Holding People Up: How An All-Female Acrobat Troupe Saved Me

My relationship was crumbling and I knew I wanted out. She always said things to purposefully hurt me, she was elated or sad by turns that I could never predict. My writing wasn’t really a thing that mattered, when I sat down to work on a piece I was doing nothing, according to her. My friends were busy people, and almost none of them were gay and none of them had dealt with a person like this before. I didn’t know where my community was, who I could process these feelings with.One of the only queer people I was friends with was… my girlfriend. The girlfriend I knew I would have to leave and who I was struggling to leave in better condition than when I got there. I was broke, supporting myself and paying my girlfriend’s student loans on not very much per hour. I would stress eat and I was getting soft and feeling bad in my body. My writing was suffering. I felt isolated. And I always felt so torn– I didn’t think she was doing it on purpose, but at the same time I could tell she was. So when I found out about Lava, my mother registered me and paid for the session. “Honey, it just seems like you need it right now,” she said as she patted me on the back while I cried over the chocolate chip cookies we were attempting to bake.

I am sad. I am stuck. If I leave, she’ll implode. She won’t get out of bed every morning. She’ll self-destruct. I’m afraid. It will be hard. I can’t afford to live on my own. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. I probably deserved that.

And a bit of background about Lava: Lava is an all-female performance troupe fusing theatre, dance and acrobatics. Perhaps because of this fusion and because Sarah East Johnson, the founder and artistic director, used to perform with Circus Amok (and will again this September), Lava is often thought of as circus. They’re listed on the Circus NYC directory. Maybe it’s also the trapeze that does it. For whatever reason, I am certainly not the only one that calls it circus. But they’re a special brand, something a little different. Maybe I should just call them Lava.

Class at Lava

A bit of background on me: I love theatre. I love dance. But when I took ballet classes way back in elementary school, I managed to knock over the entire class on open house night, the night where all the parents came to watch.  So ballet lasted only until Miss Mary Ann said that no matter what I did, my butt would always stick out because it was bigger than everyone else’s. In college, I studied to be an actor, but grew fed up when whatever skill I had didn’t seem to outweigh the body I had. I realized I was offered more and better roles when I dropped down to 130 pounds (I am five feet, ten inches) due to anorexia. It was after that I declared, “Fuck this, I’ll be a writer. Now give me that sandwich and yes, I’ll have dessert, I’m fucking hungry. I haven’t eaten in two years.” My senior year, I took a Creative Writing class and fell in love with fiction. I haven’t stepped foot on a stage since– my last production was the Vagina Monologues. (The one who only does sex work with women.) In short, I didn’t think I could really do anything related to dance or theatre ever again.

I am weak. I am so, so weak. I can spin a yarn, but I can’t spin in physical space without falling face first into the barre at a ballet studio. What I want to do doesn’t matter because I won’t be good at it.

For the first three months, my instructor, Molly, had to haul me up by my ankles to get me into a hand stand. I was terrible. I would get winded just by warming up. I was scared to do, oh, everything. But I loved it. I met friends that were queer (put an all-female group in Brooklyn and you attract queers like fruit flies to overripe bananas), friends that would cheer me on when I made the tiniest improvement, like going from someone putting me in a handstand to actually trying. Or the smallest reduction of noise while I was doing a forward roll, just a tiny bit less of a thwap. My entire body was sore every day of the week, the deep, good kind of sore that let’s you know you did work.  A few classes in, I left my girlfriend. I was crying in my car after some terrible things she’d said. And I looked through my windshield at the suburban hell around me, this run down apartment I was parked in front of, that I lived in with her and that never felt like home. And I basically did what I did when I gave up acting. “Fuck this. I deserve better. I’m leaving.” I called my father and he said to bring what I needed for a few days and pack up the cat, we’d go get the rest of my stuff soon. And I drove to South Jersey that night.

I am a failure. People will judge me. I live with my parents and I’m supposed to be a fucking adult. I chose wrong. I should have seen this coming. I should have gotten out sooner. I should never have gotten into this in the first place. I am stupid. People do not want to hear about my problems. Maybe I deserved her? Maybe I didn’t really have any problems? Should I go back to her? What about me makes me deserving of such hateful words? It must be me. It must be me. It must be me.

