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Emily Prior-Willeard

Performing Arts Medicine MSc

Professional Biography

Emily Prior-Willeard is a Masters student on the Performing Arts Medicine programme (2015-17), with a first class honours degree, scholarship and background in both Equine and Bioveterinary Science. She describes herself as having “struggled to combine her scientific knowledge with her love of the arts” until she discovered the circus and the field of performing arts medicine. Emily’s specialism is circus medicine and the health and welfare of circus artists.

It was during her undergraduate studies that Emily first joined the stables team at Giffords Circus, working as a part-time groom for the Cotswold-based family company over the winter season. Emily loved this first taste of circus life and being able to combine her love for horses with her passion for performing arts. She has since just completed the Giffords Circus Summer 2016 tour – The Painted Wagon, where she worked both as the Site Runner (assisting the Company Manager) and as a groom in the travelling stables.

Since her first taste of circus life in 2013, Emily began to research and explore all aspects of circus culture and history, and began to train as an aerialist and contortionist alongside her academic studies. She has performed both as a soloist and as part of a company in public showcases and at private functions across the South of England. Emily holds qualifications as both an aerial hoop teacher and a flexibility instructor.

Emily is particularly passionate about proprioception, flexibility and hypermobility. She had always regarded herself as flexible, but had not realised her innate hypermobility until her first encounters of circus life. Emily says, “I had a few party tricks that I would bring out on special occasions, but I had never questioned why I could do them and what made my body different to others. I have always thrown myself into everything that I do with a great passion and drive, using my enquiring mind and scientific knowledge base to maximise my potential. It was through this passion for circus arts that I really began to learn about the hypermobile body and its advantages in theatrical and circus aesthetics. Although, the more I began to learn, the more I realised that there are some disadvantages associated with hypermobility. I began to find these through further research, and through having pushed my body too far during training.” Emily says that she has now learnt that in circus arts, hypermobility can be a blessing and a hindrance. “Hypermobility can be an artistic advantage that is aesthetically desirable, resulting in improved employability, however the hypermobile body can become vulnerable and must be treated with respect, with a good balance between performance, training and rest. Knowing your limits and own individual body is crucial to avoid injury.”

Emily says that it was through her passion for circus and circus artists, combined with her developing understanding of hypermobility and the realisation of the potential for injury in circus that she discovered the MSc Performing Arts Medicine at University College London. “I knew that I had to discover more about the circus body and how we can best protect this special population of performers. That was why I applied for the course. A circus performer, in my mind, is the ultimate, multi-talented performing artist, frequently singing, dancing, acting and performing their specific discipline up to three times a day, for an entire touring season. It occurred to me that this population needs better representation and provision in the medical and health care sectors, and that outside large companies and training facilities, there is scarce specialised knowledge and understanding of the needs of the circus performer and how to best treat this population when the inevitable goes wrong.”

Emily states that circus performers, like many performing artists, depend on their bodies for a living, so the need for a quick recovery is of upmost importance. However, unlike other performing artists, many circus performers, especially those in small touring circuses struggle to take any time off performance when injured, and will often be required to continue travelling and touring whilst injured or recovering, making continuity of care in one location impractical. Subsequently she believes that education for both circus artists and medics is the answer. “Prevention is better than cure - If medics and performers alike are better aware of the common problems that circus artists face, this population will become better understood and protected, resulting in fewer injuries and greater longevity for performing circus lives.”

Emily’s seminal research, supervised by Professor Howard Bird, will explore the circus aerialist and the effects of bodily inversion on proprioception. She says, “I am starting my research with a topic close to my heart, aerialists. By profiling the current aerial population through an online questionnaire, I will be able to gain a better understanding of the common problems that this sub-circus population may face. In this way, we can create action programs for the support and education of the circus aerialist, for both medics and artists. Circus artists are generally very knowledgeable about their own individual bodies, and it is important that we as medics and scientists listen and learn. The greater the knowledge base, the better.”

Emily concludes, “I am really excited to watch this new area of medicine take to the air. I was once told that ‘The Big Top has no limits’. This is certainly my approach to the relationship between circus and science.”