Fat Circus Bodies

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Circus Bodies: Fat Circus Bodies

I recently spoke with Amber Parker and Michael Jay Garner, two US circus professionals, about fat circus bodies. Through their interviews, this article addresses fat bodies in professional performance, social circus, and coaching. We talked about virtuosity, representation, and the power of circus as an agent of social change. There were often two sides to a topic, such as the welcoming nature of circus communities and the presence of microaggressions. What struck me most, was how each conversation naturally led to how circus and circus skills must be redefined in order to be truly inclusive of all body types.
an acrobat trains a backbend
Amber Parker training acrobatics. Photo courtesy of Amber Parker.

The first circus class Parker took started with running in a circle. She walked out. “Exercise is triggering for people, especially fat people, and especially survivors.” After making herself return, she realized no one was staring, no one cared that she was bigger. She left feeling successful, “I felt playful. I felt like I had a good time. I didn’t know that what I needed was a safe and protective container in order to move my body.” Initial positive experiences led to a consistent practice. At Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), she was less triggered and her trauma symptoms lessened. “The first couple of years, it was the safest place I’d ever been in my entire life, and that was amazing.” To further understand what she was experiencing, Amber enrolled at Antioch University to study drama therapy. The pedagogy and methodologies she created there gelled into a coaching position at SANCA where she developed trauma-informed classes and programs that served fat women and kids with autism.

Michael Jay Garner, circus clown in Kooza extends his hands
Michael Jay Garner in KOOZA. Photo credit: Aaron Felske

Garner plays the Handyman Clown (Red) (a role originated by Joshua Zehner) and was touring with Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA until the pandemic. Garner thought back, “I remember someone coming up to me specifically after KOOZA opened, and said, ‘Hey, Mike, there’s a big Asian clown on the new Cirque show!’ I never considered that I could even be in the running for the body type, and the type of physicality, and Asian. You don’t see a lot of Asian clowns. I saw the show, years go by, and it just sat with me. It was really inspiring to see someone who was big on stage, and Asian, and being funny–all these things.” 

These stories led to discussing the importance of representation in performing bodies, coaches, and communities. Parker recalls, “I had a class called ‘Well Rounded circus.’ The reason that the women, who were all fat, were there was because they had a fat coach. I even tried to train a replacement coach because I was so overworked. I brought in someone who wasn’t fat, and the women just turned on her! That representation really, really matters.” Parker felt she was able to give her students what she had been given, a “safe and supportive environment to build up their self-efficacy.”

I spoke with both Parker and Garner about how the word “fat” has been reclaimed, fat activism, and the misconceptions that come with pairing size and health or physical ability. Garner said, “Almost any descriptor is just a fact. It’s like being tall. You can’t be less tall, and there’s a huge spectrum of heights. The same thing with weight. You are big or small, but there’s always someone who’s bigger, and there’s always someone who’s smaller. And, how do we treat people both up and down that spectrum?”I asked Garner if he thought there had been progress both in general culture and within circus communities. “I think that yes, there has been a positive step toward body acceptance, but it has been smaller than the strides that other prejudices have gone through. To take an example, people who are much more aware of racial issues now–especially this past year–who then slip and engage in a microaggression. You claim to be an ally, you say that you’re a little bit more woke, you’re open to these issues, and yet, you still say that? Well, that’s just the next layer of learning, right? Because we all have our blind spots, and we will continue to do so.”

a clown wearing glasses cracks whips
Michael Jay Garner cracks whips at the Britany Spears tour. Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart.

Circus communities are often welcoming, but they are populated by fallible humans with ingrained societal prejudices. These often appear as microaggressions. Parker recalls, “People would say, ‘Wow you’re so brave–the bravery it must take in your body to get up on that stage.’ After a while I would say, ‘Stop telling me that. I’m so tired of being brave. That doesn’t make me feel connected to you. That makes me feel other.’” 

People feel like, ‘Oh, well, you could just do some more situps, and you’d be fine.’ And that’s as insulting as saying, ‘If you could just be less Asian, you’d be fine. You would not be subject to the violence that’s occurring on a regular basis against people who look like you.’”

Garner described, “It’s often been said that fat is the last bastion of acceptable prejudice. People feel like, ‘Oh, well, you could just do some more situps, and you’d be fine.’ And that’s as insulting as saying, ‘If you could just be less Asian, you’d be fine. You would not be subject to the violence that’s occurring on a regular basis against people who look like you.’” He also spoke about the dangers of the myth of a “perfect” body. “At best, it’s harmful, at worst is destructive. It can do little subtle things to your brain–body dysmorphia. The damage might seem small, but it has a way of progressing and snowballing into something that is really huge and really damaging. I think that the answer is to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter how big someone is, it’s what they can do.’”

a circus artist on Rolla bola
Amber Parker performs rolla bolla. Photo courtesy of Amber Parker.