I still commuted to Brooklyn for class, from South Jersey. The first time I kicked my feet up high enough to get into a handstand without help, I ran around the studio flapping my arms like a bird. The first time I successfully dove through a hoop, I did a jig on the other side. I got hurt twice in quick succession- my dishwasher broke and cut my hand up pretty good, and I severely bruised my foot in class shortly after (I hit the brick wall with it.) But I couldn’t stop going. I began to gain particular satisfaction from being a base (the person holding other people up). And when I said I couldn’t do something, I was the worst in the class, I wasn’t good enough, my classmate Emily always replied back “You have to change your mantra.” And she’s right. And I say those things about myself to myself less and less each day. When I give my Lava schedule to my day job, I tell them “It’s either this or therapy and this is cheaper for me than therapy.” Basically, Lava gets me through my week. It’s usually my high point.

Lava performing!

There is no better feeling than knowing you can’t do something, just knowing it to the core, and then surprising yourself because you can. And yes, when I am soaring through a hoop and landing on my hands, doing a forward roll on the other side, feeling my spine curve into the mat, that is physical strength. I have physically become stronger due to Lava, a place that celebrates female strength and all the forms it comes in, all the different bodies it comes in. And that’s important. But changing your mantra, surprising yourself, doing things you never knew you could, having the strength to leave a very sour relationship– that’s a different kind of strength. It comes from this: if I knew I couldn’t do it and I did it anyway, what is impossible anymore?

I thought I knew why I liked being a base so much. I thought it was because I felt strong, solid, grounded when I had a person on my shoulders, feet, thighs, back. Those are all wonderful things to feel, after all. But I didn’t put my finger on it until Sarah sent a letter out to the whole Lava community. I don’t still have the letter, I’m sorry I lost it. But if I were to paraphrase, she mused about how people always commented on her strength. It looks like you could take someone, it looks like you could beat someone up. And she always wondered why people equated strength with violence. Hell, I had. My girlfriend’s temper was more violent than mine, so she was stronger. But at Lava, Sarah said, strength came from holding people up, from supporting others. And that’s when I knew. I liked holding people up that held me up when I needed it.

I am strong. I am important. I can complete hard tasks. I can practice. I can learn. I can learn to be graceful. It’s okay when things look hard as I try them. If I fall, no one will judge me. People trust me. People like me. I am worth being supported. I am able to support others. I am strong enough to hold people up.

If you’re within striking distance of Brooklyn, come join us this Fall. Come ride on the balls of my feet, feel weightless, feel supported. Especially if you think you couldn’t possibly do it. And who knows. Lava might save you too.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


Lava is focusing their energy this season on the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Professional Development Program in which they’re participating, which means they’ll debut a new piece at BAM’s new Fisher Theatre in June of 2013. To gear up, they’re having a benefit on October 22nd at Roulette in Brooklyn to cover the costs of the production and to pay the artists! Keep checking their website for forthcoming details.

Please join LAVA and some of Brooklyn’s finest musicians, including Mamie Minch, Chris Cochrane, and The Handsome Man Band, for a unique and very special event at Roulette on October 22nd.  Original movement pieces created for this rare event, accompanied by live music, will be performed by LAVA company members. Live music and dancing for all will continue after the performances, followed by a live auction hosted by the notorious comedian, Reno.  Auction items will include private lessons with LAVA company members, house stays in Sag Harbor and the Hudson Valley, and your own serenade by these musicians at a time and location of your choosing.  Food will be provided by renowned chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, and several of Brooklyn’s own artisanal food purveyors including Bite Size Kitchen and Kumquat Cupcakery.  This will be a one-time only event and is not to be missed.

Roulette is located at 509 Atlantic Avenue (between 3rd Avenue and Nevins Street), Brooklyn, NY 11217.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for this.. been dealing with major anxiety since I started graduate school.. I do belong to a gym but I may give this a try. I always wanted to do handstands.. even if I have no experience I can do this?

  2. “my butt would always stick out because it was bigger than everyone else’s”. THIS. My ballet teacher would always smack my butt, trying to make it go in, and I was all like BITCH IM BLACK DAT ASS AINT GOING NOWHERE.

    Also, tearing. So glad to hear you found something and multiple someones that will build you up instead of tearing you down. And your parents sound pretty awesome.

