How watching a circus act made me re-assess my priorities as a parent

As the drums beat out a tribal native American rhythm, the male dancer skips and pivots, looping smallish hoops over his arm, and passing his solidly-built body through the circles, before easing out of them with a quick step of his feet. His footwork is nimble and there is not a step out of pace as he deftly manouevres himself through his dance routine.

At one point, he combines his many hoops to create what looks like the wings of an eagle, and elegantly flaps them to evoke the movement of the majestic bird. As I admire this sight, his dance ends when he jumbles his hoops together, and produces them again, this time in the form of a perfect sphere.

At the premiere of Totem, a Cirque du Soleil production with a storyline that is premised on the Darwinian theory of human evolution, I found myself entranced by the slick movements of the Native American hoop dancer, as well as the other artists who performed their routines like well- oiled machines, show veterans who make a living by performing such physically demanding feats.

I thought no more of this as I gaped at the talented artists through the first part of the show, in awe of their multiple abilities as acrobats, actors and dancers.

Later, as we sat in our seats awaiting the second segment, my companion, who has a professional interest in sound and light staging for the last 15 years, commented on the sophisticated audio and video equipment that made the show a multimedia feast. 

I got excited too as I recalled the very fantastic interactive stage complete with a trap-door that not only opens to spit out performers in perfect timing with the music, but doubles as a stage prop, extending and unfurling as the acts call for it.

It was such a marvellous contraption for a trapdoor that it could even look the part of speedboat as two performers enthusiastically piloted it in make-believe swells of waves during one of the segments, before it morphed into a rocket that blasted them off to space. 

There was obviously a very clever mind behind that trapdoor.

Our night at the circus went very well, but our conversation ended with a comment from my companion that we could hardly ever see this sort of talent come out from Singapore - talents on stage as well as the production team that pulled off the spectacular props.

Which leads me to the reason I'm writing this.

All that musing made me a little sad to think that Singapore is far from producing, and to a much larger extent, nurturing forms of alternative talent - whether it be in gymnastics, dance or even a highly-skilled stage manager.


I think back to my time spent in Singapore's public education system, and am reminded that I came from a system where success was more narrowly defined. If you were a student who excelled at studying, you were considered one of the good ones. If you had academic smarts and was actively involved in two or more of the prescribed extra-curricular activities, and winning medals and accolades for the school while you're doing that, then you were an even better student. Well-rounded, was what they termed them. But otherwise, you're still ok if you only had good grades.

For the ones who weren't so academically bright but may possess an uncanny talent to juggle or jump through hoops, they were in categories that needed extra coaching, since career options in juggling or jumping hoops were literally unheard of when I was in school. Worse, there wasn't even an inter-school competition you could take part in to win some glory for your alma mater.

Today, our ministers speak about multiple pathways to success. And yes, there are more career options than there were 10 years ago because we recognise that Singapore needs to play ball in the Silicon Valleys of the world, or that we require talents in biomedical sciences since we have to keep ahead of our neighbouring competitors.

Even if your child decided he wanted to become a chef, there are training programmes today to help make that happen.

But are we really ready to accept diversity, to the point where it does not make economic sense, in our midst?

Would any parent deign to encourage their children to dream of a career in the circus, even one as famous as Cirque du Soleil, after observing their little one's amazing flexibility? Yes, they celebrate as babies reach their physical milestones, but most see these as measures that indicate their children are growing up healthily and normally.

As children achieve 'normalcy', parents then go on to encourage them to attain excellence, but mostly on grounds which that we, as parents, are familiar with.

And what we are familiar with are the socially accepted yardsticks of success.

In the parenting circles that I'm involved in, I mostly hear concerns whether a child is progressing well in his reading and writing skills, and his ability to add and subtract up to multiples of 100. Other activities, such as swimming, piano and violin lessons, and maybe even some self- defence lessons get discussed for their merit to engage kids in wholesome and enriching activities in order to maximise the time one has in childhood.

We start to fret when our friends' kids can spell more words, or know more tunes to play on the piano than our brood. Our children cotton on to these concerns that bug us, even if they can't quite articulate it for themselves. By that virtue, we burden them with our own notions of what it means to be successful.

As my son approaches the end of his preschool years, I find myself fretting whether he joins the Primary One cohort with the ability to display the minimum academic requirements expected of him. I also occasionally wonder if I should get him a swimming coach since water survival skills are beneficial.

My ability to sit back and enjoy him for who he is a little marred by concerns of whether he is able to spell adeptly in tests set by well-meaning teachers.

One night last week, as he showed off his rather amateur somersaulting skills to me before bedtime, I could only pay scant attention to him. 

Instead, I was mentally counting down the days to when his homework was due.

Later, when the house was quiet from the activities of the children, I thought about why I didn't let him know more enthusiastically the appreciation I had for his fledgeling acrobatics.

The silent vow I made some years earlier about my children - that I would not lord it over my kids with my agenda, but do my best to encourage them to go forth and conquer the world on their own terms - came back to memory.

I couldn't bring myself to celebrate his efforts more enthusiastically, because I have been overwhelmed by the milestones set by others, the so-called professionals and experts. If I had paid a little more attention, I would have seen how much improvement my son had made with his motor skills.

And this brings me back full circle to those enthralling circus performers at Totem. Surely, they may have benefitted from having a parent or two who believed in their physical abilities. And look at where they are now - travelling the world and doing what they love!

Also, was my companion right? Will Singapore never be able to produce the kind of talent that was on display at the show's opening night? He was referring to the backstage production, of course, but his concerns are in the same vein as mine.

Is this because parents lack faith to let their children explore areas of passion that are of their own making, which may not be in recognised fields, but along paths less well-trodden? Do they force young potential to settle for second best with the excuse of a safe career option?

Am I committing the same error because I insist today that my son should spend time practising his reading, writing and counting, over allowing him to explore his interest in gymnastics, or his passion for make-believe, because these past-times do not produce a tangible, measurable result in his school work?

I read later that Totem's performers spend hours perfecting their routines. And that mesmerising hoop dancer? He picked up dancing when he was 10 years old to learn about his roots, and that has led to an international career in performing what he chose to learn as a child.

So I promise myself again that I shall remember my earlier promise. Of course, my children now are still a little too young, and I must play my part in stewarding them onto the right path. But I will also have faith that there is a place for my children to earn their own keep as they prepare to take their places on life's stage, and I will do my best to not use yardsticks that would ever hold them back.

Should the day come when my children ask for my blessing to pursue their life's interests, even if it falls out of acceptable norms, I hope I will have the courage to say yes wholeheartedly, because they just may have something unique and beautiful to share with the rest of the world.

You can still catch Totem under the Big Top, next to Marina Bay Sands until Dec 6.

The writer is now with Content Studio at Singapore Press Holdings' Digital Division. If you would like to discuss your content marketing needs with us, drop us an email at