On Flying: How Contemporary Circus Arts Teach Adults to Play

Instructors and students practicing together during open gym time at A2 Aviary

Instructors and students practicing together during open gym time at A2 Aviary

By Kathleen Livingston

When most people think of the circus, they conjure up the big top and the three rings of a traditional circus. A caravan rolls into town. A big collared cat jumps through a fiery hoop. A child rides on a saddled elephant’s back. A glamour girl flies effortlessly on the trapeze, rhinestones pinned in her hair. Beneath the glitz, an underbelly of power and danger, just out of sight of the patrons who come desiring only to be swept away.

She ran away to join the circus. What some see as a momentary escape, a fantastical, sequined world, a way out of a regular job — other people see as quite the opposite: a way of being present in a world that wants us to check out.

I wasn’t born into a circus family. I found contemporary circus arts (which forego animal acts and focus on character development and storytelling) in a modern way: a friend posted a static trapeze pic on Facebook and I said, “I have to try that.” The first time I touched a trapeze, I hadn’t worked out in 10 years. When the instructor at the local circus school said to simply do a leg lift and dangle upside down from my knees, I started to laugh. Who am I kidding, I thought, and later, Oh. I seem to have re-located my abs.

As a child, I had spent long hours training as a competitive gymnast — a sport where the object of the game is to sculpt your body into a flawless machine. A silly prospect, given that we know bodies are not machines, but rather soft, breakable creatures. If gymnastics taught me discipline as a child, which it did, circus arts have taught me to play.

Fast-forward a few years. Deep into the process of surviving and healing from violence, I had thrown myself headlong into a helping profession. I took a job as a direct service worker at an LGBT community center. All day, I tended to my community’s legitimate needs and worked to honor people’s scars, their lives uncorked.

“When I’m upside down, I feel curious, bold, and strong.”
Katie spotting a student in Hand Balance class

Katie spotting a student in Hand Balance class

I answered the phone when it rang, offering empathy, active listening, and resources for any number of community concerns: poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, rejection from families of origin, and on and on. When I went home at night, I was too numb to sleep or cry.

Hard as it was, I loved that job. At the center, there were always people to share joys and struggles with. I learned to listen there. I learned that empathy means, I feel you. I learned about all the different shapes trauma can take, about how fierce and resilient people can be when there is little choice but to keep on.

There was a nagging feeling in my gut though, what some people call intuition. The feeling told me to find what would make me feel alive, find what would teach me to be in my body again. For the first time since I was a child, I listened.

Deep play is a process where people become so engrossed in a task they lose track of time, not because they’re checked out, but because they’re keyed in. When a person is in deep play, he or she enters an expressive and imaginative realm, able to create worlds, to make connections, and to feel open to possibilities.

At a conference in September, I heard the underground comics artist Lynda Barry speak on the topic of art-making as deep play. She described deep play as “that moment when the kid is playing with the toys and the toys play back.” There is a moment in adulthood, Barry said, where we’re doing our thing, whatever thing it is we like to do, and we realize we’re no good at it. Then we start to feel like if we’re not good at it, we have no right to do it. The snotty, mean voice comes in, looks at what we've done, and says, “That’s stupid.”

“What some see as a momentary escape, a fantastical, sequined world, a way out of a regular job — other people see as quite the opposite: a way of being present in a world that wants us to check out.”

What can be done with that voice? The one that says: be reasonable, you can’t do that, it’s too late, stick to what you know. Trapeze helps me to play that voice away.

These days, I teach and play at The Ann Arbor Aviary, where I am grateful to take part in a growing community of local contemporary circus artists. When I’m upside down, I feel curious, bold, and strong. When I’m working with a creative partner, I am learning, through play, what it feels like to support another person and be supported. When I’m teaching circus arts, I am really teaching consent, teaching students to inhabit their bodies and build healthy relationships through communication and connection.

For flying to be safe, I have to be in my body. I have to take responsibility for my own and my circus partners’ safety. I have to learn to take calculated risks, to respect my body’s boundaries and limits, to be in the moment.

“When a person is in deep play, he or she enters an expressive and imaginative realm, able to create worlds, to make connections, and to feel open to possibilities.”

My trapeze is there, at the Aviary, wrapped in purple tape. I climb on and dangle from one knee because I have learned to trust that I can hold my own weight. I throw my head back and look at the clouds. On the ground, one character travels by handstand, a flower clasped in their toes. Others use their hips or their wrists or their voices to tell stories.

I climb up and hold one rope, arch my belly toward the floor and lean out over the trapeze. This pose is called mermaid. She abandoned her siren song, left the sea for the open air. I lean forward, poised like a bird on a perch. This pose is called swallow, a bird to help you find your way back home.


The Ann Arbor Aviary is located at 4720 S. State Road, Ann Arbor 48108. For more information about classes in aerial arts, dance, hand balancing, and flexibility, visit www.a2aviary.com or email us at contact@a2aviary.com. Kathleen Livingston claims to be more comfortable on her hands than feet. Her classes in trapeze, hand balancing, and flexibility offer courage, support, and strategies for your practice. For acrobatic and writing-related inquiries, contact her at ka.livingston@gmail.com.


Posted on April 29, 2014 .