when 450 youth got free invitations to a special private performance of their internationally acclaimed show - Saltimbanco.

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