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Monday, July 27, 2009

Profile Carrie Heller, circus arts therapist

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Does your life feel like a circus? Visit Atlanta’s Carrie Heller. Her combination of traditional therapy and the circus arts will have you juggling life’s problems in no time.

How did you get started in your career?

As a child, I grew up doing circus stuff, so I have a background as a circus person. I actually did not have the intention of using it as a career. I got a masters degree planning to be a full-time therapist and then when I came to Atlanta I ended up teaching a class and it turned out to be very popular. I started seeing the therapeutic benefits of using the circus as a play therapy tool with kids and families so that’s when I began developing the concept that I could use circus in the therapy room.

You said you grew up around circus arts, tell me more about that.

When I was a child my parents sent me to a summer camp called camp Keystone and they had a circus rig set up at camp keystone and the circus rig was set up by the student of Florida state university flying high circus. Before I learned the circus my parents had sent me to dance class and acrobatics class so I had a little background already and then I saw the trapeze and pretty much fell in love with it and I spent all my time at that camp doing circus stuff, I learned everything.

Have you ever joined a circus as a performer?

Well I also like to perform so I made a choice in1993 to start circus camp here in Atlanta and when I made that choice I chose not to join a circus and travel. I had followed this track in my life where I was going to be a therapist, circus was a hobby for me so I actually did make a choice to be a performer but I performed for corporate gigs instead of traveling with the circus. I was hired as an independent artist to fly out places and be a part of a show. When the super bowl was here in Atlanta I performed at several super bowl parties. My affiliation has been more in the service realm and the therapeutic realm than joining a circus and traveling with one.

Describe a typical day of work.

A typical day for me is I get up and exercise every morning; I have my own exercise program which can include trapeze or bike riding or anything. Then I usually see clients for 3-5 hours in the afternoon and I see individuals couples or groups. I also intersperse those clients with fitness lessons. So I’m available for people to hire me as a therapist or a fitness trainer.

What are the needs/disabilities of those you work with?

I work with children who are on the autistic spectrum; I work with children who have attention challenges and hyperactivity as well as children with behavior challenges, emotional challenges as well as physical challenges.

In what way do you feel circus arts specifically help to address these challenges?

Well for example children who have attention challenges it’s helpful for those children to do what’s called brain balancing activities which is where they cross the midline when they do their activities. So juggling is a very good activity that helps some children focus and helps them bring their attention back to center.

What do you think is the most difficult part of your profession?

For me it’s the marketing. I just want to be a therapist and work with people but I have to tell people about what I do. The business side is the most difficult for me because I don’t like it, I’d like for someone else to do the business part but when you’re in business for yourself you spend a lot of time telling people about what you do and marketing that’s the least favorite part for me. I like the actual work.

What is the best thing about your job?

It is seeing people transform, I literally get to see people change before my very eyes. They change physically and they change emotionally and I get to see it and it’s so rewarding.

Do your clients dress up in traditional circus costumes?

Sometimes if I have special events we will do things like that and every now and then on Show-Off day which is a day where people present to the group different tricks they have learned while training, occasionally the kids dress up and so do the adults.

Do you ever dress up?

I haven’t dressed up lately other than my aerial costume; I do wear a fancy aerial outfit sometimes for Show-Off day. When I ran circus camp I dressed up all the time but with some of the special needs kids some of them are actually afraid of clown make-up and their afraid of the costumes, so my costume is a pretty standard aerial outfit that I wear. I’m not really the traditional circus thing like for example I don’t have animals in my circus and that kind of thing. The circus theme here is much more about the physical activity as opposed to magic tricks and clowning and such.

When you first started using circus arts with therapy were there other therapist using these methods?

No actually nobody that I know of has tried to use this idea therapeutically. Those that are using it are mostly in contact with me and are interested in learning it. I pretty much stumbled upon a new technique.

You mentioned you were a trapeze artist at some of the Super bowl events in Atlanta, tell me about that.

They were after parties that people threw for the Super bowl and they hired my producer to put together some entertainment for them and I was hired to do several of those parties.

Did you enjoy those types of events?

When I was younger it was a blast, I really enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun. There was a pack of us, our producer had a handful of people, I was a trapeze artist there were a couple of dancers, and there were some jugglers, fire-eaters, tight wire walkers. She assembled all of us together. In a sense it was fun but I was in my twenties and early thirties so I had the energy to work all day and then perform at night. Now I don’t think I have that much energy LOL. Those were the good ole days.

What is your favorite thing about being on the trapeze?

I personally get into a meditative state now when I go on the trapeze. I like to get up and just kind of move from one thing to the other and I also really love the sensation of swinging, it feels good to me. Physically the experience feels good to swing and for me exerting the kind of strength that I have to exert and to combine it and make it look pretty and artistic that’s the most fun for me. Being able to use my physical strength and combining it with grace and art.

How do you come up with a routine?

Well just like any sport you have coaches because circus has become more and more popular now there are tricks and routines that have been passed on from one coach to the other and many of those tricks are in my book. I have a whole repertoire of tricks that I learned and I remembered them and on top of that I have a repertoire of tricks that I’ve made up after all of these years and I’ve named those tricks and some of my students have made up tricks and while traveling around the country others have made up trick. So some of its passed on standard circus tricks that all of us know and then there’s some that we all make up. Once you’ve learned those things you string them together to create a sequence that not only feels good to do but looks good, it’s like a figure skater for example.

Do you have a favorite circus?

Yea my favorite circus is Cirque Du Soleil; there by far my favorite and I go to see them every time they come to town.

Where can people go to find out more about what you do?

They can visit my website www.circusartsinstitute.com or contact me via phone at 404-549-3000.

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