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Paul is the Founder and Director of Circus West. Instructor, Assessor and Officer in the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS)
I came to Dubbo in 1989 after finishing a degree in Sports Science in Canberra, majoring in gymnastics. Just before I got here, there was a Danish gym team that had come through and obviously made an impact. When I got here, I took over as Head Coach of the RSL Gymnastics Club and they were talking about these international courses for gymnastics coaches that were run by the school that this Danish team came from. Now, at the same time, there was a program federally funded called the Country Area Program, which aimed to get professionals in different areas to go out to small schools in the Western Region and try to give them experiences that kids in urban areas would get. So the two sort of coincided, and in 1990 I got departmental support to go to Denmark and do this course – a Graduate Diploma in Human Movement Gymnastics.
While I was over there, my brother was a community worker in Belfast and was involved in taking kids from quite disparate areas of the community to a circus camp in Newcastle. They invited me to come across and teach some tumbling, and I had seen circus live I think only once in my life as a young kid.
When I came back here, I was teaching at Dubbo West Public School, which at that time had about 900 kids, and we were trying to use gymnastics in the playground to structure some activity. Gymnastics though can be limiting if you have little coordination or no real background in trying to do any of the tumbling. So halfway through 1990, we started using circus as part of the welfare program.
We initially started with a small group of kids who were quite dysfunctional in the school setting; they were really naughty (laughs). We tried to settle them and redirect them to go back into mainstream classes. But they took to it. It was risky, we allowed them to take risk. They were tumbling and they were doing a bit of juggling and a bit
of diablo, activities that taught focus and calmness. And essentially it grew from there.
The program was then offered as a sport program for a wider group of kids. From there it also went into a lunchtime program. Because, obviously, you can’t have that many kids on the playground and not have arguments. It was at that time we set out our basic philosophy, about helping kids not only get through school but become stronger in themselves.
We only ever had two rules. One is you have to share. You share the equipment, as we didn’t have a lot, but you also have to share what you know. So, right from the start, we are expecting every kid who does circus to also teach circus, which is a huge boost to self-confidence. And the other one is respect, which is a throwaway word often, but we layered it. So you respect the gear by putting it away, you don’t just toss it on the ground; you respect yourself by having a go, you don’t just give up after one go; and you respect others.
The issue that we had after a couple of years was that all of our talented kids were going onto high school, particularly Delroy. They wanted to stay involved, so we started an after-school program, purely for kids from Dubbo West and Delroy to start with, but which is now open to kids from Year 5 and up from any school. And that was at no charge. But we had to buy gear.
We were lucky enough to get a couple of small grants and the school gave us P.E. money one year. But we are talking hundreds of dollars, which is not a lot when a unicycle costs $150-$200, or up to $1000. So we started charging a fee of two dollars a week. And that hasn’t changed for 27 years.
I am technically retired, but I still teach the equivalent of three days a week.
We have lived in Dubbo since 1989, but in 2006 we moved out of town. I grew up in the Blue Mountains, so we were always aware of fires, and as a family Dad would teach us with buckets. Because the house was located really well, we didn’t have to fight the face of a fire until I was 18 or 19, in which case we jumped on the back of a truck because it wasn’t so formal back then.
I hadn’t considered the RFS itself and had never come across it formally until we saw guys training on our road. And I just thought, I’ll do that. So now I take advantage of my teaching background and I’m a training officer; I’m an officer in the Minore Brigade and I’ve been teaching courses for the RFS for almost ten years now.
Circus, fire and family is basically where I am.
– Photo by Wendy Merrick. Interview by Darcee Nixon.
Fire Performers, Hallie Bourke and Harrison Crowfoot.