The most important part of human interaction in general is communication. Speech, gestures, body language. How we interact with one another makes a huge difference as to how we get along and how things get done. For a Towner (someone who works a town job, or a non-travelling job), if you don't get along with a co-worker, you can go home at night and forget about them for a little while. You get long weekends and vacations away from them to reset. In circus, you are with the same group of people day in and day out. You work together, eat together, relax together, breathe together, sleep in trailers so close you can practically dream together. At times, this can be incredibly frustrating, but also has the potential to be amazingly rewarding.
Over the years, I've had the great pleasure of working with people from all over the world. In Australia, I worked and studied with folks from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Ethiopia, France, and other Americans. Here in the States, I've gotten to work and perform with others from Russia, Romania, Canada, England, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, and many other Latin-American nations I'm sure I am forgetting! (I have also gotten to perform, myself, in El Salvador.) It is absolutely amazing to chat to these beautiful people, learn about their cultures, and share life together.
But therein also lies an inherent problem: language. How do you truly get to know someone if you don't speak each others languages?
For me, languages have never been my strong suit. I have always struggled with the vast amounts of straight memorization. In college, I studied my own language (English), and have an almost too-good handle on it. I personally understand language through grammar and sentence structure, because that is how I learned it. But basic vocabulary... not so much. In one ear and out the other, as they say. But the more I get to work with and know my foreign friends, the more amazed I am at how talented and intelligent they are. It is not uncommon for a circus performer to be bi- or even tri-lingual. On occasion, even more!
My friend Irina (the gorgeous blonde pictured above) is from Russia, and spoke almost no English when she first arrived at Carden Shrine Circus International. But by the end of the first 6 months of the tour, her English was amazing, and we all got to know and love her fun, out-going, and spontaneous personality. (Immersion was the key here!) Similarly, I have yet to meet a native Spanish-speaker who isn't also fluent, to some degree, in English. Not to mention the Brazilians, who almost always know Portuguese, Spanish, AND English.
Currently, my own language-learning is focused on both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. I had minored in Japanese in college, but have since put that aside for a bit, as Spanish is infinitely more practical right now, since most of the people I work with are native Spanish-speakers. At Carden, I also worked with seven Brazilians at once, and even dated one for a very brief time, and fell in love with the language. (Sadly, not the man! haha) I love how is sounds, and how the words feel when you say them. (So weird, right??) My progress is amazingly slow, but hopefully steady, as I keep my ultimate goal to be able to speak to my new friends effectively in sight. In the meantime, I do my best to putter along!
What prompts all this necessity? Other than just generally being friendly, effective communication in circus can mean your life and safety. For example, if you are a Russian aerial act in an American circus and your circus manager is Mexican, then you are probably relying on English to ensure safe rigging for your act. Again, if you are a Spanish-American duo act relying on the Mexican crew to pull your rigging ropes up and down during your act, you are probably giving instructions in Spanish. In another vein, my brief relationship with the Brazilian mostly involved me repeating what he had just said in heavily-accented English in my native English to make sure that I had understood correctly before responding. I'm sure this got real old, real quick. It also made me feel awful, and thus prompted my initial desire to learn Portuguese. Luckily, we could still pass-juggle together without much trouble. Perhaps juggling is the universal circus language? ;)
At the end of the day, though, we must all remember that it costs nothing to be kind to others, in any language. Kindness changes everything. It can turn frustrating communication issues into problem-solving understanding. Sometimes a warm, encouraging smile is all you need to make a life-long connection!