It is our first day of teaching on tour. When we arrive, chatty children and random chickens greet us as we pile out of our tuc-tucs and carry our circus kit to the yard where we will be teaching. We are at the boys´ drop-in centre in Vijayawada, one of three projects for street children and orphans where we will be working throughout the month, all run by the local charity SKCV. The two other centres, a boys’ home and a girls’ home in rural settings on the outskirts of the city, have a somewhat more settled feel and we tend to see the same children week after week. By contrast, at the drop in centre there are often new faces at our workshops, new names to learn and new characters to get to know. It is always buzzing with an energy which is usually playful, often chaotic and occasionally verging on explosive. It is by far the most challenging centre, but in many ways it can also be the most rewarding, especially because you get the sense that learning circus skills is a very rare break from pretty tough lives for many of the individuals who come here.

At each centre, before we start teaching we enjoy a meal sitting with the young people. Some of us are scolded light-heartedly by the kids serving out food as we wriggle while we eat, trying to get used to sitting cross legged on the floor and using our fingers rather than knives and forks. After lunch we spend a bit of time chatting, playing thumb wars, learning the latest handshake or some new phrases in Telegu or listening to music with the kids. This is also a good chance to get to know people’s names – important not only for teaching, but also because every time we return, we are immediately tested by dozens of children demanding “my name, my name?”.

The workshops begin with games for the whole group. For the most part, we seem to be successful in conveying the rules without using too much English, but sometimes even our best efforts at miming an explanation result in confusion. That said, the end result seems to be the same, with plenty of running around, tumbling about and a lot of laughter. We then split into smaller groups to teach the circus props, which include juggling, hula hoop, diabolo, poi, flower sticks and plate spinning, as well as acrobatics and dance sessions. Juggling balls are thrown, and sometimes caught, bright plates on sticks form a vibrant rainbow, and yellow hula hoops shimmer in the sunlight as they spin. The kids really engage with the different skills, and whilst many of them start out as beginners with the circus props, they show real enthusiasm and perseverance as well as the creativity to come up with tricks we’ve never seen before. As we teach, we are constantly surrounded by excited shouts of “sister, sister” and “brother, brother” as everyone wants to show us how they’re doing with their prop.

As the lead dance teacher I am hugely impressed by their dance skills, and am left open mouthed when a routine which took the PWB performers over half an hour to learn is mastered by the girls in just five minutes. Both the girls and the boys are keen dancers and after the first class I find myself really looking forward to teaching them again. On one occasion we are invited to watch the girls perform a mixture of classical Indian and “disco” dance to Tollywood (Telegu films) soundtracks. Pretty soon we are all on our feet learning from the girls and attempting to match their fast gestures and accurate movements, and I make a mental note to watch more Indian music videos for inspiration in future.

As the weeks progress, the skill levels start to increase and pretty soon the juggling balls are being caught more often, the diabolos are flying in a more deliberate direction and the kids find more and more inventive ways to balance a plate/flower stick/hula hoop/each other. After the first couple of weeks we attempt to help the kids prepare for their shows, and they concentrate on practicing tricks with their favourite props. It is really moving to watch kids who just a couple of weeks ago were throwing down props in frustration balance a spinning plate for the first time, or cleanly juggle several throws in a row – in one particularly memorable case 35 throws!

It is also a great learning curve for each of us. We came to the project with a diverse range of performance skills and teaching experience, and at each of the centres in Vijayawada we find a different group dynamic and set of challenges to work with. It is a chance to develop not only our own teaching styles but also to really learn to teach together as a team. Interacting with the kids has been at times difficult, and at times entertaining, but every day we taught at SKCV it was a mind opening and enlightening experience which we hope was as uplifting for the kids as it was for us.

– Eluned

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