Parker spoke about the covert ways negative messages get spread, specifically, celebrating weight loss. “I want people to be able to celebrate their bodies however they need to. If weight loss is part of that, that’s fine, but you don’t know that. Every time people are celebrating their weight loss in a fitness culture, you’re just sending a message to the other fat people in the class that there’s nothing worse than being/ looking like you. ‘My whole life is about making sure I don’t look like you.’ How are we supposed to feel about that?” Parker said that to praise people for losing weight is to imply that something was wrong with their body before.

Both conversations led to how traditional circus has held people of all kinds and what that means now in the contemporary genre. “Circus has always been a bastion for inclusivity–sometimes to the point of exploitation,” Garner said. “But if you’re good, it doesn’t matter what you look like or what gender you identify with. It’s one of the last places in entertainment you can do that.” Parker echoed, “Circus does this thing where it wants to decide what it is all the time, and it’s not okay being a lot of other things. But isn’t that what circus is? Isn’t circus about a bunch of different components coming together to create a whole? So why are we like, ‘Are we recreational, or social, or are we professional?’ Can’t we all exist?”

Both conversations led to talking about how circus culture can change in order to be truly, fully inclusive of all body types. Parker spoke directly to how coaches can shift their pedagogy. “It would be helpful if you’re working with a fat body to ask them how they are today. It would be helpful with a fat person, if, when they are tapping out, maybe let them tap out. Maybe don’t push them, maybe build a relationship with them, so that they will work a little harder, instead of telling them that they just need to work harder.” Parker spoke about how changing pedagogy and changing ideas around virtuosity challenge not only the habits and practices in circus spaces, but challenge the definition of circus. When co-teaching at SANCA Parker notes, “Our perspective was, the apparatus is helping you tell the story, but you’re the storyteller. So, however you use the apparatus is correct. We’re not interested in teaching you how to use the apparatus in a prescribed way.”

Michael Jay Garner circus clown in Kooza reaches high balanced on one foot
Michael Jay Garner in Kooza. Photo courtesy of Michale Jay Garner.

Parker faced pushback when she questioned the edges of what it means to be an artist. “There’s a lot of circus artists who take a lot of pride in calling themselves ‘circus artists’, and they wait many years before they call themselves that. Here I am, like, ‘Hey, I’m an artist! If I stand on that stage, and I sit on that trapeze and do nothing, that’s still art.’” For Parker it was about validity. “Why is the way one person moves on a trapeze any more valid than how someone else does?” Questioning validity breaks apart the foundations of what we recognize as circus. If definers are collapsed, people will start to question training, success, and what is worthy of being performed. “Hang the lyra lower, and let’s see what her body does on it. Let’s let her experience that. Look, that’s art. Let’s put that on stage. That’s worthy of being on stage. Is that a problem? Yes, that’s a huge problem for a lot of people.” A phrase floated through my mind: we need to break everything about circus down in order to lift every circus body up. Because, as these conversations proved, circus has far more to gain from being truly inclusive rather than gatekeeping ideals of body types and virtuosity.

Everything’s hard! But do you want it to be hard because we are separate or do you want it to be hard because we’re together?

Garner suggested seeing people and performances in three dimensions. “The more three-dimensional we all become as human beings, the prejudices that we hold on to become harder to hold on to. That’s all up and down the process: the casting, setting the show order, how you present your performers on stage. Yes, as a producer you want to put on the best show possible, but is it time to start considering not just what’s best for that one show but what is best for the bigger picture? If there’s a moment where you could take the budget from a level 10 act and put another couple of 8s in there because the show benefits from it, then you’re going to have much more room to be inclusive of all varieties of body types, of heritages, of backgrounds.” Garner recalled a quote, “Everyone’s life is interesting if you ask the right questions.”

an aerialist hangs from one knee on a trapeze
Amber Parker trains on static trapeze. Photo courtesy of Amber Parker.

