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Body Memory in Muscular Action on Trapeze

Peta Tait

Muscular Memory

Aerial acts contain sequences of movement called tricks developed by successive generations of performers. They are emblematic of a living history and demonstrate one way in which levels of physical attainment are bodily maintained and retained within culture. What might this physical performance contribute to a broader understanding of memory and of aerial work? Performances on trapeze are created by muscular bodies with a facility that has been termed “muscular memory” in the martial arts ( Anderson 1998). The phrase ‘muscular memory’ or “muscle memory” (Grayland 2004) is also widely used in conversation by young aerial performers in Australia to describe how the body acquires bodily skills and heightened physical action through practice and repetition. Therefore if a muscular body can be trained to develop a memory for action on its own accord, what does the performer think about or remember — what goes through the mind — during performance? This article addresses these ideas using interviews, including those conducted by the author with 17 leading Australian aerialists in 2000 and 2004, secondary sources and speculative theory.

Historian Raphael Samuel writes:

Memory, according to the ancient Greeks, was the precondition of human thought […] The art of memory as it was practised in the ancient world, was a pictorial art, focusing not on words but on images. It treated sight as primary. Outward signs were needed if memories were to be retained and retrieved … (1994: vii—viii).

The importance accorded sight, therefore, presupposes the physical body accompanying memory as a precondition of thought. I want to add the seeing or sighting of action to Raphael’s useful definition and his proposition of spatial “mental mapping” and images in memory (1994: viii), and suggest that the sighting of physical action contributes to muscular as well as recalled memory. This proposition of memory as multifaceted reflects neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s delineation and framing of “conventional” or recalled memory, from “working” memory and other memory conditions, and “working” could correspond to muscular memory (1999: 16).

In summary, participants in the author’s research into this female-dominated performance form reveal that the initial attraction to professional work came from exposure to another aerialist. It would seem that a body’s capacity to remember heightened action through muscular repetition also involves first seeing that action done by another body. Further, this research finds that in performance, aerialists will think through each move during the execution of the act in its early stages, and subsequently think about other aspects of the performance as it happens. A performer’s muscular memory involves seeing external action that is recalled as the viewing of an event — and this might potentially also be remembered bodily. The aerialist creates an act in the first place by thinking about muscular movement.

Aaron Anderson starts his article on muscular memory and kinaesthesia in martial arts films by recounting how one trainer shows kung fu movies to candidates the night before they are to undergo martial arts skills testing. One candidate recalls:

Our mental association with the invincible character we saw on the screen expressed itself through our physical actions as we consciously attempted to recreate elements of [Bruce] Lee’s movement within our own bodies. This physical recreation of movement, in turn, constituted a type of muscular memory. (1998: 1)

Anderson is investigating the capacity of muscular memory to communicate and generate kinaesthetic and “muscular sympathy” (ibid.: 6). He identifies how the specialist martial arts practitioner as viewer of film action is responding with an “ ‘insider’ muscular sympathy” because spectators who have experienced similar action will have more specific responses arising from prior muscular memory (ibid.: 10).

A discussion of bodies in performance and cinema should acknowledge the two contrasting perspectives of a performer and of a spectator. A general spectator who views an athletic performance, but does not do the specialised action, might be speculatively considered to develop an image of a performer in movement in conjunction with what Joseph Roach and others including dance theorists call the “kinesthetic imagination” (Roach 1996: 26). I would add that aerial performance evokes a bodily experience since spectators describe visceral responses like holding the breath or stomach churning (Tait 2005: 141—152). In the reception of aerial performance, spectators observe within the sweep of their visual field and images develop accordingly from bodies doing fluid continuous movement. Memories of aerial acts also become memories of bodies in action. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1995) argues that the world is fleshed by the observing body, and so it might be argued that a spectator fleshes aerial performance, and the crossing between things in the world is reversible and unfolding (Tait 2005: 149). For a spectator, the body phenomenology of viewing aerial performance (and martial arts) unfolds through a “mental mapping” arising from sensory and visceral responses rather than muscular ones. But after the event does its recall also become remembering visceral responses for spectators? Furthermore, when a spectator is also an aerialist (or martial artist), the body phenomenology of viewing might also stir the muscular memory as well as the kinaesthetic imagination.

