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    WOMEN’S CIRCUS – NOT JUST FUNNY BUSINESS

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    Housed by the four walls of the Footscray Drill Hall on the corner of Barkly and Gordon, and skirted by the hulking form of Whitten Oval, the Women’s Circus has long been a fixture of the vibrant west.

    Born into creation at the famed Footscray Community Arts Centre in 1991, founder Donna Jackson intended the Circus to be space for women to come together and train in a safe and non-competitive environment. Since then, the organisation has shifted their ethos to welcome in anyone of a marginalised gender from the local community.

    Steph Cox, the Executive Director of the Women’s Circus, reflects on the sense of community identity that grounds the organisation, noting that it is the very same that runs through the uniquely ‘west’ community that surrounds it. A self-confessed ‘make things happen person’, Cox has been in the role for just a year after spending time as the Board Secretary; and sees first-hand how social circus practice creates valuable space for people to discover their own potential.

    “99% of our classes are for all levels, and our trainers are really great at connecting people on their own levels. You meet people at where they are at, not where you want them to be, and help them learn about the potential of their bodies,” Cox said.

    “Social Circus classes run all year and conclude in a cabaret performance from the adult members each December. It’s always a big event — a celebration —a chance for people to show off the skills that they have learned and showcase the circus to the community at large.”

    Classes are just one stream of circus programming that the organisation offers, with Performance and Community Outreach also an important feature of the Women’s Circus strategic direction.

    Originally the Circus utilised a traditional outreach approach, and whilst achieving success, realised the diversity of the west meant that it was important to change their model. Instead of reaching out, the Women’s Circus invited people in — creating inclusive and accessible options for people from all walks to life to engage with.

    “In the past, we did some amazing programs — we’ve worked with people experiencing poor mental health or homelessness, and in women’s prisons — now, we’re not doing outreach, we are reaching out and bringing people in,” Cox reflects.

    Covid forced the Circus to be more creative with how they structured their offerings; including co-designing programs, considering their purpose and the best way to use resources. Cox highlights that it’s important for the Circus to partner with organisations that are run by and for the community that they serve.

    Well-versed in the landscape of theatre and circus, Cox considers her second year in the role to be one of transition, with plans to connect with local community organisations, build on relationships, and create a new strategic plan for the Women’s Circus.

    One thing she is particularly proud to continue is the organisation’s partnership with Na Djinang Circus, the only First-Nations led circus company in Australia. Na Djinang Circus is currently the company in residence at the Drill Hall, and the Women’s Circus are proud to share their space, knowledge, and resources with the group. The two organisations work together to support each other, creating space for yet another important circus-based community.

    Sharing that sense of community and inviting others in is at the heart of the Women’s Circus, and Cox is always keen to see new faces join in on the fun. ‘New Crew’ is the entry level program for beginners, covering off on circus foundation skills over a 6-month period.

    Two of the resident trainers guide new students through weekly sessions, and work with the same group from start to finish to ensure a supportive environment where everyone is learning together. Classes cover acrobalance, aerials, juggling and manipulation, handstands, tumbling and more, and Cox notes that this class has been the way to get involved since the Circus’ inception.

    “One of the things about our classes that I love, every single class — whether it’s for 2-year-olds or our elders — starts from a place of connection, on a really basic level, and makes people feel welcome,” Cox reflects.

    It’s clear that the Women’s Circus is more than just fun and games, it’s a genuine and thriving community, built on a ‘west’ sense of identity and inclusion, with connection at its core.

    www.womenscircus.org.au 395 Barkly St, West Footscray

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