I asked Parker what she thought audiences gained by seeing fat bodies on stage. She replied, audiences are “challenged to expand their awareness of who gets to be on a stage, who’s allowed to be on a stage, what is valid performance. I like that the audience has to be either rubbed a little wrong–and that’s good for them–or, they are going to see the potential in themselves.” Change is hard, but as Parker said, “Circus can only benefit from its diversity.” She noted that it will take personal and communal effort to make necessary shifts, but those seem to be absent. “It’s really hard – it’s hard anyway! Everything’s hard! But do you want it to be hard because we are separate or do you want it to be hard because we’re together?” 

My chat with Garner concluded with him saying, “Once you feel secure in just your ability to exist, then you can take it to the next level. There are no limits as to where we can take circus as an art form or as a means for social change.”

These conversations brought to light that yes, circus is an excellent medium for social change, but some changes are necessary within circus culture, too. Garner’s suggestion of three-dimensionality can be taken a step further. All dimensions of circus–performers, creators, coaches, academics, students, funders, historians, fans–need to participate in seeing, thinking and acting three-dimensionally to create a truly inclusive circus culture.

(Below: Michael Jay Garner promo video.)

(Below: Amber Parker featured in SANCA Up, with a Twist!)

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Related Content: “Being With” — How to Enhance Relationships with Your Circus StudentsCircus Bodies: Meaning Makers and Culture Creators, What you’re doing is impossible! How a Plus-Size Aerial Hoop Acrobat Smashed Stereotypes in Russia’s Circus Industry

Featured Image: Design by Emily Holt. Photo credits: Joel Deveraux, Marina Levitskaya, James Loudon, Gaby Merz, and Georges Ridel.
Madeline Hoak
Professor, Performer -United States
Madeline Hoak is an artist and academic who creates with, through, and about circus. She is a Writer for CircusTalk, Adjunct Professor of Aerial Arts and American Circus History at Pace University, Editor and Curatorial Director of TELEPHONE: an international arts game, and curator and director of Cirkus Moxie, a weekly contemporary circus show at Brooklyn Art Haus. Madeline has performed, coached, produced, and choreographed at elite regional and international venues. Her background in dance and physical theater is infiltrated into her coaching and creation style. She is passionate about providing her students holistic circus education that includes physical, historical, theoretical resources. Madeline initiated the Aerial Acrobatics program at her alma mater, Muhlenberg College, where she taught from 2012-2017. She is also a regular contributor to Cirkus Syd's Circus Thinkers international reading group. Her circus research has been supported by Pace, NYU, and Concordia University. Recent publications include "Teaching the Mind-Body: Integrating Knowledges through Circus Arts'' (with Alisan Funk, Dan Berkley), a chapter in Art as an Agent for Social Change, "expanding in(finite) between," a multimedia essay in Circus Thinks: Reflections, 2020, and "Digital Dance & TELEPHONE: A Unique Spectator Experience." Madeline has presented academic papers at numerous conferences including Circus and its Others (UC Davis), International Federation for Theatre Research (University of Reykjavík), the Popular Culture Association, Gallatin (NYU), and McGill University. Madeline earned an MA from Gallatin, New York University’s School of Independent Study, where she designed a Circus Studies curriculum with a focus on spectatorship.

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Madeline Hoak

Madeline Hoak is an artist and academic who creates with, through, and about circus. She is a Writer for CircusTalk, Adjunct Professor of Aerial Arts and American Circus History at Pace University, Editor and Curatorial Director of TELEPHONE: an international arts game, and curator and director of Cirkus Moxie, a weekly contemporary circus show at Brooklyn Art Haus. Madeline has performed, coached, produced, and choreographed at elite regional and international venues. Her background in dance and physical theater is infiltrated into her coaching and creation style. She is passionate about providing her students holistic circus education that includes physical, historical, theoretical resources. Madeline initiated the Aerial Acrobatics program at her alma mater, Muhlenberg College, where she taught from 2012-2017. She is also a regular contributor to Cirkus Syd's Circus Thinkers international reading group. Her circus research has been supported by Pace, NYU, and Concordia University. Recent publications include "Teaching the Mind-Body: Integrating Knowledges through Circus Arts'' (with Alisan Funk, Dan Berkley), a chapter in Art as an Agent for Social Change, "expanding in(finite) between," a multimedia essay in Circus Thinks: Reflections, 2020, and "Digital Dance & TELEPHONE: A Unique Spectator Experience." Madeline has presented academic papers at numerous conferences including Circus and its Others (UC Davis), International Federation for Theatre Research (University of Reykjavík), the Popular Culture Association, Gallatin (NYU), and McGill University. Madeline earned an MA from Gallatin, New York University’s School of Independent Study, where she designed a Circus Studies curriculum with a focus on spectatorship.