Shelby's Case Study:

Aerial Dancers shared Athletic Identity
The first exposure I had to aerial dance was as a little sister sitting impatiently in the audience waiting to watch my star sister perform in another musical. This particular musical was Pippin, wherein circus arts incorporated by the director to add to the metaphor that life is a show. I remember watching my sister as she began climbing up two thick pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling and then she began dancing up in the air twisted up in the fabric and my jaw dropped in utter awe. Then came the day where I entered into the same high school and got the opportunity to try my hand at the amazing kind of dance my big sister had preformed oh so many years ago. I would discover that what she was doing is known as aerial fabric. It was one of the hardest physical challenges I have ever faced in my life. I had to utilize muscles I had never used before and work with a foreign apparatus in the air and then do all of that while still dancing through the fabric. After two years of working at it, I had been constantly conditioning my body, gaining strength and stamina like I had never had before. When I finally did my first big drop I felt so accomplished and strong, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, because of the hard work and effort I had put into it. As an aerial dancer I had to endure such a physical demand in order to accomplish the beauty of the dance and this is why I am an athlete, and as I hope to present, all dancers are athletes and should claim an athletic identity.

My case study explores aerial dancers and how their style of dance exemplifies the athleticism of dance on a whole and because of their shared athleticism with that of sports athletes on a physical and psychological level can claim an athletic identity just as any sports athlete. In this case study I will examine aerial dancers through a dance lens and through an athletic lens. Then I will utilize the psychological and physiological overlap between the two to demonstrate what an athletic identity is and that aerial dancers and any dancer can claim this identity because of how interrelated the embodied physical experience of dance and sport are. The main theories I will use to theorize that aerial dancers claim athletic identity is by looking at basic identity formation theories, such as those by Foucault and Lacan, and tie them into how physical and psychological elements of athleticism play into the athletic identity. I too will use multiple theories comparing both dance and sport on physical and psychological levels to demonstrate that if these two experiences are so similar and athletic identity is formed from a combination of specific psychological and physical patterns matching those of both dance and sport then it is fair to say that aerial dancers share in an athletic identity. To tie up these theories in practice I will use an interview with an Aerialist to exemplify the shared attributes and that he does claim himself to be an athlete. I will conclude my case study by addressing how aerial dancers create an identity based on beauty, art and athleticism and share their identity with that of an athlete.

To make my case it is first and foremost necessary to explain the question that raised my interest in this case study other then my personal experience in aerial dance. My sister is a high school dance and theatre teacher and at a recent school she was working at they refused to count her dance class for PE credit because they believed it did not meet the expectations of their bigger, faster, stronger motto. The bigger, faster, stronger PE structure revolves around the regiment established in both a documentary and as a high school weight training program that focus much of its website and products to anaerobic exercise or muscle building/strength training for athletes ( This whole program is already establishing the existing misconceptions surrounding athleticism, basing it around muscular growth (anaerobic exercise). I found this perspective upsetting one because as a dancer I knew how anaerobic dance and especially aerial dance is and two there is more to being an athlete then merely getting bigger, faster, stronger. This is not just my opinion but is clearly represented in the literature surrounding athleticism. Athleticism is often paired with sports activity, physical fitness and health but it is far more encompassing and complicated. By mere definition athleticism is defined by numerous dictionaries as follows “an active interest in sports; an obsessive participation in physical activity” (, “characteristic of an athlete; especially : vigorous, active” ( Also if athleticism os focused around physical activity another way to define athleticism is by looking at “physical fitness [which] may be defined as “the individuals’ ability to meet the demands of a specific physical task” (Koutedakis, Y., Jamurtas, A, 2004). These definitions are vague and general because athleticism is something bigger than mere action. As the first definition implies there is interest or obsession involved, in other words it is engaging ones psychological participation as well as a physical level of participation because one is engaging with their active embodied experience. Another aspect of one of the definitions provided is that athleticism is characteristic of an athlete. This is the most important aspect of athleticism as it applies to my case study and that is the athlete. The athlete is most commonly related to sports but what does it meant to be an athlete? To understand how aerial dancers can claim an athletic identity I will first explain what an athletic identity is.

