By Brigid Rankowski
In this issue, Brigid shares how the circus arts have changed her life and her commitment to building accessible circus arts programs for kids and adults with disabilities. This article is part of our cover series on four autistic trailblazers who are building, bolder, better lives for themselves and others.
“Spin to the right for thirty seconds and then spin to the left. Breathe deep as you spin faster and then slow down.”
Six years ago, at the urging of a friend, I nervously attended an event that would change the course of my life. WOMBAT, the Winter Object Manipulation Bootcamp At Tufts, is a juggling and spinning arts workshop that is part of the Flow Arts community – movement art that promotes a state of “flow” or completely being in the moment. I instantly was drawn into the activities; I realized that I had discovered a passion and there were supportive people who could teach me anything my heart desired. I was encouraged to go to another event later that month called Wildfire. At Wildfire, I found well known, talented performers sharing their skills with large groups of students eager to learn new tricks and I also found people knowledgeable about a subject I hadn’t ever been actively exposed to growing up: fire itself. Being the rule-bound person I am, I was very curious about the science of fire and how we can perform with fire in the safest way possible.
The first prop I ever used was a staff, which functions almost identically to the bo staff I had long ago used in martial arts. Five years later, I now perform with 9 different fire tools and continue to strive for individual improvement with each one. The reason I perform with so many different types of props is actually directly related to my disabilities. As well as being autistic, I have Ehlers-Danlos which is a connective tissue disorder. By spinning the same prop in the same way for hours to practice, it was starting to cause me trouble with my grip strength and muscles. By using new props all the time, I began to improve without wearing myself down. I found by spinning, I was getting better at the skills but more importantly I was relaxing myself. The act of spinning in a circular way was forcing my body to relax and causing my body to regulate its breathing. Whenever I was stressed, I was able to spin to calm myself. This intrigued me and I quickly found out there were many other people in the Flow Arts communities who used their props to help calm themselves and reduce anxiety.
My interest in the movement arts quickly expanded and, in the summer of 2016, I produced my first professional stage production called The Way We Move as part of the Portland, Maine branch of the International Fringe Festival. The show was about how there are some things, secrets or emotions, we can’t put into words but we can express them through movement. The show was connected to disabilities by including other performers with disabilities and placing an emphasis on non-verbal communication as a valid form of communication. After the production wrapped, I combined the idea for the show with a project I dreamed up for my Master’s thesis. I wanted to create accessible flow arts programs to promote creativity, confidence, and skill development in the disability community.
In the winter of 2016, I received a grant from Fund the Flow Arts to produce The Way We Move as a 6 week long flow arts and circus camp for children and adults with disabilities. I rented space at Circus Maine in the winter of 2017 and had each week taught by different performers who also had experience working with the disability community while I provide support to the participants. It was very successful and we are working to continue using that as a program model, but expanding it based on the needs and interests of participants. In 2017, we ran programs for six of the twelve months of the year with notable partnership support from Congress Square Arts, Portland Museum of Art, and Maine Goes Gold for Childhood Cancer.
With the clear need for circus arts in the disability community, The Way We Move has already grown so much more in 2018. We are actively working on filing to be a federally recognized 501c3 non-profit with the support of a wonderful board. In Portland, we continue to offer monthly free circus programs in the summer and we have also brought the accessible circus arts to Pride Portland. Once we get our official status, we will be working on a benefit event and applying for grants to secure funding to resume offering weekly accessible circus programs to start in the winter of 2019.
I know now more than ever my future involves building accessible circus arts programs for kids and adults with disabilities. My life is better for having Flow and Circus arts in my life, so I will work to allow others the life-changing experiences.
Currently, I’m an insured fire performer licensed in both New York City and the state of New Hampshire. I act as the main organizer for the Maine Fire Dancing Collective, which was the winner of Portland Phoenix Best Street/Performance Artist 2018 award. My other main commitment is as the Fire Producer at Harry Brown’s Farm running their fire troupe the Fire Benders. I perform professionally as Brigid Sinclair across New England by myself and with others. During the school year, I run an after-school program teaching kids circus and flow arts.
The circus arts have welcomed me with open arms as I actively discuss accessibility and disability intersectionality in the growing field of social circus, which involves working more on the intrinsic benefits of circus such as confidence or balance instead of only promoting mastery of skills. This past spring I had the opportunity to train with Cirque Du Soleil’s social circus program and felt I had really found my place working to develop The Way We Move. With a car accident at the end of May this year, I know now more than ever my future involves building accessible circus arts programs for kids and adults with disabilities. My life is better for having Flow and Circus arts in my life, so I will work to allow others the life-changing experiences.
When I spin fire or when I am in the “flow”, I am able to be, well, me. I use my autism to run spinning events with an emphasis on safety and promoting community by being able to effectively communicate about what is very much my special interest. Both the Flow Arts and Social Circus are growing fields and this gives me the chance to immerse myself in learning the newest techniques while they are actively being created. I have forged my path literally in fire and I’m so proud to help other people find their creative passions in this field.
Brigid Rankowski is a Portland, Maine based advocate and performer who works with both state and national disability organizations to promote more intersectional resources for those in the Autism community. She currently speaks on women’s issues, healthcare access, internet safety, creative art programs, trauma, employment, and lgbtaq+ inclusion. In her free time, she enjoys breathing fire. Follow her on Facebook.
Flow arts photos by Jake Wisdom; Bio image by Sean Hayes Photography
Read more from our “Off the Beaten Path” trailblazers in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 14:
- The Ideal, the Real, and Disability Advocacy by Finn Gardiner
- What Can Neurodiversity Libraries Do for the Autism Community? by Lei Wiley-Mydske
- Building Pride and Feeling the Weight of Marginalization by Kris Guin
Don’t miss these other great articles in Issue 14:
- Cummings and Goings: Creating Your Own Footsteps to Follow by Conner Cummings
- Live Your Dreams Autistically by Becca Lory
- Will There Be a Future Beyond Acceptance? by Megan Amodeo
- The View from Here: My Road to Motherhood by Carly Fulgham
- What have you accomplished that you or others thought you would never be able to do?
Listen to an audio version of this article