    • Aaah, that quote made me rage inside so hard. I’ve been doing dance and studying dance anatomy and stuff since I was 3, and I feel like it’s effing basis pedagogy that no dance teacher should ever get on a student for having a big, strong, beautiful ass (or a big anything else). (Big asses are usually stronger than itty bitty asses. It’s a muscle group! Muscles are good for dancers!) I am so sorry you had a ballet teacher who was taught incorrect things about the human body. It’s, like, the most frustrating thing that the concept that size alone has absolutely no effect on dancing ability (a fact, obviously a fact) is a controversial thing. It does not matter if you’re skinny and have tiny glutes; learning dance should always be about learning how all your beautiful body parts work together. How they interact with each other. How they interact with your brain. It should never be about having a part of your body labelled as wrong.

      Also! On a purely technical note, you don’t want the ass to go “in,” anyways. You want a pelvis with minimal tilt and minimal tuck, otherwise you’re susceptible to back and joint problems. Trying to make students hide their butts just teaches them to tuck, which in the long term, causes pain and inhibits technique, so not only was this particular teacher practicing body shame, they were also encouraging pelvic instability.

      I’d like to apologize for the long rant. I just get so ragey when I hear a story about a dance teacher who perpetuates myths about how small you have to be to dance and ends up shaming their students instead of paying attention to how bodies actually work and then using that knowledge to help their students understand themselves, physically. Arrggghhh grrr *madface* Anyways, you sound cool and I agree with your THISing, and Ali’s story is super inspiring and it made me tear up, too.

    • Yep. My ballet teacher’s constant refrain to me: ‘Tuck that bottom IN!’ Black butt, plus (as it later turned out) a profound lordosis meant it was physically impossible, though I tried very hard.

      • Argh, no! Tucking misaligns your pelvis and hurts your knees. What those teachers should be doing is looking closely at your body, helping you figure out where your neutral pelvis is and what it looks like (and this will look different for everyone, and you can work with lordosis, just not when you have a teacher who doesn’t understand how backs, hips, and butts work), and then helping you learn how to stabilize your shiny, beautiful, neutral (not tucked) pelvis while in dynamic motion. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough ballet teachers out there who know how to look at bodies that don’t happen to fit a very narrow, sexist, Ballanchine-esque greyhound aesthetic (looking at your guys’s experiences, it seems like it’s also a white-centric standard of beauty). I’m glad there are teachers and communities who don’t this, though. Circus seems like an awesome positive way to counteract the BS.

  3. This is exactly what rugby does for me. (Plus you get to hit people.) Bravo, Ali, for finding your strength!

    I once heard someone say that “You have to be strong to be gentle.” What do you think of that?

  4. “If I knew I couldn’t do it and I did it anyway, what is impossible anymore?”

    This is inspiring, Ali, thank you for sharing this.

    Also, your parents sound wonderful. ^_^

  5. This is beautiful. It was derby for me, and it has unequivocally saved me. When you have something like this where you can see your skills and strength and ability growing each week, it’s physical proof that things *do* change, that life *can* be different, that you *can* make things better — because look, guys, I can backward crossover, and I couldn’t before! That’s real. Something changed.

    I didn’t realise I had stopped believing all those things til derby forced me to believe in them again. It’s so important. I’m so glad you found yours.

  6. I love, love, love this.
    It perfectly puts into words how I feel about doing martial arts. Because it’s not about beating people up, it’s about being a better version of myself. And when I’m in the dojo I’m not a gendered being, or a frightened being, or a person with problems. I’m shoulders and sinew and tenacity, and the knowledge that I’ll survive.
    Thank you for your words :)

  7. I want to join roller derby for exactly this reason. So that I can prove to myself that I am strong, and that pain won’t kill me.

    This is a great essay, thanks.

  8. Hi! I work for a circus school! I love this article a lot (for more than just the circus parts, so much relevance to me. For me there is nothing like *proving* that you can do impossible things to repair a shattered self confidence. I’m a work in progress). I wish I could come hang out with you guys, want to line us some kind of cultural exchange program? ;)

  9. this made me tear up on the train home tonight.
    i know of lava because my exgirlfriend used to (maybe still does?) light design their shows. it seemed like a great community, though i always felt very much on the periphery when i was there, as the shy girlfriend of the crew person.

    i’m glad you found your thing.

  10. Hey, I don’t want to draw attention away from this beautiful piece, but if you happen to be in Auckland NZ and are interested in acrobatics there’s a group called Silver Circle Acro that operates in Ponsonby. It’s very informal and inclusive (although, unlike Lava it is co-ed). They also teach juggling and silks. I’ve been a few times and it is somewhat terrifying, but in a good way :)

    • YES! I’m in Auckland and would be so keen! How would I go about getting into this?!

