It’s an exciting time of year for young circus enthusiasts: application season for the Tsunami Circus performance troupe. And Salt Spring’s 12-and-up youth — many of whom will perform in the storied program’s annual show — are eagerly looking forward to their next steps on practice mats and up ropes.
But starting this January, three Tsunami Circus alumni and current coaches — Soleil Bennett-Peters, Jaqueline Wightman and Xzana Nesbitt — are helping to expand the Salt Spring program to include a younger demographic in part of the big show. And, if things go according to plan, they’ll also be helping to build the next generation of circus leadership.
Generally, the performance troupe targets kids aged 12 and up, according to Salt Spring Circus and Gymnastics volunteer coordinator Michelle Bennett. Much of that level of circus involves a lot of choreography, and usually more self-led study — and rehearsal time — than younger students might have in them.
But for some, the draw of the circus is strong, and can come early. Nesbitt remembers when the trio, who will be graduating from Gulf Islands Secondary School this spring, were elementary students and the administration would invite all the kids to watch the dress rehearsal.
The lights, the performances, the sparkling costumes — it was positively hypnotizing.
“Soleil, Jacqueline and I remember having that experience — seeing the bigger kids doing all that,” said Nesbitt. “And still now, we have a lot of little kids saying, ‘I want to do that, that looks really cool!’”
Last January in particular, according to Bennett-Peters, the Tsunami Circus program had a big influx of younger kids, many of whom showed that enthusiasm the coaches remembered from their early days.
“So we thought, why not create a program where they could do that as younger kids?” said Bennett-Peters. “If we can support them in that, we could work with them to get them thinking about what they want to learn, and what they want to perform.”
Thus began the planning and prep for the new ‘Tsunami Junior’ ground-based performance offering, said Bennett: an hour-and-15-minute session on Fridays for ages seven to 11 who have been in a circus class before, with the three current coaches/mentors for Salt Spring Circus and Gymnastics building the new collaborative, play-to-strengths program from scratch.
“We already know there’s significant demand from younger children who are interested,” said Bennett, “but who aren’t ready for the commitment required to join the performance troupe. It’s really amazing that they are taking the initiative to create this new program.”
All three of the junior coaches have been with circus since Grade 6. Nesbitt said circus often appeals to kids who might not always find success in more “traditional” sports.
“For me, it developed that physical literacy,” said Nesbitt. “It opened a lot of doors, to go into theatre and music and performance; I was prepared for those kinds of things.”
Wightman agreed. “We’ve always kind of been the odd ones out,” she laughed, and said the circus was a unique space where older kids are actively mentoring the younger ones, and that translates into their lives elsewhere.
“Now they know that there’s these older kids that want to help them any way they can,” said Wightman. “It creates that community of helping each other; when I see them at the high school, they know that if they ever need anything, I’m there for them.”
For Bennett-Peters, the circus experience has been nothing short of transformational.
“I was very socially anxious when I was younger,” said Bennett-Peters, who now splits a good portion of her non-circus time between peer tutoring at the elementary school and teaching swimming lessons.
“Being a part of circus made me realize how much I can bring; that’s such a powerful thing. If we can give that to this generation of aspiring circus kids after us, it would be so special.”
Bennett said the program would be putting a call out for expressions of interest for the ‘Tsunami Junior” program, and was also likely expanding its adapted gymnastics/circus offering for youth with extra needs, neurodivergence or physical disabilities, who might not be able to join the regular classes because they’re too busy, loud or overstimulating.
“Circus is an inclusive place,” said Wightman. “It’s a place to make mistakes, and grow as a human being. Wherever I go, I know circus is always going to be part of my life.”
For registration and information, visit ssicircusandgymnastics.com.