Aerial performance ranges from slow movement on static apparatus to very rapid action on moving apparatus, and can be a solo act or executed in a duo or with a group. The most extreme aerial action is found in flying trapeze acts. A trapeze flyer releases his or her hand-hold of the trapeze fly bar and does one, two, three or four somersaults before being caught by a catcher swinging on a second trapeze. The invention and repeated reproduction of difficult flying actions—somersaults among them—requires relentless practice and the benefit of longstanding partnerships and skilled catchers. Repetitious training helps prevent injury and the risk of injury is as constant as it is in extreme sports. The flyer in a triple or quadruple somersault can travel at speeds up to 100 kilometres an hour depending on his or her body weight and the height of the apparatus. Somersaults and other complicated flying tricks require a partner who hangs upside down, braced, knees over the bar (in hocks), ready to grab the flyer’s body on contact. A catcher swings up a second after the flyer is at the far point of his or her swing outwards. Clearly some aerial performance is a double act in muscular memory.

There is a repeated claim in circus annals that the mind goes blank when the body is moving at speed in extreme aerial actions such as triple somersaults in flying trapeze acts. This claim would appear to originate with Alfredo Codona, considered the greatest flyer of the first half of the twentieth century for his consistent execution of the triple. He is reported saying that the mind blanks out in what is widely termed ‘the little death’ or ‘the little dream’ (see Codona 1930: 79; Culhane 1990: 309). His vision and memory become distorted and he loses mental control with the increasing speed of the second somersault. The muscular flyer’s body is on a trajectory of movement but somehow it can lock wrists with the catcher. Presumably the memory of the muscular body functions independently of the performer’s mindful management or its processes of recall. A muscular body’s memory, and therefore its acquired physical knowledge, unfolds through enacting action. Codona’s claim, however, has been challenged as exaggerated by other performers (Ballantine 1952). Nonetheless this suggests a muscular body’s capacity to continue practiced action regardless of the degree of conscious (thought) control.

Aerial performance requires a combination of mental alertness or focus, and physical practice to master the technique of a trick executed mid-air. An aerialist must further practice to artistically enhance the work to look smooth and light, and easy to do. Aerialists report that they must think through each physical move until the act is established, and subsequently they remain mentally alert, observing the equipment and the space as well as giving more time to thinking about how they are performing to an audience.

One of the unexpected and most interesting findings of this aerial research are the claims to bodily feel the action and timing. Anderson proposes that “movement aesthetics themselves are ‘felt’ as well as ‘thought’” (1998: 11). An aerial performer’s recall faculty may or may not become blank during extreme speed, but in aerial performance muscular memory flows back through bodily feeling. The muscular memory of the aerial performer seems to be felt as it would be kinaesthetically imagined, perhaps arising as a variant of what Damasio’s terms the “somatosensory” connected to a “body-map” (2003: 106—117).

Seeing Aerialists to Thinking in Performing

While traditional aerial work is abstract without the character identity or narrative context used in conventional theatre, comic routines and most acts for recent new circuses like Circus Oz integrate character body-types in to the performance through costuming and interactions. Performers develop visual concepts for the staging of their acts to enhance the spectators’ engagement. In a less conventional new circus example, Simon Mitchell (2004) describes starting his web act with his assistant (spinner) under a coat and descending as if Simon is in labour and giving birth. At the same time female aerialists working in traditional circus acknowledge that, as females and as entertainers, they must look “good” in their costumes. Their movement which conforms to balletic positioning mid-air also meets social expectations of alluring sexual figures. The discussion in this article, however, is not concerned with the image projected during a performance but instead with a performer’s acknowledgement of what he or she is thinking and/or remembering during the execution of the generic abstract movement, while pointing out that aerial solos and group work vary considerably in pace and speed depending on the act and apparatus.

The reasons given by aerialists for their entry into the profession divide in two. One group reports seeing an aerial performance and becoming inspired to try it. Members of the other group usually discover that they have an aptitude for aerial performance because they are raised in circus families and/or because they come into contact with training opportunities. Once working professionally, performers report emulating a sequence of action that they have seen another aerialist perform either live or on film. Clearly, a performer’s stimulus for aerial action develops from seeing external action.

In the example of the legendary flyer Tito Gaona, both seeing a performance and access to training in circus are evident. At six years of age, Gaona and his siblings were taken by his father, a circus clown, to see the film Trapeze (1956), after one of their nightly circus performances in New York. The flying tricks were done by Fay Alexander, who the Gaona children idolised. Gaona recalls:

I twisted and turned and jumped up and down in my seat as I watcher flier Tino Orsini (played by [Tony] Curtis) battle heavy odds in his quest for the triple […] ‘I can do the three!’ I told Mando and Chela. ‘I know I can.’ (1984: 17—8, italics in original)

He achieved the triple in Sweden in 1965, and repeated it subsequently over years, and he also mastered it wearing a blindfold.

