Carrie Heller excelled at two things when she was growing up: aerial acrobatics and helping friends solve their problems. She never expected that combining those strengths would lead her to work in circus arts therapy.
The founder and executive director of Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta, Heller, MSW, LCSW, is one of a handful of clinical therapists who uses the trapeze, tightrope walking and juggling to provide therapy to children and families.
Heller first encountered the trapeze and tightrope when her parents moved the family from Canada to Florida in 1973. The family was looking for a summer camp for their daughter, who loved dance and gymnastics, when someone recommended a camp staffed by students from Florida State University’s Flying High Circus.
“I think my mom may have regretted it when she came to pick me up and found me flying through the air, but I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Heller said.
She trained at the camp for the next six years and eventually became an instructor and later a trapeze performer. When the camp closed, she inherited the equipment.
Heller earned a degree in psychology from the University of Florida in 1986 and a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University in 1987.
“Many social workers work in the community, but I took a clinical path, because I planned to work as a family and child therapist,” she said. “If I hadn’t discovered the usefulness of circus arts, I would have been a traditional play-therapy child and family therapist.”
In 1988, she moved to Atlanta to work with sexually abused children and their families at The Bridge Family Center of Atlanta. Yoga was Heller’s relief from a stressful job, and she asked the yoga studio owners if she could bring in some of her circus equipment for workouts. Later, she taught circus arts lessons in exchange for renting the space.
“I started with individuals, but then whole families wanted to come. I began noticing that family members, who had no physical contact with one another when they arrived, often left holding hands,” she said.
Heller also discovered that siblings who came in bickering often learned to see each other in a different light and worked together when they were put on the same apparatus and learned a routine that required cooperation.
“I started looking at what was happening with my therapist hat on, and it was very interesting,” she said.
Heller began teaching her Bridge Family Center clients to juggle with scarves, which helped children who had attention issues.
“Circus arts therapy developed one class, one client at a time. I never anticipated making a career out of it. It was a slow, natural progression,” Heller said.
She opened a studio along with her private practice in 1991. It eventually became Circus Arts Institute, near Candler Park, where Heller and other trained professionals, hold group and individual sessions for therapy clients and for fitness students. Heller also hosts corporate team-building events as well as workshops to train other therapists how to incorporate circus arts in their practices.
Cirque du Soleil has raised public consciousness about the circus and has fostered a new appreciation for these skills. Heller has trained other therapists to use circus arts in their practice, and wrote “The Aerial Circus Training and Safety Manual,” the industry’s first such book.
“I never thought I’d be doing circus arts all my life. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled on it as a therapy tool, and have spent most of my practice refining it,” Heller said. “I really feel like I hit the jackpot as a therapist.”
Heller uses traditional play therapy and combines it with circus arts therapy in her practice.
Heller’s young therapy clients are referred to her by schools, pediatricians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists and parents of children who have worked with her.
They may have behavioral problems, learning differences, sensory processing issues, ADD, ADHD, Asperger syndrome, emotional and physical challenges, or low self-esteem. She’s also worked with at-risk teens to keep them off the streets.
“Over time, learning the circus arts can be healing. Kids like learning new things that are challenging and fun,” Heller said. “It’s risk-taking in a safe environment, and offers a very good workout that, unlike team sports, is noncompetitive.
“There’s also an artistic, creative element to it. I love it when clients come to me and tell me they want to show me a trick they thought up on their own.”
For years, she ran a popular summer camp that served hundreds of kids, but now she hosts a smaller camp geared toward children with special needs.
Heller began researching and documenting the effects of circus arts therapy two years ago.
“Lauren A. Taglialatela, a doctor and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Kennesaw State University, and I began scientifically evaluating its potential benefits using a pre-post test design,” Heller said. “So far, the findings look great.”
Preliminary data shows significant improvement in flexibility, strength, balance, coordination and social skills after one eight-week session of circus arts therapy . Heller didn’t need to see the data to affirm that she’s doing exactly what she was meant to do.
“When a child has just mastered a new physical activity that he thought he could never do, there’s a certain smile that comes across his face. You can tell that on a very deep level he is genuinely feeling better about himself,” she said. “That’s the most rewarding thing of all.”