I want to take a week to talk about what it’s like to be an aerialist–zebra or not–who is bigger than the average aerialist (BTTAA). I was teaching windshield wipers (as a way to work on meat hooks) on trapeze recently, and among my students were 3 typical aerialist bodies and 2 (3 if you include me) BTTAA bodies.
First, I love that my classes have aerialists of different shapes and sizes. I wish I had more men and non-binary folks in my classes and more folks of color, but circus is a pretty white and female-dominant sport at the lower and middle levels. I really love having students whose bodies look more like mine than something you’d see at a gymnastics meet or in Cirque. It’s one of the reasons I’m going to include specific notes in my How to Train Your Zebra series on meat hooks (coming next week).
We were talking about getting into the correct position to do meat hooks. I can do this from a windshield wiper, but I struggle a lot just pulling straight into one. One of my three aerialist-bodied students can do this. The other two are as close as I am after years of training.
As I watched my two BTTAA students’ faces fall as they observed their classmates’ success, I had to point out that we have these things called “boobs” that keep us from sweeping our arms across our bodies and into place. If I try to slide my arm across my chest, my boobs push it away from me. When in a meat hook position, this means it pushes my fist a good 6-8 inches away from my crotch and thigh, which is where I would like it to be.
Here’s the thing: for BTTAA aerialists with breasts, we absolutely cannot get our hands any closer to our hips/crotch in this position. It is not physically possible for our arm and our breasts to be in literally the same space at the same time. In order to compensate for this, we have to create a C-curve with our backs and drop our butts.
Dropped butts are much, much harder to hold up than butts that can be kept up by the hand on the bar. And if you’re BTTAA, the likelihood is that your butt is also BTTAA, which means that not only are you increasing the difficulty by increasing the angle, but you’ve probably got some poundage that you’ve just dropped to that angle.
So me getting my butt into a meat hook is literally more difficult than an aerialist-bodied aerialist getting their butt into a meat hook on a purely objective level. That doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It doesn’t mean that others can’t do it. It does mean that it will take longer and be harder and probably not get held as long. If you’re an aerialist-bodied aerialist, try strapping 10-30 pounds onto your butt, then try holding it at a lower angle. It’s possible. It’s just a lot harder.
Here are the important takeaways from this for those of you who coach or host performances, particularly for students. (For those of you who hire professionals, you’re not going to have as many body types, but I have to say I was hardcore inspired by a BTTAA flying trapeze professional with Big Apple who had a bigger butt than I do–she was amazing and gave me hope for my own future in circus.)
Do not minimize the difficulty of being a BTTAA aerialist.
- Acknowledge the body differences created by being a BTTAA aerialist, including height, weight, the presence of breasts, bellies, and hips, and other parts of the body. Acknowledge that these body differences mean different limitations that are not simply a matter of strength. Yes, strength can help with some of them, but no matter how strong I get, I cannot put my arm through my boob. No matter how strong I get, my legs do not fit in between my chest and my hands (I can’t pike under a bar, and really can’t pike under a lyra). I cannot put two body parts in literally the same space, whether they’re my arms, legs, breasts, or other body parts. Find ways to work around, to adapt, or to simply skip a move (or set of moves), but recognize that there are simply some things some bodies cannot do.
- When limits are a matter of strength, acknowledge that some things are more difficult for a BTTAA aerialist, not because they are “fat” or “out of shape” or “weak,” but because the shape or size of their body means they need more strength than an aerialist-sized aerialist. This is true whether they are a 5’2″ size 18 woman or a 6’6″ narrow-waisted man. More body=more weight=more strength required.
- People make assumptions about BTTAA aerialists and our strength. I have many times been told by visiting coaches when I ask about a move, “Oh, just keep working at it! You’ll get stronger eventually!” when my question is about modifying to get around my boobs or my too-long legs. More than once, I have then proceeded to demonstrate that I am, in fact, more than strong enough (by doing something else), and they are baffled. If you don’t know how to modify a move, then say so–but assess and acknowledge my strength and ability before you assume that just because I am BTTAA, I must not be in good physical condition or “strong enough.” One of my students told me that multiple members of her family called her “fat.” I have had my lady-doctor express concern that my BMI indicates I am morbidly obese (I wear, for the record, a size 10 in jeans, which is smaller than some pretty hardcore aerialists I’ve met in person and online). Another student said her doctor told her to watch her weight because her BMI was too high–and she is absolutely smaller than I am. Weight is not an indicator of health, ability, or strength. (Yes, body fat percentage can correlate to health issues, and medical professionals should fully assess health including weight as one of many factors, but my 165lbs and someone else’s might be very different in terms of muscle tone.)
- We see aerialist-sized aerialists around us all the time. Costumes are made for aerialist bodies and dancer bodies (and produce a good deal of hilarity when one tries to stuff boobs into some of them… or make family-friendly shows a bit less family-friendly). We work really hard to make our bigger, heavier, curvier, longer bodies do the same things aerialist-sized bodies do. This is incredibly frustrating. We are training and performing in an art form that is designed around bodies that don’t look or act like ours. We know this. We’ve accepted the difficulty. It would just be nice for others to recognize that.
If you are a company owner or coach with BTTAA aerialists, recognize how much work it is to be a BTTAA aerialist. And for the love of all that is holy, do not under any circumstances be that jerk who tells BTTAA aerialists they can’t perform in your shows because of how they look or what size they are. Seriously. Figure out a way to buy bigger costumes or let your BTTAA aerialist wear a different but similarly-themed costume. If your prerequisite is a set of skills, and your BTTAA aerialist can do those skills (even if they have to modify for particular body shapes), then they are more than good enough to perform.
Bodies are amazing, frustrating, bizarre things, but we are each given only the one we have to work with. Between being BTTAA and having hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, mine is an extra challenge, but it’s the only body I’ve got. I am fortunate enough to have a company owner who believes in what I can make my body do, even if it’s not always the way she uses hers. I am so very lucky to have her. And I am proud, each and every day, of my students, especially my BTTAA students, who show up and do the work because no matter what their body looks like or how well it works on any given day, their bodies are circus bodies.