Photo by Alden Rodgers
Spades is a graceful ninja capable of astounding feats of balance. He is based out of Portland, Oregon, but has taught workshops and performed around the world since 2007. His love of fire and flow arts is only equaled by his passion for teaching.
Spades is a staff writer for Fire Arts Magazine with a monthly column about flow and fire festivals titled “On the Road of Flow”. He tours extensively every summer teaching and performing at dozens of festivals and events and has danced with fire alongside world- renowned musicians including Bassnectar, Tipper, The String Cheese Incident, and hundreds more. In 2013 he won the Ultimate Ninja flow arts video competition, was voted a “Staff Inspiration of 2014” by Fire Arts Magazine, was named “Instructor of the Month – February 2015” by Flow Arts Institute. Spades produces dozens of instructional and inspirational videos every year released on his YouTube channel, Facebook page, and website under “Spinning Spades”.
He is also a strong proponent of “social circus” programs using the power of flow arts and fundamentals of play to help underprivileged communities. He toured dozens of refugee camps with Spark Circus in 2013 along the Burmese border and continues to volunteer his skills teaching circus arts promoting self-empowerment to those in need. In January 2016 he will be touring India for four months with Performers Without Borders to teach and perform with disadvantaged children.
How did you find out about PWB? What was your immediate reaction?
I first heard about Performers Without Borders several years ago when I was involved with SPARK! Circus in 2013. SPARK! Circus is another social circus project that provides workshops and performances along the Thai-Burma border for Burmese refugee children.
When I finished with SPARK! I was curious about other areas of the world different social circus projects traveled to and found PWB. When I saw one of my friends Aileen Lawlor joined their Nicaragua team in 2014 I started looking more seriously at PWB, but at that time I wasn’t in a place to commit as many months as they needed to join.
I’ve always LOVED social circus projects and the JOY they bring to disadvantaged people around the world.
Have you met anyone in your previous trips that you really remember, or who inspired you personally?
I’ve never traveled with PWB before, but my tour with SPARK! Circus in 2013 really changed my life and helped shape who I am today. Spending time with children in Thailand was more joyous than I could have ever imagined. Even without speaking the same language the kids instantly connected with us and really appreciated our engagement with them. SPARK! Circus was the first time I worked with kids and at first I was a bit apprehensive, but quickly realized that we were really needed there to help brighten up these kids lives when they were having such a hard time fleeing from Burma. The whole experience has led me to prioritize working with kids and realize how important our roles are as performers and educators.
Where will your performance route take you, and what are you excited to see along the way?
Our first destination will be along the western coast of India in Gokarna, Karnataka where we will have a “bootcamp” to develop acts together as a team and formulate our roles. From there we will travel to Ahmedabad for a short week-long project teaching and performing. At the end of January we will travel to Varanasi and establish our home base for our first large project together!
In Varanasi we will be working with Asha Deep Vidyashram, a school founded in February 2004 with the purpose of providing education to underprivileged children in the city. The school’s aim is to give children a chance to break free from the cycle of poverty by providing a quality education in a loving environment, enabling them to live with dignity and respect. At present they have about 250 children ranging from 5-15 years old and seventeen teachers. Asha Deep Vidyashram is the longest standing partner of Performers Without Borders and their students already have a high level of circus skills which we will be building upon with after school programs.
There is a culture of performing fire and some of the older children have performed with fire since 2011. I’m really excited to impart my knowledge of fire performance and safety with these students!
A culmination of this project is a large scale show on Ravidas Ghat. The school prepares dancing and singing acts alongside the circus acts of the children performing and provides staging, lighting for the show. I can’t wait to see what we can come up with!
After Varanasi we will be traveling to Kolkata, West Bengal sitting on the mouth of the Hooghly River, on the North East Coast of India. Kolkata was the original center of the British East India company, which in turn led to it becoming the center of British India. It was also the centre of the fight for Independence. Since then it has had mixed fortunes, and found itself as one of the poorest cities in India during the 1970’s-1990’s. This has then been followed up by Kolkata establishing itself as a centre for technology since 2000. It is also huge, with a metropolitan population of 15,000,000.