In responses to a question about what they think about during performance, aerialists say that they think through each move as it happens when the act is new, but explain that with time the physical action becomes fairly automatic. They do not have to think about what to do next unless the routine is varied or there is a perceived difficulty. While a very experienced performer like Lorraine Ashton (2000) explains that performing becomes like “breathing”, a very experienced flyer, Nikki Ashton (2000), explains that thoughts remain focused because there is so much that has to be watched for during the act and the apparatus must be constantly checked. Aerialists must observe the operation of the apparatus in the space and watch for cues from other performers if they are in group acts. They are constantly checking on the body and muscular memory in action. Sue Perry Harrison (2000) is clear that she concentrated on her action throughout and her thoughts rarely wandered from the physical tasks. A performer might be focused on executing the familiar physical actions but this is not remembering his or her circumstances according to what is recognised as “conventional memory, working memory, reasoning or language” (Damasio 1999: 16). Sue Broadway (2000) explains that as well as checking the details of the work, performing can be like yoga in that there are few extraneous thoughts. She explains: “your mind is just completely in the moment of the performance, and that’s all its got space for. That’s what is so addictive about it; it’s completely transcendental.”

Mary Gill (2000) of the Flying Waynes, starring at the world’s largest circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey The Greatest Show on Earth, in the USA during the 1960s, remembers always trying to judge if the trick was a good or bad one. Similarly Bekki Ashton, with the Joseph Ashton’s Circus, explains that the performers in her flying group comment, to each other about whether it was good as they do the action. Only soloist Olga Varona (2000) specified that she used to follow the music in her web act (vertical hanging rope with a foot or wrist loop) in post-World War II British theatres, and she used popular music in the act.

As Pixie Robinson (2000) explains, aerialists do think about being safe, especially in the early performances of a new act or routine, and once it is established they will interact more with an audience. Most aerialists acknowledge observing the audience. One soloist explains that if she was aware of herself thinking at all, it was self-conscious thoughts like “I feel like a monkey up here hanging by my toes and heels” (St Leon 2000). An experienced aerialist performing a range of acts daily in a family circus does nonetheless acknowledge fleeting preoccupations with forthcoming meals and everyday household matters like shopping and cleaning that correspond with what might be predicted for the everyday thoughts of non-performers. The variable pace of the aerial action during the act probably dictates the degree of mental focus required at any moment, and there are lulls in the action in all aerial acts.

Aerialists train for physical strength and for timing (e.g. St Leon 2000). An aerial body’s muscular memory is also about its memory for timing and this develops from the physical repetition and alertness about the body’s momentum. For example, the flyer in multiple somersaults must make the body compact and move with precision timing to within fractions of seconds. Flying requires “being on time” to find the peak of a swing and start the trick at that instant for it to be executed effectively (Hofsess 1987-88: 45). This peak varies according to height of the apparatus. A moment too late or too early and the trick can go wrong and a flyer’s catch is missed and he or she drops, risking injury even with the net. The bodily feeling for timing arises out of muscular repetition.

Lisa Hofsess is an ex-professional aerialist who conducted psychological research into aerialists and risk-taking. She finds that aerialists are engaged in a:

calculated search for mastery. The thrill comes not from narrowly escaping death, but from maintaining control within an apparently dangerous situation. (1986: 16)

On performing, Hofsess explains that:

The calculation is made mentally before the tricks began. The compensation is made somatically within milliseconds during the tricks. (1987-88: 45)

Once working in the act, the performing body reacts physically to correct the action.

One notable aspect of awareness evident from interviews conducted by and for the author is the report of enjoying performing once the routine and performance situation become familiar. There are also comments about the need to display enthusiasm (Robinson 2000; Lorraine Ashton 2000; Lotar 2000). In a similar expression of this bodily feeling, Irving Pond writes of joyful feelings when accomplishing “a rhythm in the three dimensions of space” (1937: 135). Most aerialists acknowledge their enjoyment of the work and this suggests that it is connected to a capacity to communicate enthusiasm.

In 1935 Raymond Toole Stott (1935) asked the world’s leading woman flyer of the mid-twentieth century, Antoinette Concello, who mastered the triple in 1937, if she was afraid of falling. She replies:

“I never think of it. Flying demands such sheer concentration that if you ever allowed even the minutest thing to take your mind off your work, you'd miss. […] Keep your head up … half turn … now GRAB … It helps you to concentrate,” she said.

