Social aerial circus
: female experience, self-perception and self-representation

  • Carolyn Watt

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Women are often asked to conform to a rigid set of heteronormative ideas of femininity within a culture that values women based on appearance. Images of women are prevalent in current media and online culture and can contribute to enforcing these normative ideals and feelings of insufficiency. 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 is a practice-based research enquiry combined with participant-based studies that explores a group of eighteen to thirty-five year old women’s experience of learning aerial circus skills integrated with training in digital media production within a social circus context. As a circus performer and instructor this research emerges from over ten years of practitioner experience. It features two participant studies in which I taught participants aerial circus skills and facilitated workshops in photography, videography and graphic design. Parallel to these studies I explored participant experience and theory through physical movement and aerial performance. The practice research presented in this thesis, a performance seminar, vocal aerial silks performance and multi-media installation event, enabled reflection upon practitioner identity in relation to participant experience to tell this collective narrative.
The findings indicate the potency of social aerial circus training and performance to enable participants to find satisfaction in their bodies, increase their self-confidence and engage in fantasies of freedom and alterity. The combination of aerial circus with digital media production enabled participants to play with ideas of self-image through the fantasy implicit in both disciplines. The use of digital media consolidated participants’ experience of aerial circus and enabled a form of digital self-representation. Through this creative process participants were able to disentangle some of the contradictions central to female identity in late modernity.
Date of AwardOct 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorMarius Kwint (Supervisor), Matt Smith (Supervisor) & Joan Farrer (Supervisor)


  • social circus
  • digital skills

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