Suspending Conventions: How ‘disabled aerialists’ are challenging aesthetic and methodological practices in 21st Century aerial(ism)

Katrina Carter

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Aerial(ism) is the art of suspended movement, generated by aerialists working with equipment such as trapezes, ropes and harnesses. It is frequently but not exclusively associated with the circus and throughout its history has been dominated by non-disabled performers. Increasing numbers of disabled artists are however, now engaging with aerial. This thesis therefore examines how ‘disabled aerialists’ are challenging aesthetic and methodological aerial practices in the twenty-first century.

As a professional aerialist working extensively with disabled performers, the research draws on my practice and direct correspondence with other disabled and non-disabled practitioners. It features two case studies in which I was aerial choreographer and trainer: Hang-ups!, a short film featuring Sophie Partridge who performs in a fabric cocoon and the Paralympic Opening Ceremony of London 2012 which included more than twenty ‘disabled aerialists’ using diverse aerial equipment. Historical and cultural perspectives of aerial are drawn from the few academic experts in the field, notably Paul Bouissac, Steve Gossard and Peta Tait; disability perspectives are guided by a wealth of theorists including Erving Goffman, P. David Howe, Tom Shakespeare and Rosemarie Garland Thomson.

The research shows how aerial has been connected to disability and/or impairment throughout its history. It provides evidence that ‘disabled aerialists’ existed in the past but have been forgotten, despite at least one unipedal aerialist contributing significantly to what Tait calls the ‘living history’ of the form. It demonstrates how twenty-first century ‘disabled aerialists’ offer significant opportunities to alter the form’s increasing aesthetic of conformity, but that challenges continue to exist in both how this can be done, and how the work might be understood.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Worth, Libby, Supervisor
  • Bratton, Jacky, Advisor
  • Conroy, Colette, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Mar 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • Disabled Aerialist
  • Disability
  • Circus
  • Trapeze
  • Aerial
  • Aerialdance
  • Paralympic
  • London 2012
  • Hang-ups
  • Disabled Performance
  • Airhedz
  • Tina Carter
  • Aerial Training
  • Adaptive Circus
  • Adaptive Aerial
  • Inclusive Circus
  • Accessible Aerial
  • Circus Skills Training
  • Aerial Research

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