To explain athletic identity it is important to understand the theories behind identity formation. Two of the most prominent identity formation theorists are Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault (Helstein, 2007). “Lacanian psychoanalysis is rather ruthless in its aggressive challenging that seeks to dismantle the imaginary sense of completeness (as in the Mirror phase) and to remove illusions of self-mastery through a mirror image. A strong ego is seen as defensive deceit and expressing it during analysis is seen as resistance to change. Fear of disintegration and lack drives the person to realize themselves in another imaginary individual” ( This view is applicable to the athlete in that this idea of identity formation is based upon how one shapes themselves according to a desired image or ego image which can never actually be obtained. If an individual does final away to possess an ideal identity then their ideal changes and they are constantly shaping themselves around another image. This is highly applicable to athletes because athleticism is inherently competitive whether it is within oneself or against another individual or team; it is all about making oneself better. Athletes not only compare themselves to other idolized images of athletes such as famous or professional athletes but they too create an idea expectation of themselves that they compete to meet (Helstein, 2007). So by participating in the physical aspects of sports one can psychologically be shaped by the structure of that sport. Another identity formation view that informs us about athletic identity is Michel Foucault’s discursive view which “reject(s) the view of a person having an inner and fixed 'essence' that is the person's identity. He identified the self as being defined by a continuing discourse in a shifting communication of oneself to others. He also rejected common notions of people having some form of implicit power, replacing this with the idea of power as a technique or action in which people engage. Power is thus exercised but not possessed (” So here two ones identity is shaped in relation to others through comparison but also is enacted through exercising power. Physical activity as previously described is about meeting physical demands and this is done through physical power and by using this power one shapes their identity. Foucault’s theory is highly applicable to the athlete because of this. The sports athlete can be characterized within this theory as being in a setting “in which people have experiences that inform their own sense of who they are and how they are connected to the rest of the world (Coakley, J. & Donnelly, P., 1999). Because an athlete embodies their identity formation according to these identity formation theories the structure of athletic participation is especially prone to promoting a strong identification with the activities of athleticism such as sport and, as I will demonstrate, dance too. By looking at aerial dance and how it compares with sport it becomes clear that aerial dancers share this same embodied connection with their identity.

Thus far I have looked at the theories and ideas surrounding the athlete so now I want to look at the case of the aerial dancer. First of all what is an aerial dancer? Most people think of aerial dance they often associate it to Cirque Du Sole. This association reflects some of the origin of aerial dance as branching out from the circus. Aerial dance emerged in the 1960’s alongside the emergence of modern dance and can be defined as taking place “when choreographers flirt with defying gravity” and in doing so they utilize combinations of gymnastics, dance, and circus art to create dance imagery and movement that coincides and lifts a dancer off a ground with an aerial apparatus for example (Bernasconi, J.& Smith, N.). Aerial Dance has become a far more reaching art form that incorporates fabric, rope, netting, rock climbing, bungee apparatuses, hoops etc. Today there is not only the ever growing entertainment experience of watch Cirque Du Sole performed internationally but locally, here in the US Boulder, CO is the hub of the Aerial Dance Festival which is hosted by such programs as Frequent Flyers is the National Aerial Dance Festival Every Summer which provides classes and performances expanding the accessibility of Aerial Dance ( One of the most basic explanations of what it Aerial Dance is the idea that “people are the engine” ( So what about aerial dance is athletic? Aerial dance is a good community to look at because much of the way people get involved with aerial dance is not through the dance community but through fitness. Frequent Flyers as previously mentioned is one of the pioneering studio’s teaching aerial dance and even on their website and class information on their website they advertise “aerial fitness” ( This quote from their site is very reflective of how aerial dance plays into athleticism as well as artistry; “Kids Who Fly builds healthy risk-taking behaviors, works constructively on self-esteem issues, and helps youth experience the unique joy of artistic expression through attending low-lying trapeze classes designed specifically for youth-at-risk” ( SO what is it about aerial dance and dance in general that inhibits the dancers themselves to identify with a shared athletic identity? Now that I have explained the views on athleticism in regards to sports and how athleticism plays into identity formation followed by an explanation of aerial dance I will now synthesize these concepts to compare sports athleticism and dance athleticism and analyze my findings.

“As Martha Graham put it, a dancer is an ‘athlete of God.’ There's no denying that dance is just as athletic as any sporting event (Theys, 2010).” Dance is often seen as low intensity high flexibility low strength. Looking into aerial dance challenges the idea that dance is not athletic enough because it is one of the more blatant examples of athleticism in dance and when looking at comparative research between the physical traits of dance/aerial dance and sports it becomes apparent that aerial dancers and dancers in general are shaped by their athleticism in the same ways sports athletes are shaped by their sport. “As in most sports, dance fitness depends on the individuals’ ability to work under aerobic[5,7] and anaerobic[1] conditions, and on their capacity to develop high levels of muscle tension, i.e. muscle strength.[8,9] Joint mobility/muscle flexibility[10] and body composition[11,12] are also important parts of dance fitness (Koutedakis, Y., Jamurtas, A, 2004).” For example “‘A parallel second-position plié is the same stance as a free throw in basketball,’ says Ailey dancer Guillermo Asea, ‘or a lineman's stance in football, or a batter's stance in baseball.’ (Theys, 2010).” This comparative example can be taken a step further when applied to aerial dance because in aerial dance modern dance which incorporates such technique and movement as a plie but it also utilizes the above description of sport athleticism physical attributes. From personal account I will describe some of the basic elements of the aerial dance I have had the pleasure of learning which is, as introduced in this paper, aerial fabric.

