Gender and Vulnerability – the power of a women’s circus

Posted on Mar 8, 2018


Gender and Vulnerability – the power of a women’s circus

At Phare we understand the transformative and healing qualities of performing and fine arts. All of the students who study art at Phare Ponleu Selpak have come from incredibly difficult social and economic backgrounds. Through training in arts, like circus, they have had the amazing opportunity to improve their futures and help their families.

Kirstin Sillitoe is General Manager at Vulcana Women’s Circus and Co-CEO of Arts Access Australia. Vulcana Women’s Circus gives the opportunity for women in Australia to practice circus arts in a very safe and growing environment.

We think that it’s another great example of how circus can be used for development as well as entertainment. Kirstin was kind enough to share her thoughts on women and circus…


By Kirstin Sillitoe

Working at a women’s circus is pretty unique. When people ask what I do, to be able to reply with “I run a circus company” is, quite frankly, awesome. As the General Manager of Vulcana Women’s Circus, Brisbane I’m incredibly proud of my work. But that feeling of pride and awesomeness goes way beyond the first conversation.

One of Vulcana’s biggest strengths is its community – the numerous women who come through our studio doors, train with us for seasons, terms, months, years and sometimes decades. Those people who come, go and come back again, in different capacities and sharing different skills and experiences. Vulcana certainly has a way of getting under your skin.

As an experienced Arts Administrator, but novice circus trainee, I took my first circus classes in 2014. And to train in a room of just women, being trained by only women, was a very new experience for me. It’s hard to really put into words the difference it makes – but it is a wholly unique environment and one in which I found incredibly rewarding.

I was no longer self-conscious of my body in the same way. No longer as self-critical about my physique as I have been in the past. I gained a new sense of confidence and in a certain way, was able to go back to that child who identified as just a human being, where gender is irrelevant and learning and exploration in my own skin becomes easier.

At Vulcana we talk about using:

“the circus traditions of inclusiveness, strength, excitement, and daring to transform and empower individuals and communities!”

And doing this in an all-female environment really allows for a process of self-exploration.

From my personal experience, being in a room of only women allows each individual to be that little bit more open, that little bit more vulnerable, and take risks that in a mixed-gender environment, they perhaps wouldn’t feel comfortable taking. And vulnerability is the key to learning and growth, and indeed happiness, as purported by this fabulous TED talk by Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability”

I was surprised when I recently met a gentleman who didn’t feel there was any such thing as a gender gap in Australia. In fact I choked on my drink when he made this assertion! He is a well-educated man, a wealthy man and a well-travelled man. And yet, despite governments, businesses and the media still being very much male dominated, he didn’t think gender inequality existed.

Once my shock simmered he gave me much cause for reflection on my own situation – I’ve never felt that gender inequality has held me back from achieving my own goals, be those professional or personal goals, but I fully acknowledge that training in an all-female space has been a completely unique experience for me. It made me feel very different … therefore I must be affected by gender inequality, otherwise I would feel this comfortable, confident and able to take risks and be vulnerable in everyday life.

Being ‘comfortably vulnerable’ is a goal for me in 2015. I recognise the huge benefits that taking risks and exposing my own vulnerability can bring, be they in the form of incredible human connections or inspiring achievements that I didn’t think I was capable of. Vulcana is a big part of that – by becoming more ‘comfortably vulnerable’ in training, I have re-established my boundaries and my limits. I have a renewed, enhanced sense of self-worth. And so those risks that come with being ‘comfortably vulnerable’ begin to sink away, and what was a risk (standing at the top of a people-pyramid, doing a handstand on someone’s knees, hanging off a trapeze by one leg) doesn’t feel like such a big deal anymore.

I’m open to doing more, new awesome stuff. I’m open to doing more unique stuff. And so when I say I run a circus company, that really is only the start of the conversation.


Read about how art can transform lives.

Learn more about Phare, The Cambodian Circus and our missions

Meet Samm Saroeurtha – one of our talented female performers at Phare