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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 pages16
JournalTheatre, Dance and Performance Training
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This PhD research was supported and part funded by the University of Portsmouth Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) Interreg VA France (Channel) England innovation project PONToon (Partnership Opportunities using New Technologies fostering sOcial and ecOnomic inclusioN) June 2017–November 2020. I would like to thank all the women who participated in this study, without whom this research could not have happened. Thank you for working with me and for sharing your experience and knowledge. I extend my gratitude to my supervisors for encouraging me to develop this work and the PONToon project team and partners for their time and support during my PhD.

Funding Information:
The origins of this study lie in ten years of experience as a cabaret circus performer and instructor and was supported by a larger European Union funded project titled PONToon (PONToon ). The PONToon project aims to upskill women in digital technology skills, recognising a digital skills shortage amongst citizens of Europe (House of Commons ). The PONToon project uses creative disciplines such as performance and design to engage participants with digital skills acquisition. Building on my practitioner experience, I designed and delivered a programme that engaged women with digital media production skills combined with social aerial circus training and the development of a short aerial routine. This study evolved in response to working with participants to move beyond the agenda of the PONToon project to question if social aerial circus training impacts on participants’ self-perception. As is typical with practice-based research, the study morphed over the course of the process and provided an opportunity to explore insights through practice.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Circus
  • Social circus
  • Aerial circus
  • Female experiences


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