A pop of a cannon barely lifted above that rush of voices and colors that rushed the eyes. The excitement into which we easily slipped. A crowd of people kicked up a dirt floor leaving a film all over our bodies. I had a snow cone in my hand that I ate diligently so as to get all of the flavor before it melted away in watery blooms through the paper cone down my wrists. The ceiling swooping over us was inverted with long tent poles. The ephemeral was palpable, blowing up like iridescent bubbles in our hands at the circus. I remember rambunctious clowns. I remember horses running around the track like a fever dream I once had. Finally, there were the trapeze artists. A huge net spread over the ring to catch the flying bodies. Men and women in beautiful sparkling suits even practiced the spectacle of climbing as they reached the top, which felt unimaginably high. And there they engaged in beautiful courageous flips on the ultimate forms of swings, able to defy gravity, comfortable grazing the ceiling above us.
This improbable comfort of the aerialists, these beautiful costumes, and the extreme capability seduced my imagination. I decided there, on the edge of the aluminum seat, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. I would be happy to spend all of my time swinging high above the world in a sparkling outfit. I would be happy to spend my life in flight. It seemed to me like a life of play.
I don’t go to the circuses anymore. There has been too much in terms of abuse of animals that has kept me from morally attending. Though the spectacle of it draws me. So I look up videos and images online of trapeze artists and arealists. The aerial arts include any elevated acrobatic including aerial silks and hoops, and the trapeze. As the images populate the screen on Google Images, I can’t remember what about the trapeze artist struck me. The videos are dull. The artisans perform at a distance, which shrinks them into the size of insects, butterflies, they transform to strange flying creatures. And the images are strikingly erotic. It occurs to me there might be little difference between a trapeze artist and an erotic dancer.
As I held the remnants of the soggy cone in my hand, the lustrous art of the trapeze claimed a deep erotic desire in me. But is eroticism so far away from any strong feeling of passion? Audre Lorde engages the erotic in a state of being that links to the spiritual inner desire that encompases much more than sexuality, and in fact acts as a source of true power. I wanted to be seen the way the trapeze artist is seen, with a sensuality and capability that appeared to be magic. How my own body contorted. How alive I felt in movement. How invigorating it was to swing, to fly, to be synced with the body in that way. A trapeze artist was all of these.
The circus has always been a representation of a life outside society. It is been a celebration of so called “freaks” and other “outsiders.” In the past the trades of the circus have been passed down through generations, existing primarily in family structures. The performance itself is a small part of the whole workings of the circus. This is what makes the circus a quite revolutionary place, the values of which are placed in generational knowledge. According to Smithsonian Folklife Festival Director Sabrina Lynn Motley in an interview with National Endowment for the Arts, Motley states, the circus is not only based in a lineage and value of family, but also acts as a communal living situation, where the “circus arts” are not only defined by things like the trapeze or tightrope walking, but raising tents and making shoes. The circus is an example of a living community. The very essence of which is directly anti-settlement and self sustaining. The traveling circus is a complete commitment to place, and to moment. Motley insists further that the circus is an inclusive space for class, race, and gender in that it has been accessible to all people.
Often circuses are viewed as dangerous, violent, dirty, and lawless. These narratives are common with organizations that are different from a traditional colonialist framework that values separation and settlement of people(s). And, I warrant that there has been proof of violence against animals in circuses, and I do not say that circuses are by any means perfect models, since they are reliant upon spectacle and othering. And while I have not gone on to join the circus, I believe the circus has important models for us to consider when we are looking at our relationship between work and community. I am certain that I was not the only child to want to be in the circus. The erotic playfulness of the circus can exist because the circus itself barely exists, the ties to the land are inevitably sustainable as it travels like butterflies over the countryside. So when we wake up and find the strange myth of adulthood popping like ugly ghosts in our lives. I hope that we can learn to find the erotic within us, that will in turn find the play, that will in turn find the empathy and kindness that it will take to heal the wounds needed to be healed.