When questioned if she thinks about the risks:

“I guess if I did, I wouldn't go up. People who've got nerves should leave trapeze work severely alone. But I guess every artiste gets a ‘kick’ out of the danger, it gives him a feeling of accomplishment. I love my work, and nothing would induce me to give it up” (Toole Stott 1935: 10)

Concello was still advising aerialists at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the early 1980s.

Several aerialists in the author’s research, however, acknowledge that they are aware of soreness and pain during the act, and this is often the result of longstanding injuries. Like other physical occupations, the management of pain in aerial performance contributes to a “‘chronic pain subculture’” (Williams and Bendelow 1998:166). The aerial body hides pain behind a smiling exterior and by performing enthusiasm. The Greek word for physical pain has the same origins as the absence of love, and this points to a longstanding framework in which emotional responses coexist with physiological sensations in complex ways (Williams and Bendelow 1998:155). In contradiction of this notion, while aerialists might experience physical pain, they also acknowledge a love of aerial work.

Describing Bodily Feeling

A further question arises from responses in this research as to whether, and if so how, bodily feeling and thinking might coincide? Damasio recounts five steps in the transition from emotion to “feeling of feeling”, which is separate to “‘knowing a feeling’” but experienced through the brain and body’s interconnected physiology (1999:283—4). Steps, however, imply a more orderly process than the acknowledgement of bodily feeling in this research. Assuming that aerialists experience a range of emotions encompassing nervousness and enjoyment of flying and performing, their descriptions of feelings also include heightened sensory conditions to do with weightlessness and moving through the air. These seem to correspond with what Damasio terms “high-level nonconscious processing”, where decisions for action are made directly from bodily responses and prior to any active thoughts (1999:301—2). (While scientific research is beyond the scope of this performance analysis and philosophical framing, it is worth noting that brain imaging experiments in the work of Richard Passingham and others (Passingham, 1993) show that fast automatic movement by sports people activates the cerebellum associated with motor skills rather than the prefrontal cortex activated by thinking).

One further aspect coming out of the author’s research, which is tentatively outlined here, is the way in which bodily feelings can become associated with descriptions of sensory engagements and even actual images. In describing their acts, several aerialists also describe a pictorial impression arising from, or associated with, what their bodies do or they want them to do. These can be visually abstract or image-based but they seem to be an account of what is felt (imagined) kinaesthetically. Scott Grayland (2004) describes keeping the tension in his body while positioning it vertically along the cloud swing from “an image of being floating in a straight position”(cloud swing is a rope attached at both ends). He also describes upright positions with his feet on the rope that brought to mind Egyptian hieroglyphics, since these seem two dimensional and angular in shape. Andrew Bright (2004) describes shaping a solo act on trapeze to be like a “crescendo” of an “opera”. Nonetheless, he perceives that nine tenths of his effort in performance comes from mental effort or intention. A tendency to visualization may suggest where and how thinking and feeling coalesce in aerial performance.

In describing their performances in action, aerialists sometimes use pictorial language for what might be a response to the kinaesthetic feeling of action linked to an impression of how it might appear to an external observer. Moses (2004) describes how he “dropped like a propeller” rolling down an unfurling rope in his corde lisse act, which uses a single vertically hanging rope. Lee Wilson (2004) describes that he looks “like a piece of meat on a hook” when he is hanging upside down from his hips. This imagery may or may not be communicated to spectators and probably will not be apparent unless it is integral to the visual design of the act and/or overall show. While the performer’s performance of the action is informed by such an image, this image would not necessarily communicate to spectators, and nor is it necessary for an appreciation of the action.

Well-recognised body positions in aerial work are mostly known by abstract terms but a few are named with a metaphoric image. For example, ‘a bird’s nest’ which is a back arch under the trapeze with feet flexed on top of the hands and chest forward, and ‘skin the cat’ which is hanging with the arms backwards from the trapeze bar.

Importantly, Gaona reports that he visualises his body in action beforehand, suggesting how a process of “mental mapping” in and for muscular memory involves kinaesthetically imaging and imagining prior to the physical action:

As he spoke, he looked up at the pipes and swings in the arena ceiling. A mechanic was working on the rigging, but Tito spoke thoughtfully, for he seemed to be seeing something else. ‘Sometimes I see movies of myself in the air and I say, ‘Jesus, how can I do that?’ […] ‘I have sometimes dreamed my tricks at night, you know, and then tried to master them from the dream.’ (Johnson 1974: 103—4)

This process of visualising his action beforehand in this way, however, could also be to do with the creative invention of action, since Gaona is considered one of the greatest flyers of the twentieth century in part for his invention of over 15 tricks.

