Social circus in aerials: female experience, muscularity, pain and trust

Carolyn Watt

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Women are often asked to conform to a rigid set of heteronormative ideas of femininity within a culture that values women based on appearance. Historically, the female aerialist’s muscularity challenged traditional stereotypes of female inferiority, displaying nuanced representations of femininity. Current research in social circus indicates that participation in circus activities can increase participants’ self-confidence and self-belief. This participant-based research explores a group of eighteen to thirty-five-year-old women’s experience of learning and performing aerial circus skills integrated with training in digital media production within a social circus context. As a circus performer and instructor this research emerged from over ten years of practitioner experience. The central aim of the article is to explore participants’ experiences of aerial circus training with a focus on strength, muscularity, pain and bodily markings as having the potential to challenge traditional notions of femininity, and ideas of embodied trust and capacity as a result of developing an informed relationship with one’s body. The article draws on participants’ voices and experiences based on observation and interviews. The findings add to our understanding of female experience of social aerial circus. Participants spoke of increased self-confidence as a result of what their body can achieve as opposed to focussing on self-perceived lacks. Working within participants’ concept of empowerment, aerial circus training offered participants a notional form of liberation, where through physical practice they were able to explore changing gender roles and embody ideas of self-reliance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)136–152
Number of pages17
JournalTheatre, Dance and Performance Training
Issue number1
Early online date5 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • circus
  • social circus
  • aerial circus
  • female experience


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