Tiana Prince - 2014 Program Participant

Teaching Circus Arts classes to youth in Costa Rica

Circus Arts classes with local youth.

What inspired you to volunteer abroad?

I was a student in the Artist in Community Education program at Queen’s University when I decided to volunteer abroad. A blossoming arts educator, I knew that I was in need of sun and water in order to open properly, but I felt buried under piles of snow that cold Canadian March. I needed to thaw my creativity and my cause. Sometimes it is just a little heat, a taste of other, perhaps with a slight hint of culture shock, that allows one to flower.

I knew that volunteering abroad was a way to reawaken in myself a reason for art, for community, for education. I wanted this chance to be an outsider looking in, gulping in breaths of fresh air, and having to actively find my way home at the end of the day. I wanted to find my path, at the end of the day, among the flowers.

Why did you choose to volunteer with Performing Arts Abroad?

Like all volunteer abroad organizations, Performing Arts Abroad offers volunteers the chance to make a difference while living in a different world; to learn about our differences while overcoming or embracing them. However, what sets PAA apart from other organizations is that it deals in the universal language of art. The volunteer programs offered by PAA thus caught my eye, presenting unique opportunities and goals in line with my own as an artist. I knew that it would be very special to have the chance to volunteer in order to make a difference, but that it would indeed be spectacular to be able to make that difference using my art.

Describe a typical day for you in Costa Rica.

I rise with the sun and the heat, afraid of missing a moment. My Mama Tica has made me a breakfast of rice, eggs, and fruit - not unlike most meals, but delicious! She is often out in the morning, so I eat alone but for the company of several items of religious paraphernalia. Mama Tica has left me some hot coffee in a thermos, and I take it to-go for my short walk to the Circo Fantazztico “comedor.”

Volunteer dancing with kids in Costa Rica

Dancing to Single Ladies (Photo credit: Milan Rädicker)

As I approach, I see two German volunteers in the front yard, partner-juggling oranges. Inside, a few other volunteers and members of the Circo’s performance company unload unicycles, juggling balls, diabolos, and mats from the Supply Room into a van. I help them pile things into the trunk, and we discuss splitting into two groups: one to go supervise training for the Circo and one to go teach Circus Arts classes at a nearby orphanage. I am on the orphanage team, so I climb into the loaded van with a few other volunteers. I sit in the back between two giant red balls. 

As we pull into a parking spot at the orphanage, we are met by a dozen excited, jumping young boys, who somehow help us and all of our supplies out of the van before we can even say “Hola.” We follow them to the outdoor gym, all concrete and tin, and I see an English quote painted onto its bleachers: “Shoot for the moon...Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!” I am distracted a moment too long and have to jump out of the way as three boys, sitting backwards on skateboards, fly past me, all happily screaming something I don’t quite catch in Spanish. The rest of the boys laugh and clap at the grand entrance of these three caballeros.

Finally, we volunteers settle everyone down enough to split them into groups, each assigned to a different Circus Arts station. I am in charge of the Dance station, and teach a small group of boys some basic dance steps. They enjoy throwing themselves onto the concrete floor for fun, it seems, and one requests that I play “Single Ladies.” I do, happily, and the boys proceed to shake their hands and hips until we all fall on the floor, laughing. Other groups gradually make their way over to my station, and we end the lesson with one big game of Freeze Dance.

Black and White movie showing

Movie night at the comedor.

In the evening, we reunite at the comedor with the other volunteers, as well as many of the members of the Circo company, tired and sweaty from training. One seemingly always shirtless teenage boy, who is a skilled tumbler and stilt-walker, finds a snake outside and decides to wear it around his neck. The volunteers who live at the comedor, including the two Germans, pull out a projector and screen, and put on Charlie Chaplain’s “The Circus.” We all gather round on the couches to watch, me uncomfortably close to the boy with the snake. Soon, we are all laughing. I laugh a lot here. A few volunteers make rice and beans for everyone.

At the end of the night, I shower in cold water and crawl into bed, exhausted from heat, speaking broken Spanish, and Single Ladies. I count the small lizards crawling on the ceiling until I fall asleep.

What advice would you give individuals interested in volunteering in Costa Rica?

  • Bring a book! Costa Rica is perhaps known for its laid-back lifestyle, so you may not be surprised to hear that schedules can sometimes be followed pretty loosely here. No, you’re probably not in the wrong place…just give it some time and the bus/everyone else will show up. I quickly learned to always have a book on hand, and soon came to really look forward to these relaxing moments of waiting!
  • Keep a journal! The breathtaking places you see, amazing people you meet, and unique cultural experiences you have while volunteering abroad may otherwise fade all too quickly. Writing is also a great way to deal with homesickness, culture shock, or any other challenges you may face while abroad. 
  • Bring sunscreen and apply generously and carefully (I still have the outline of a handprint on my back from a day when I didn’t rub my sunscreen in properly)!
  • Try all of the strange and amazing fruit...and drink many fruit smoothies!
  • If you are volunteering in the Circus Arts program, try juggling, acrobatics, silks, stilts… Try everything! And be sure to ask the Circo members for tips and tricks (One young boy taught me to practice juggling facing a wall to avoid chasing my juggling balls around the room).

Smoothie Stand in Costa Rica

Smoothie stand.

How has volunteering in Costa Rica changed your life?

Volunteering in Costa Rica provided me with a jolt of inspiration, a slower watch, a friendlier smile, and a pure and colourful lens through which to view life, which is, after all, a circus.

Would you recommend your Performing Arts Abroad program to others?

This program is amazing in that it offers volunteers the chance to be completely immersed in Costa Rican culture by living in a homestay, working and skill-sharing with local artists, and teaching local children on a daily basis. Despite the intense immersion, I always felt assured that any support I may need from PAA was just a phone call or email away. I felt personally looked-after, from the application process to the post-trip follow up, from my one-on-one departure preparation to check-ins, and updates throughout my program.

PAA gave me the chance to both teach and learn, to both present and observe. I took Spanish classes, visited various cities and National Parks, saw circus shows and festivals, learned new performance skills, and taught dance to circus performers, as well as at local daycares, orphanages, and even to other volunteers!

Where do you hope to travel to next?

As it turns out, since volunteering in Costa Rica, I have traveled to Spain to volunteer at an English Language Immersion program, and am actually headed to Taiwan to teach there! After that, I am sensing that somewhere French-speaking is on the horizon for me. However, I would honestly love to go back to Costa Rica in the future, as I found the culture very conducive to creation, and the Tico lifestyle to promote a happier and healthier me!

What makes Costa Rica such a great place for circus/dance?

Costa Rica is the most spontaneous and carefree place I have ever visited. The sun smiles down on you approvingly, and the flowers laugh with you. Its nameless streets and unnumbered houses and buildings ask you to dance everywhere; the mountains and clouds and colours inspire you; the monkeys invite you to walk on your hands. Fruits that you never imagined could exist are in stands and trees everywhere, begging to be juggled! Everyone is open. Everyone is smiling. There cannot possibly be a more perfect place in which to create impulsively, happily, beautifully, purely.