We will be partnering with The Hope Foundation, a large organization consisting of different homes/orphanages/schools/street children outreach in various venues around Kolkata. The Hope Foundation works inside the slums and on the streets to offer children and communities an alternative to nothing. Offering protection to those without a family, providing education within the communities as well as healthcare to those turned away from state hospitals. Working on the front line of the battle against human trafficking and the child sex trade, with anti-trafficking projects, and emergency response crisis units for children abandoned or working in the sex trade. PWB will be offering morning and afternoon sessions teaching juggling (balls, clubs, some rings), unicycle, slackline, acrobalance/acrobatics, diabolo, poi, staff, hoop, dance, singing, stilts, improv theatre and clowning. We will also be doing alot of outreach work with various other organizations in the city offering workshops and shows in their local parks in the slums.
Our final project will be in Darjeeling, West Bengal. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas at 2050 metres, Darjeeling is famous for it’s tea and stunning views. It is a much smaller city than Varanasi with the population at around 150,000. There we will partner with The Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation. They are one of PWB’s most recent partners, with the 2015 trip being the fifth project there. EWSCF provide a number of services to the young people that are trafficked into Darjeeling from the surrounding areas, including halfway houses, night shelters and outreach programs. Due to Darjeeling’s geographical location it has become a center for child trafficking from the surrounding South Asian countries. I’m sure it will be a nice change of pace to end our tour in a more rural area teaching daily workshops and performing amongst the stunning vistas.
How does your work impact the communities you visit?
It is truly amazing to see the impact these social circus tours have! We are dealing with people who have very little joy in their lives, so when we come to town it is like Christmas! Kid’s eyes light up when they first see us and they become really inspired! They all want to try out the props and are ecstatic at the chance to PLAY.
Performance arts teach children many valuable lessons.
Through teaching performance skills an individual’s learning, creativity and team working skills are developed. It also helps students build confidence, develop empowerment, and overcome social barriers.
Prop manipulation like juggling, staff spinning, hula hooping, etc help children develop motor skills. We will be teaching the children many skills to increase their balance, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and more. We are also simply overjoyed to provide a safe place for PLAY, which these children rarely get.
What are you doing to prepare for your travels?
I’ve been researching travel through India and have been jumping through all the official hoops to get there such as getting a background check (to work with kids there), getting a Visa, and gathering travel supplies.
I’m also fundraising as much as possible to help support my trip. As a member of the PWB team we are all responsible for fundraising £500 ($757) to support the trip. This money will go to providing props, costumes, and supplies for the children we are working with and also help cover our housing and transportation costs as a team.
I am also fundraising to help cover my personal expenses of flying to India. This includes paying my rent here in Portland, Oregon while I’m away, covering my medical checks and inoculations before I go, getting travel insurance for my gear including my laptop which I plan to bring to keep YOU ALL informed, and get a water purifier (necessary for sure, but who are we kidding?? It’s pretty likely I’ll end up sick at some point). I’ve figured all together this will be around $2,500, so I’m offering private lessons, group workshops, and special gifts like staff covers and stickers through my fundraising page here:
What is your goal amount?
I’m hoping to raise $2,500 and have a long way to go! But I am teaching a big weekend of private lessons and workshops in Seattle this weekend (November 28th)
and also hosting a big fundraiser showcase event in Portland December 5th!
What will the PWB be using the money you raise for?
By volunteering with Performers Without Borders I’ve agreed to help fundraise money to subsidize our transportation costs, buy new equipment to teach the kids with, and help pay for the management and organization of the tour.
I’m also responsible for my own expenses while I’m there, my plane ticket to India and back from Oregon, my preparation expenses, and my rent back home while I’m out volunteering on a four month adventure.
What advice would you give to other performers looking to get in to PWB and similar programs?
Follow your dreams!! It can feel very overwhelming to commit many months to be with a group of people you have never met in a foreign country to help people you can’t even speak the same language with, but I guarantee it is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do!
Ask around! There are many social circus programs out there, but you have to look for them!
Check out the websites and Facebook pages for Performers Without Borders, Clowns Without Borders, and SPARK! Circus. Post on those pages and ask for info on any other programs people know about.
Even if you don’t join an official project you can still travel and help people in need with your art! Sometimes you can get into places as an individual that would be impossible as a big group. It is amazing how much joy you can bring as a solo performer spending a few hours in a refugee camp or impoverished area. A smile and a few quick tricks can be your ticket into a community in need and your presence can really help!
Where can we go to support Performers Without Borders and your travels?
PWB has several projects they run every year. You can donate directly to PWB on their website:
You can help me out with my personal fundraising for my trip on my fundraising page here:
Or you can donate directly to my PayPal account as a gift to Spades@spinningspades.com