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Breaking Ground in New Practice Areas: OT and the Circus

Stephanie Esgro, MS, OTR/L

Do you have a unique interest or talent that you wish you could work into your future practice? For many new practitioners, breaking ground in a new practice area could feel like walking the tightrope or swinging through the air on trapeze without a safety net.

I spoke with Suzanne Rappaport, OTD, OTR/L, the founder and owner of Circus for Survivors, a company aimed at healing through circus, to find out how she incorporated her love for the circus into her everyday work as an OT practitioner. Circus for Survivors is Dr. Rappaport’s personal and professional endeavor to facilitate strengthening the mind–body connection using unique movement, in addition to learning skills that can be generalized to increase occupational functioning in everyday life. The topics and tips below are derived from an interview with Dr. Rapport.

Stephanie Esgro: Can you tell us a little more about your unique path to OT?

Suzanne Rappaport: Occupational therapy was a second career for me. I went to art school and, afterward, worked for Fortune magazine. I was unfulfilled by the corporate world, quit my job, and went to work for Club Med as a flying trapeze artist. After Club Med, I worked for a school in New York City as a flying trapeze instructor and eventually, the New England Center for Circus Arts. It was there that I started teaching circus to atypical populations, ultimately leading me to occupational therapy.

Esgro: What are your tips for turning your passion into your career?

Rappaport:

1. It’s never too early to start

Once I found occupational therapy, I realized it was a great fit for me because I could combine my two loves: the circus, and helping individuals grow emotionally and physically. I really started to explore how circus could be worked into my doctoral degree. During my OTD program, I focused my thesis on looking at cancer survivors using circus as a rehabilitative tool. During fieldwork, I ran circus groups with pediatric and adolescent populations at a collaborative school for kids with social-emotional problems, in an acute psychiatric setting, and the Beverly School for Deaf. With adults, I brought circus groups to people with TBI [traumatic brain injury], intellectual disabilities, and cancer survivors. I encourage you to incorporate your passions into your career as early as possible.

2. Find Your Niche

Through my unique journey, I found that circus was my niche and completed me as a person. To bring that niche into actual practice, I made contacts. Everyone has something that they are passionate about personally. Don’t ever be afraid to incorporate your passion into your OT practice. I recommend working up the gumption to say something about your unique skill to your coworkers, boss, program coordinator, or administrators.

3. Know Your Population

There is a lot of exploration that occurs with OT practice. Incorporating occupational therapy skills of activity analysis and activity gradation is extremely important in finding the just right challenge for each individual. For example, within circus, activities range from scarf juggling to trapeze acrobatics. I have to understand the specific needs of the population I’m working with in order to promote successful participation. For example, I would not expect my clients with cancer to immediately jump onto the trapeze. I suggest researching and preparing for each population in order to maximize success.

4. Team Up

The next population I plan to work with is people with Parkinson’s disease. I’m teaming up with a clown who was the founder of Circus Smirkus, Vermont’s own award-winning international youth circus, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Find like-minded individuals who share your work ethic in order to grow your practice.

5. Have a Safety Net

I work in a traditional, pediatric OT setting in a school for 35 hours per week. I started this job while I was pursuing my OTD. I’m content right now having some financial security and being able to do things and go places. I keep my feet in circus and, obviously, if the demand grows, I will grow with it. It’s important to have a back-up plan when going out on the wire.

6. Spread the Word

I’m pushing to do more international endeavors. My international focus is presenting—I presented at COT in England and at Cirque du Soleil in Montreal. I am aiming to attend WFOT in 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa; there I hope to collaborate with other OTs using circus—there are a few I have met along the way. Self-advocating and self-promotion are key to helping gain recognition and support for the unique services you provide.

Esgro: What are the perks of a career fueled by passion?

Rappaport: I think my favorite thing about my job is the connection to the person—when you’ve improved someone’s life in the simplest way. I worked with a woman after her partner of 8 years had committed suicide. She knew I was a circus educator and mentioned to me that she’d always wanted to learn to walk on stilts, so I taught her how in less than 60 minutes. Learning this new skill was empowering for her. She later reflected to me that she reframed how she looked at that year in her life because of her new abilities. It used to be the year she lost her partner, but after learning to stilt walk, it became the year she learned to do something she always wanted to do. This goes to show that participating in meaningful activities is a powerful tool that can turn something negative into something positive. 

Learn more about Dr. Rappaport’s work.

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Stephanie Esgro, MS, OTR/L, received her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Stephanie is currently pursuing a doctorate of occupational therapy at the University of Southern California, and completing her residency at the USC Lifestyle Redesign® Occupational Therapy Faculty Practice (OTFP). She works with a diverse population of clients within the various programs offered at OTFP. Stephanie holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology with minors in communication and English literature from the University of Scranton. She has previous experience working in skilled nursing, school-based, and mental health settings.

Suzanne Rappaport, OTD, OTR/L, received both her master’s and doctorate of occupational therapy from Tufts University. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting & photography with a minor in art history from Syracuse University. In addition to her work at Circus for Survivors, she works as a pediatric occupational therapist for SEEM Collaborative, a school in Stoneham, MA. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and various outdoor activities, including hiking and skiing.