A pioneering initiative using circus skills to bring smiles to faces in a North-East town has received a financial boost from County Durham Community Foundation. 

IN an industrial town far better known for its association with the chemical industry, an unlikely new formula is being developed to boost community spirit and job prospects.

On a cold, wet Thursday night in Billingham, young and old have gathered in a local community centre, working hard on an array of circus skills, such as unicycling, juggling, stilt-walking and globe-balancing.

It is a bizarre weekly occurrence in the Teesside town which, like manufacturing communities across the North-East, has had more than its fair share of economic blows in recent times.
And now, with the help of a grant from County Durham Community Foundation (CDCF), the volunteer-led initiative ¬– labelled JUST (Juggling, Unicycling, Stockton-on-Tees) ¬– is about to enter an exciting new era.

The £4,950 grant from the Youth Social Action Fund, managed by CDCF, will enable JUST to bring in professional circus trainers to assemble an elite team that will be known as “The Juggle Squad”.

JUST chairman Doug Harris explains that The Juggle Squad will comprise eight people, who will be trained to a high level. Initially, they will receive instruction in a range of circus skills before specialising in one discipline. Two members of the squad will focus on unicycling, while the other six will cover ball juggling, club juggling, diablo, stilt-walking, globe-walking, and poi, an ancient art which involves swinging tethered weights through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns.

The aim is that The Juggle Squad will not only be able to pass on their skills to members of the JUST club through workshops at Marsh House Community Centre, but learn enterprise skills so they can launch their own small entertainment businesses.

The Juggle Squad scheme will officially start on March 1 so the search is now on for the eight young adults with the right credentials

“We’re looking for teenagers or people in their early twenties who fancy being part of something special,” says 61-year-old father-of-two Doug.

“The grant from County Durham Community Foundation has the potential to rejuvenate the club by taking us to a completely new level.

“The area has been hit hard by job losses at ICI and in the shipyards but imagine if even one person was able to launch a business and making a living through circus skills ¬– that would just be fantastic.”

By day, Doug works as a freelance health and safety consultant, so it may seem rather odd that he spends so much of his spare time encouraging people to get up on stilts, unicycles, or huge globes. It’s even more ironic that the health and safety man spent his younger days haring round tracks at high speeds as a successful motor-cycle racer.

“I suppose it is a bit strange but the circus skills are something different and I just love it,” he says. “And the beauty of it is that it’s something different for people of all ages to try if traditional sports aren’t for them. It’s a great way of building friendships, confidence and self-esteem.”
Members have included one man in his eighties whose wife had passed away. He came down one night and, before long, was unicycling, juggling and skateboarding.

The club was launched in 2000 by Paul Tasker, brother of mountaineer Joe Tasker, who died on Everest in 1982. There are now 120 members, paying £3 a session for the privilege of learning how to ride one-wheeled bikes along with other skills from the Big Top.

At one end of the age range is 71-year-old retired university technician Tony Bonner, who breaks off from effortlessly juggling three clubs, to outline why he loves attending on Thursday nights.
“It’s a great way to make new friends, it keeps me fit and the bottom line is it’s just really good fun,” he explains.

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Arianna Nevison, is whizzing round on a unicycle, dodging past nine-year-old Daniel Martin, who is busily balancing on a giant globe while wearing a traffic cone on his head. Their smiles say it all.

Indeed, there’s laughter in every corner of Marsh House Community Centre and Doug, who became chairman nine years ago, wants to see the fun continue to grow. One lofty ambition is for Billingham to be the venue for the British Juggling Convention within the next five years.

But the first task is to recruit The Juggle Squad, with the help of the invaluable grant from County Durham Community Foundation.

The books have been balanced – now it’s time to go on to dizzy new heights.

  • Anyone interested in joining in the fun, or applying for The Juggle Squad, should contact Doug Harris on 07960 481392
  • Applications for grants from the Youth Social Action Fund, managed by County Durham Community Foundation, are open until February 25.