Using Social Circus to Help Women Heal from Trauma

For Amber Parker, a key component of healing from trauma is physical movement. “I don’t believe you can heal without incorporating the body. It’s the backbone of my therapeutic work,” she says. Parker is enrolled in Antioch University Seattle’s Couple and Family Therapy program and is also training to be a drama therapist.

Fostering a connection with her body helped Parker begin her own healing from the childhood trauma that plagued her. Three years ago, she began taking classes at Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA). Working as a case manager for pregnant women struggling with addiction, Parker enrolled in the classes to relieve stress and to have an adventure.

At first, moving her body was hard. But she persisted and her hours training at SANCA transformed her relationship to herself. “SANCA helped me feel empowered in my body for the first time,” she recalls. “I felt very supported, not shamed or judged. There is a range of shapes and sizes there and I never felt othered.” She also discovered that her newfound connection with her body helped her manage her depression and PTSD symptoms.

Just a year later Parker was hired as a teacher at SANCA. She also began her graduate studies at Antioch, inspired by her experience at SANCA to pursue drama therapy in addition to her couple and family therapy degree. Drama therapy involves action-oriented therapeutic interventions that connect the body to the mind and heart, and integrate them. “Psychodrama is an immersive experience. It’s cathartic and meaty,” Parker says. With a focus on incorporating movement, drama therapy is a somatic experience. “It’s about coming into awareness of the roles we play and being able to see who we are in relationship to others,” she says.

Now, Parker is integrating her passion for drama therapy with her passion for the circus arts. She uses social circus in her work with her clients, which blends circus skills such as aerial skills or acrobatics with mental health support and personal development. For her master’s thesis at Antioch, she is launching a groundbreaking project called Transformative Women’s Circus (TWC). Women who have been traumatized by abuse or domestic violence or other trauma will meet once a week for three hours over a 12-week period to engage in trauma-informed drama therapy and circus arts training, culminating in a performance at the end of the 12 weeks. Participants will complete mental health assessments at the beginning and end of the quarter to measure changes in depression, anxiety, and somatization symptoms. The project is founded in theory and research regarding social circus, trauma recovery, neuroscience, and expressive arts therapy. Parker will lead the project, with facilitation and supervision from both the social circus director and the therapeutic circus arts manager at SANCA.

Parker’s enthusiasm for TWC and for drama therapy and social circus is infectious. She is excited to bring awareness about drama therapy to the public. “I hope I can start representing drama therapy in the community for the somatic, evidence-based practice that it is,” she says. “I feel really lucky that I found drama therapy when I did. The work is cutting-edge right now.” So far, Parker is on her way to achieving this goal; she was recently featured in Seattle Magazine and she is slated to work with a documentary filmmaker following the completion of the TWC.

Through her journey at SANCA, Parker found community, healing, and hope. “It’s given me a better quality of life,” she says. Now, she looks forward to helping her clients forge their own journeys of healing and hope, using social circus and drama therapy as mechanisms of change and personal empowerment.

Learn more about AUS Drama Therapy.

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