Meet Your Neighbours – Tiffany Wightman: Cirque du Salt Spring

by Anne Miller –

Hey kids … are you bored at school? Unhappy with yourself? Feeling left out? Well, don’t make any plans just yet to run away and join the circus! For some of you, the circus has come to you! Middle school students on Salt Spring Island have the privilege of joining the circus right in their own school, if they choose, thanks to the dedicated and enthusiastic leadership of Tiffany Wightman.

Putting herself into her job is an understatement for describing this esteemed school counsellor. Tiffany is devoted to understanding and serving her students. While she loves what counselling offers – in fact, she encourages it – she’s found a way to gain some of the same positive results without the stigma of counselling: Circus.

This idea gestated for some years in Tiffany’s mind. Several years ago, she witnessed an aerial act of performers, suspended from high ceilings, doing aerobics. She was viscerally affected. She said: “I could feel my muscles engaging as I watched. I needed to do it!” She began to train, and Tiffany discovered it is a good place to put her excess energy and challenge some caged fears. When climbing the fabric, she is intensively focused on her body because she literally has to hold on for her life. She has learned when to let go and to trust herself and her coaches.

Tiffany saw how meaningful this could be to children going through a vulnerable stage of puberty. She witnesses them naturally starting to test family values, trying on different personae and exploring options for independence. Watching them dive into the larger world, she noted they face a lot of competition and pressure to conform, sometimes leading to shaken confidence and unfair comparisons.

Serendipity intervened with a visit from members of an Australian secondary school who teach circus with their students. Armed with inspiration from that school, courage, her own research and peer support, Tiffany approached school administration with the idea of applying this concept with their students. She planned a program around a number of circus skills, some being trapeze, aerial hoop, clowning, juggling, silks and unicycling. She counts her blessings that she was given permission and support in building this unique program with a team of volunteer coaches.

Tiffany tells me that admission into the circus program is not based on skill, as that comes with practice, but on a criterion of kindness. Explaining, she noted the tendency during early adolescence for some kids to act superior to another, to bully and to be intolerant. She thinks their power should be in kindness, accepting and celebrating their peers. Kindness has to do with valuing everyone: “no one is better than another.” When applied, students naturally embrace this philosophy.

There is a parallel between circus and counselling, says Tiffany. She knows that not only does circus offer great exercise, it can be therapeutic. In some ways, it can help the students push past personal barriers. Youth learn to love and accept their bodies, to achieve great feats, to face fears and to work well with peers.

The circus program is framed around the 6 P’s of circus:

  1. Positivity: “You can’t do this? Perhaps you can’t do it YET.”
  2. Practice: “You still can’t do it? Maybe 10 minutes isn’t enough.”
  3. Persevere: “Keep working through it.”
  4. Patience: “Be patient with yourself, knowing you can achieve.”
  5. Pass it on: “We work as a team. When you succeed, pass on what you learned to your peers.”
  6. Pain: “You’ll experience pain, like the burning when you exercise. Tolerate it. You’ll get to the other side and feel the euphoria.”
    Tiffany witnesses how taking risks in this way has made these young participants more confident, allowed them to build their skills and characters and has nurtured respect for one another. That’s pretty significant. Tiffany is committed. The work is “exhilarating, exhausting and inspiring – and worth every moment to me.”
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