By KAITLIN MULHERE Sentinel Staff
BRATTLEBORO — Linda Dierks’ eyes are focused, trained on the end of the metal pipe.
She inches across, toe to heel, right arm extended for balance and left hand resting lightly on her spotter.
It’s an introductory balance trick — just about 2 feet off the ground.
But, all the same, when Dierks makes the 12 steps across to the platform, the crowd cheers as she smiles and bows.
After walking across the pipe, Dierks Hula-Hooped, swung from aerial fabrics and tried out the trapeze during “Circus for Survivors” on Sunday, a free program for people living with any stage of a cancer diagnosis.
“We spend so many years being frightened that this activity reminds us to step out of our comfort zone,” said Dierks, a breast cancer survivor who lives in Guilford, Vt.
The New England Center for Circus Arts and Forest Moon, both based in Brattleboro, teamed up to start Circus for Survivors last year, holding three sessions each in the fall and spring.
Forest Moon, a nonprofit organization that sponsored an array of programs for cancer survivors, closed earlier this year. But it has worked with its community partners to pass on grants and try to continue as many programs as possible. With Circus for Survivors, the circus school has carried on as the primary sponsor with financial support from the California-based Lloyd Symington Foundation.
Circus for Survivors provides an opportunity for cancer survivors to meet and mingle with other people who’ve been affected by the disease, said facilitator Pam Roberts of Shelburne Falls, Mass.
But the program is more than that.
“Cancer people often feel like their bodies betrayed them,” she said.
And so this is a way for people to reconnect with their bodies after radiation, chemotherapy or surgery, Roberts said.
She went through six months of chemotherapy and had a mastectomy after learning she had breast cancer in 1993. For the past decade, she’s been leading programs for people affected by cancer.
Participants can come alone to Circus for Survivors, or bring a friend or family member. The program is accessible to all people, including those who’ve had recent surgeries or are in wheelchairs.
That’s the great thing about circus, facilitator Suzannne Rappaport said. It’s infinitely adaptable.
When all the participants crossed the walking pipe easily, Rappaport, an occupational therapist and circus arts teacher, upped the ante. Now, try it backwards, she said. Next, try it with a partner, walking like a train across the metal pipe.
Later in the day, Jo Schneiderman swung down after hanging from her knees off the trapeze bar and stood up with a triumphant grin, her face a little flushed.
“I’m not afraid to go upside down,” she said. “I like it.”
She wasn’t alone in her fearlessness. At the beginning of the session, everyone in the group shared their hopes and fears for the afternoon. Most participants said they hoped to have fun and weren’t afraid of much of anything. The facilitators were the ones with the fears, afraid that no one would have fun, they said.
They shouldn’t have worried.
The laughs came early and continued throughout the two-hour session. The day started with warm-up stretches and goofy dancing. There was teamwork and clowning around, at times even with a red nose. The session ended with practicing how to properly take a bow and accept applause.
“The fun element of this program is really one of its hallmarks,” said Anne Wibiralske, president of Forest Moon.
Many of the programs Forest Moon sponsored are more serious, but both kinds of activities have their place in the healing process, Wibiralske said.
And there’s time for some reflection at Circus for Survivors, too.
Schneiderman, of Guilford, Vt., said having cancer taught her not to sweat the small stuff.
“And most of it is small stuff,” she added.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and finished all her treatment by 2006. During that period, she didn’t think she was learning anything about life, she said. But now she knows not to be afraid to say no to taking on more responsibilities, so she has time for herself and for her family and friends, time to simply slow down and live.
When Britta Reida was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she used trapeze classes at the New England Center for Circus Arts as her form of physical therapy. There were times, even during radiation, when she’d forget about having cancer during trapeze practice, she said.
That’s because circus is fun but also requires focus, Rappaport said.
Reida served on the executive board of the circus school and participated in several Forest Moon programs, and now, she’s a facilitator for Circus for Survivors.
For her, circus is the perfect antidote to cancer treatments.
Cancer is all these scary, exhausting, painful things you never thought would happen to your body, she said.
But circus? Circus is all these happy, funny and amazing things you never thought you could do with your body.
There are two more Circus for Survivors workshops this fall, on Saturday, Oct. 19, and a family session Saturday, Nov. 16, when kids 10 and up are welcome. To register, contact Pam Roberts at 413-625-2402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the circus center, go to www.necenterforcircusarts.org