This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I’m not an exercise person. I swipe left on women who say they’re “really into hiking.” When I walk past the Planet Fitness on my way to the local bakery, I’m glad I’m on this side of the window. As a fat woman who practices Health at Every Size, going to the gym felt fraught even before I got injured.
I’ve spent the past four years slowly recovering from plantar fasciitis, which made it painful to walk any distance, let alone work out. This fall, I completed physical therapy at last and, on a whim, enrolled in a mixed aerials class designed for larger bodies at the circus school down the street.
Aerial circus is, quite simply, acrobatics in the air. Aerialists climb up rope or fabric, hang from straps or metal bars, and perform visually exciting feats. There’s the aerial hoop, or lyra, as well as trapeze, rope, straps, and aerial silks, which are long, bright-hued lengths of polyester that dangle from the ceiling to the floor.
The concept is old, with trapeze acts dating from the 19th century, but the popularity of aerials as an art form has exploded since Cirque du Soleil hit the scene in the 1980s. Traditional circus was a closed art passed down through families, impossible for a layperson to learn. With Cirque du Soleil, circus schools started popping up to train the next generation of performers, many of whom would go on to teach at their own studios.
As aerials spread, the discipline has become accessible as recreation for the first time. Like barre (created by a ballerina in the ’60s to help other women develop a “dancer’s body”) and Pilates (created by a German acrobat interned on the Isle of Man during World War I), aerial circus is dance-adjacent, and popular primarily with women. But while most group fitness classes focus on changing how your body looks, circus is about what you can do with your body. Aerial shows dazzle the eye with colorful silks and daring drops, not the performer’s tiny waist.
“It’s where art and athleticism meet. You have to use your brain and your body creatively,” says Kenzi Cox, studio manager at Commonwealth Circus Center in Boston, where I attend classes, and which opened in 2017. “It feels separate from fitness culture. It’s focused on skill, artistry, and community.” A case study of elementary school P.E. classes published in 2022 highlighted circus as “one of the best known examples of a physical literacy enriched experience, with inclusion at its foundation”; other research has explored its benefits as a builder of self-reliance in adult women.
At C3, I obstinately ignore my fear of heights—and conception of myself as a noodle-armed weakling—as I pull myself up into the hoop, a 3-foot-wide metal ring suspended several feet above the ground. Being in the air, for me, combines the inner peace of deep concentration with the adrenaline shot of liftoff. My brain, overwhelmed by physical sensation and the need to remember my next move, shunts daily worries to the side. I can’t think about my job or how my body looks when I’m gripping the bar with all my strength, one false move away from hurtling to the mat. There are no mirrors in the studio, just cheering classmates happy to capture the best moments on video. Up here, I know that the body is a head game. Dangling by a single arm and leg is an act of faith.
Circus is not a utopia. (One need only look at the experiences of Black performers, as chronicled by the Uncle Junior Project, for proof of that.) Tuition for circus classes hovers around $35 a session, outside the budget for many, though that’s no more expensive than an hour at CorePower Yoga. Unsurprisingly, most performers are white. The majority of students and instructors I encounter are also thin and not visibly disabled.
For the most part, the tricks done in performances and classes “were made by very thin, very strong, able-bodied people,” Kenzi explains. But one of the strengths of aerial circus, she says, is its adaptability: Accommodations can include a larger hoop, a block to help students get up to the apparatus, or an instructor’s hands supporting a student’s body.
Aerialist Erin Ball, a double below-knee amputee, has dedicated her career to physical accessibility in circus. Aerialist Mackenzie Dunn founded the Larger Than Lithe retreat; Ginger Snaps, who teaches at the retreat, also curates a list of plus size–friendly aerial studios.* C3’s mixed aerials class for larger bodies has expanded to two time slots a week because of demand.
It can be intimidating to walk into a studio filled with former gymnasts who can easily lift their body weight. But after months of work, so can I. I stretch my limits at open studio. In class, our instructor showed us how to wrap the silk around our legs in the air once or twice to perform a candy cane roll-up, but I try a third roll—then find myself stuck, dangling in the air, with my foot completely encased in fabric. I call for help, and two nearby aerialists untangle me.
I love being in the air. I love moving my body with grace and strength. Even when I leave the studio with aching forearms and chafed armpits, I’m excited to come back next week and take another run at the tricks I couldn’t yet nail. Exercise is good for you, yes, but in my experience, “good for you” is a pretty poor motivator. Joy is a better one.
Read more installments of Good Fit.
Correction, March 13, 2023: This article has been corrected to note that Mackenzie Dunn founded the Larger Than Lithe retreat.