Learning circus tricks in secondary school changed Firdaus Ahmed’s life, and today, he’s passing them on to a new generation of students.
Firdaus Ahmed loved singing in the school choir, and dreamt of a future in the performing arts. But he was also a troubled teen.
While at East Spring Secondary School in the mid-2000s, he often loitered in school long after classes ended, heading home late at night. When no one was looking, he would hurt himself.
“I felt worthless, and thought I was a burden to my family and everyone around me,” he says, looking back.
He eventually found salvation in the most unlikely of places: the circus. No, he did not “run away to join the circus”, as the saying goes – in fact, the circus came to him.
“It was an inspired move by Ms Chew Ing Lim, East Spring’s Vice-Principal at the time. She felt circus arts would be a good way to engage the school’s at-risk students. They tended to be kinaesthetic learners, and would take well to the hours of physical practice, especially if they could learn cool tricks in the process. Ms Chew arranged for a vendor to run one such programme in the school.”
Unconventional as it was, Ms Chew liked that the programme taught life skills, built confidence in participants by having them perform for their schoolmates, and helped them understand themselves better through self-profiling.
Firdaus, however, was not immediately convinced. “What am I doing here?” he asked himself on the first day, but decided to “stay for a while to try it out”, since his best friend in school was also there.
Over the next 13 weeks, he learned to handle a variety of props – plates, balls and yo-yos – and decided to specialise in poi, a traditional Maori art form that involves swinging tethered weights in elaborate patterns. He grew to love it more than singing in a choir. “I guess I was more of a physical type of person. I get very fidgety if I just stand there doing nothing.”
From Sideshow to Main Event
Firdaus soon found new friends in Edward and Benjamin, who were in the programme to help them overcome their respective troubles: gaming addiction and delinquency. They encouraged each other and gathered regularly for intense practice sessions after school.
Poi-twirling was still very much a sideshow for Firdaus, though. After graduating from East Spring, he got an ITE certificate in audio and video production at his parents’ behest. “I thought I needed it to get a career,” he says, but had no real interest in the subject.
The turning point came when the three friends reconnected with their former trainer, who had since set up his own circus company. They joined it without hesitation, and Firdaus snagged the lead role in one of their shows at Esplanade’s 2012 Flipside Festival. It was the biggest production he’d been involved in till that point. It left him starry-eyed.
He decided to go all-in with the circus. But not immediately – he felt he had to deepen his skills first. “It isn’t just about doing tricks on stage,” he explains. “You need confidence, presence, and charisma. Acting helps.”
So he took a degree in acting at NAFA, even though it wasn’t a requirement for his job. He did this while continuing to run circus workshops part-time, and waiting tables at two restaurants.
It paid off. Today, Firdaus is the go-to person for choreography at his company. His experience also helped him to shape his own onstage persona: Pyro Guy.
Firdaus starts his Pyro Guy routines with dramatic fire twirling and fire breathing, then segues into light comedy where he ties himself up and tries to escape, goofing up in the process. There’s a deeper meaning to the chains: “They symbolise my own limitations, and breaking free of them”, he says.
Audiences lap it up. Firdaus credits his training for it: “My degree taught me to figure out Pyro Guy’s internal story — who he is and how he got where he is. This helps my portrayal of him greatly.”
Coming Full Circle with the Circus
Firdaus’ parents still wonder why he doesn’t use his acting qualifications to teach drama, and keep the circus as a hobby. He brushes off their nagging.
Like his friend and colleague Edward says: “If you have a dream, just chase it. Don’t let anyone drag you down. You only have one life, so live it. Do what nobody thinks you can do.”
Wise words, and it’s something they share with a new generation of students.
Since 2013, Firdaus, Edward and Benjamin have been running workshops with Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School.
Some of the kids take to the stunts readily; others are slower to warm up. Firdaus, sensitive to their needs, seeks out the very introverted ones and talks to them privately, out of earshot of their classmates.
“Never give up,” he tells them. “When you give up, you stop learning. When you stop learning, you never go forward.”
And who should be the Principal at the school but Ms Chew, the one who set the three friends on the straight and narrow path in the first place.
“I made the mistake of calling her ‘cher” when I saw her,” jokes Benjamin.
Ms Chew did a double take, too. “I was surprised to see them again. I didn’t know what happened to them after I left East Spring.”
“It’s very heart-warming and encouraging to see that, after the programme, they continued with their passion, and are now making a career out of it,” she says, beaming.
As Firdaus, Benjamin and Edward reminisce, it suddenly strikes them that they’ve already been involved in the circus for almost half their lives. When Firdaus recounts his decision to “stay for a while” on the first day of the programme, Edward butts in. “A while became 12 years!”