Dyslexia in Circus

Hannah practicing aerials (Photo by Dawn Richards)

Dyslexia is a common learning disability that affects reading and writing, but what many people do not realize is it also can affect balance, coordination, confusion with instruction, and sense of direction. I have struggled with these issues all my life. I never enjoyed playing team sports because I was not very coordinated and had trouble with instructions. I remember my teammates getting mad at me for going the wrong way during a practice and not kicking the ball the right direction. So as a little kid, I pretty much avoided sports. However, as I grew up, I realized I enjoyed being active, so I joined cross country. It was simple enough: run until you finish. Running made me feel confident enough to try other fitness endeavors.

A lot of my friends at school are in the YMCA circus, and I often heard them talk about all the cool tricks and apparatuses that they got to perform on. I would see them playing together at lunch doing tricks, doing handstands and acro. Hearing them talk so passionately about circus made me really want to try it. I brought it up to my parents, who were supportive but seemed a bit skeptical that I would be able to succeed. I think they tried to picture their daughter, who couldn’t play catch for the life of her, juggling or walking the wire. Nevertheless, they hopped on board, and I started my first circus class that year.

My first season was challenging both mentally and physically. I started as a novice to circus at age 15. This meant that I was in an intro class with kids mostly half my age. Often I would stretch the wrong leg, and the child next to me would notice and comment on it as if they had solved a murder case. I would just patiently respond, “Well, we will do the other one next.” Although the first year was tough, after my first performance, I knew I was going to continue training no matter what. I was hooked!

As I have continued on in my circus career I have realized the unique challenges that dyslexics face when performing. For example, when you already have trouble going the right way, it only gets more confusing when hanging upside down. Learning new tricks is the hardest. I memorize the tricks not by method or side, but how the trick flows in my mind. So if I have been practicing a trick on the trapeze on my left side, when asked to switch it to the right it becomes very difficult. Verbal instruction can be very confusing and frustrating, not only to me, but to my instructors and spotters. I have gotten so frustrated that I have broken into tears, and there have been times where instructors make a teasing comment like, “Your other left!” or “Are your feet backwards?” Instructor please note – these comments can be hurtful when you are pouring all your efforts in, and encouragement makes all the difference!

Despite the mix ups and occasional falling over, I have learned a few tricks to keep up with the game. I fold the right side of my pants up just once so I can have a reference to which side is right. Practicing my routine multiple times and watching other performers practice helps me feel more comfortable with the act and helps me memorize my directions. I have also learned that it’s always good to let instructors, spotters, and partners know about my dyslexia and how tricks might be confusing to me at first.

I love circus and I think everyone should join, with disability or not. I have found the circus community to be very accepting and supportive of individuals of all levels, strengths and weaknesses. Being a trainer myself as well, I know it can be frustrating working with students who “just aren’t getting it” or have other needs special to them, but keep pushing through. The reward of seeing students succeed in and enjoy circus is worth it.

-Hannah

2 comments

  1. I totally admire your tenacity in pushing through on something you love and are good at… despite its challenges. I am especially inspired by your words because I believe my youngest is dyslexic although everyone says one can’t be diagnosed at 6, a Mom can know! (Especially a veteran homeschooling mom) I have NO reference for her orientation to things in this area as she can’t tell me, but your words give me some ideas. Thank you for sharing and keep doing your awesome circus stuff. So cool!!!!

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