I am using my personal account of physicality because as an individual I can say what muscles I do and do not engage and what parts of my body are impacted by this form of dance which I find this personal firsthand account to be the best way for me to describe in detail the similarities of sport and aerial dance athleticism. The basic elements of aerial dance as I have been instructed by trained professionals are wrapping, climbing, tricks and dance quality. To learn how to wrap one must lift their leg to their side with their knee bent and rotate their hip joint while rotating their ankle with the fabric on the inside of the leg. The hip ankle rotation forces the fabric around the ankle so the heel is exposed. Then one must pull the fabric under the heel of the foot so the fabric is wrapped around the ankle and foot for a secure base to step into. While this is more easily demonstrated visually the important aspect of this is that in this quick motion one must engaging their abdominal muscles and leg muscles while maintaining balance and focusing on successfully wrapping the fabric. This is one of the most basic elements and already my description has it on the aspects of muscular engagement, flexibility and muscle tension. Aerial fabric is like two pieces of thick long stretchy fabric hanging down from a rig designed to support the weight and wear of aerial dance. The other base element is climbing wherein from personal experience I can say your heart rate goes from aerobic to anaerobic especially the longer you climb. When climbing your arms are holding the fabric above your head and must pull your body up to the point that your arms are flexed in front of your chest. Also the fabric is in between the bottom of one foot and top of the other because you are using one foot as a platform to stand on in between climbs. This too is engaging both triceps and biceps as well as forearm and finger strength, again the abdominal muscles must be engaged to keep the body near the fabric for a clean appearance and then ankle and calf muscles are engaged to push the body up the fabric and this is all while moving up into the air on an aerial fabric rig. Another example of aerial dances physical implications will be demonstrated in an interview with in aerialist below but I use these personal accounts as how athletic even the most basic elements of aerial dance can be.

Beyond my own experience it is also important to understand what about dance and sport activity impact ones identity. Athleticism is often seen as more competitive and dancing as more artistic “I think there’s artistry in athleticism. When I up the ante with my dancers technically, just trying to get the movement is hard. It takes an extreme emotional connection to the work (,” says Sonya Tayek a famous dance choreographer. Although this more psychological element is used to differentiate the two when looking at identity formation from Foucault’s point of view as previously described, there is an element of power in how one forms their identity and weather artistic or competitive in “nature” both dance and sports include this element of power to identify themselves with their athleticism and within this characteristic there is artistry and competition within identity creation for those experience of both sport and dance activity. Both are shaped through human action and therefore both are forms of expression and therefore self expression (Fraleigh, 1996). Because of how dancers and sports athletes experience their athleticism through similar physical use of their bodies it reflects how the experience of dance and sport impact individuals similarly which allows them to form similar identity relations.
“Although conventionally thought to reside within separate social realms, these two embodied cultural forms are revealed … to share a vital capacity to constitute and express identities through their practiced movements and scripted forms. Thus, the work of choreographers and coaches along with the performances of dancers and athletes offer not merely entertainment and aesthetic accomplishment but also powerful means for celebrating existing social arrangements and cultural ideals or, alternately, for imagining and advocating new ones (”
This quote sums up much of what I have touched on in looking at this case study. From my personal experience I know how athletic aerial dance and dance in general is and I know that because of the physicality and psychological implications of dance I can relate to an athlete because we share a similar experience. We both perform our similar physical embodied experiences based around our need to fulfill an idea self that is stronger, faster, more flexible, more artistic, more competitive etc. And because of how our identities have been shaped similarly through shared experience we can share an athletic identity. I am not the only one to come to this conclusion; in the following section I interviewed a member of the Frequent Flyer company and in my interview I asked him about aerial dance and how he experiences it on the level of dance and sport and how he identifies with both and he shared a similar view of what it meant to be an aerial dancer and possess an athletic identity as well.

After viewing this interview I find it evident that as a representative of the aerial dancer community Josh Rigo exemplifies how his art form is also an athletic form and that his experiences as a dancer both aerial and otherwise ahs allowed him to share in the same physicality that is a part of athleticism. Too conclude this case study with Josh Rigo’s interview is meant to stand as self evident in many respects of how an aerial dancer or any dancer can claim that shared athletic identity. Because of the nature of the embodiment of athleticism it is clear how it can be an integral part of identity. The way it is physically impacting on one’s body and fitness and the psychological drive inherent to athleticism can be easily revealed to exist in dancers because of their shared physiological and psychological patterns. We’ve seen how physical athleticism is characterized as being about strength and perseverance but so to is dance. The shared athleticism allows for a similar identity formation as seen in both Foucault and Lecan’s theories. By looking at the motion and intensity of aerial dance the similarities of exercise, strength, flexibility etc it cannot be denied that a shared experience of embodiment and therefore identity exist. But an athlete isn’t an athlete just because of what they do but why they do it or how they identify with what they do. Sports athleticism creates social and interpersonal relations as well as a creation of self. Through the competition and the need to meet a better more idea version of one’s self they continually work at their embodied activity and internalize the experience. The aerial dancer and all other dancers can identify with both the physical experience of sport, as well as the internalization of the experience that forms who they are as a dancer, and as demonstrated by both my personal experience and the experience of Josh Rigo, we share in the athletic identity because of this shared embodied experience.


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