Community arts projects have long been used in community development. Nevertheless, despite many liberatory tales that have emerged, scholars caution that well-meaning organizations and artists may inadvertently become complicit in efforts that distract from fundamental inequities, instrumentalizing creative expression as a means to transform potentially dissident youth into productive and cooperative ‘citizens’. This article examines how social circus – using circus arts with equity-seeking communities – has been affecting personal and community development among youth with marginalized lifestyles in Quebec, Canada. Employing a ‘critical mixed methods’ design, we analysed the impacts of the social circus methodology and partnership model deployed on transformation at the personal and community level. Our analysis suggests that transformation in this context is grounded in principles of using embodied play to re-forge habits and fortify an identity within community and societal acceptance through recognizing individual and collective creative contributions. The disciplinary dimension of the programme, however, equally suggests an imprinting of values of ‘productivity’ by putting marginality ‘to work’. In the social circus programmes studied, tensions between the goal of better coping within the existing socioeconomic system and building skills to transform inequitable dynamics within dominant social and cultural processes, are navigated by carving out a space in society that offers alternative ways of seeing and engaging.