      I read this article earlier today and it really hit home. I used to do quite a bit of Contact Improv and have done a bit of basic acrobatic stuff while doing physical theatre and loved it.

      I totally get the strength thing. And I think for me, particularly with contact improv, it’s the trust part… there’s no thinking time. If you wanna do this thing then you just have to believe that other person will catch you if you somehow end up with your head near the floor and your feet in the air!

      • Yay! So they operate out of the Auckland Girls Grammar gym, on Tuesday nights from about 6 to 9pm (the gyms is a bit hard to find, but if you park in the car park go left and its down some stairs). I can’t seem to find any info about them online but they do have videos up on Youtube. They do ask that you pay a small koha to help pay for the rental of the hall. I first heard about it through the Auckland Uni climbing club, and now a fairly big group of climbers go (they’re nice people).
        Basically they lead you through a warm-up and then through a series of poses (that may not be the right word?). You can either be a flyer or a base- the former are often smaller people (because they’re getting picked up and tossed around) and the latter tend to be stronger people. A lot of the poses rely heavily on good ol’ physics, so strength is helpful but not essential. I think your contact improv experience will help hugely, because there is a lot of trust and physical contact needed.
        Also (and this is off-topic), if anyone is looking to build upper body strength and get out of their comfort zone, please consider joining AURAC (Auckland uni climbing club). We climb a couple times per week and its a really friendly, inclusive group. Sadly I can currently count the number of queer members on one hand, which I find somewhat baffling :P

      • IMPORTANT: the Silver Circle Acro class will not be running on Tuesday 18, but should be the following week. Apparently the school will be using the hall for exams.

  11. This is where I started to cry:

    “I am strong. I am important. I can complete hard tasks. I can practice. I can learn. I can learn to be graceful. It’s okay when things look hard as I try them. If I fall, no one will judge me. People trust me. People like me. I am worth being supported. I am able to support others. I am strong enough to hold people up.”

    Thank you for your beautiful writing.

  12. Thank you for writing this, Ali. I’m so glad you found your strength and confidence.

    Plus, you’ve inspired me! There’s no Lava nearby (it looks like a lot of fun and I would def go along is there was one), but I’ll start doing Yoga again.

  13. This! This a million times over.

    Two years ago I moved to Chicago with my (now) ex. Almost, immediately we broke up and I found myself stranded in a new city entirely alone. I started going to circus classes, something I had dabbled in since college. Some days I couldn’t make it through class without crying, but as the weeks went by I started to get better at silks. For one hour a week I couldn’t think about anything other than making sure I didn’t fall 20 feet from the sky. I started to study other things other than silks, and suddenly I was training 5 days a week! Circus embraced me in a way that theatre never had. I had queer friends, I was getting physically stronger every day and I felt myself working through the most difficult time of my life.

    I’ve since injured myself and currently can’t train anymore but I just wanted to stop by and say thanks. This article captured my love for circus! We also had a similar background going into it. Hope to get back on the wheel (literally) soon.


  14. Such a great post. Finding your strength in the uniqueness of you. So incredible.
    I’m dying to find a place near me that’s like Lava!

  15. Oh my goodness. You did not tell me there were going to be babies in that video. I AM BALLING.

    I’ve been toying with joining the acrobatics/circus arts gym by my house and I am looking it up and they have a special offer right now and I’m gonna to do a two week trial once I get back from caaaaaaamp

  16. this story was wonderful to read. LAVA is an amazing place and I am continually glad that I discovered the world of circus and physical movement through its warm, feminist, and body-positive community.

  17. This well-written piece looks to me one of the most perfect collection of words any used person could set there eyes on. Internalizing this piece includes echoing it’s seriousness by actually listening to it, and also includes positivity because you encourage others to feel self worth. There are too many people who are hurt by others, but hey, change your mantra, change your life(: Bravo Ali

  18. I’m so happy I finally found an autostraddle article about circus training! I started aerial 2 years ago

  19. I’m so happy I finally found an autostraddle article about circus training! I started aerial 2 years ago, it changed my whole outlook on body image and the way I see myself. I love your quote about being strong and important. It sums up my experience so well. Your all female troup sounds amazing!

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