Interestingly, several aerialists report heightened sensory responses to the sensation of suspension and moving mid-air. Grayland (2004) gives a clear description that parallels the concept of “somatsosensory” experience in body mapping. He explains that aerialists have an “affinity with three-dimensional space” because they can sense height, breadth and length. He recounts how one of his teachers, Pixie Robinson, recognised that he was someone with the capacity to know where he is in the air.

Hofsess writes of her own work:

I am as comfortable in the air as experienced swimmers are in the water. Flying (and most of the time even falling into the net) is like swimming. There is the same sense of weightless buoyancy. I feel the density of the air on my skin—just like water, only more subtly. (1987—88: 44—45)

In her account of her flying action, it is clear that the aerial body moves according to the laws of applied physics in a pendulum swing. Hofsess explains:

There is an instant of perfect stillness. It is at these still points that most trapeze tricks occur—at the instants of zero acceleration. This is called the peak of the swing. At the peak there is a sensation of weightlessness. […] Kinesthetic perception of this critical moment seems to be acquired. […] (Ibid.: 45)

These comments suggest that the aerialist has bodily awareness or feeling for his or her positioning in space in addition to actively thinking about this, if not also visualising the process of kinaesthetic action.

Visualisation techniques have been widely used in twentieth-century actor training since Constantin Stanislavski codified his approaches into a ‘system’. One aerialist (Wilson 2004) does imply, however, that techniques which supply external images for characterisation and spatiality, like those used in some conventional acting workshops, do not noticeably assist aerial performance. The problem of transferring commonly used actor training techniques might lie in a widespread assumption that visualisation allows mental faculties to control the body and its physical action in a hierarchical binary. The aerialist is probably experiencing not so much the converse in which the muscular body takes over but an oscillating circularity of physicality, imagined kinaesthetic activity, rapid somatic reactions, and thought.

In theorising about the actor’s experience in performance, Phillip Zarrilli draws on theories of phenomenological embodiment to explore how the body seems like it is absent from subjective awareness in that the “inner bodymind” is “dormant” (2004: 661). But a performer’s attentiveness to this “bodymind” happens most directly through awareness of the breath. This seems an apt analogy for the highly athletic activity of aerial performance. But in actor training, bodily feeling the breath and visualising it throughout the body is a different process from increased breathing due to extreme exertion. Yet both forms of breath awareness are connected to activating and engaging processes of muscular memory through activity.

Because aerialists repeat the physical techniques of earlier generations, aerial performance becomes, for performers, a form of “re-membering” the past through bodily feeling. For spectators, it becomes seeing and imaging the past embodied. But since aerial performance is heightened physical action, it should be assumed to produce different effects in a performer’s feeling body and in its impression on spectators’ sensory feelings. Yet for performers and spectators aerial action intervenes in socially specific “technical ” , “traditional ” and “efficient ” “education of movements ” , that is, in the “habitus” of body and movement norms in society (Williams and Bendelow 1998: 50) [italics in original]. Perhaps it also disrupts what Bourdieu terms “bodily hexis”, which is embodied behaviour and thought beyond constant conscious recall (Williams and Bendelow 1998, 50).

Muscular memory is crucial to the execution of the performance and to a performer’s perception. An aerialist is reproducing memory physically in ways akin to Pierre Nora’s idea of “true memory” (Roach 1996: 26, cited), wherein bodily knowledges are most apparent in the gestures and habits of daily life, but with aerial performance this additionally includes heightened physical action. This suggests a body’s capacity for muscular memory outside the specialised aerial activity and that this is related to bodily feeling as much as thinking through movement. Aerial performance suggests that visualising kinaesthetically is a somatic capacity arising with action.

To conclude, a well-developed muscular memory allows the performing body to remain mentally focused and repeatedly check on the accuracy of the performance, while not having to think through each move. A bodily capacity to feel the timing, space and height, and react rapidly, accompanies the muscular memory of aerial performers, as do bodily feelings of enjoyment. As well as recalling how they sense their body in space, several aerialists recount visualisations arising from feeling bodily action. Accordingly, muscular memory in aerial work supports the proposition of multiple dimensions to memory, and might have wider application in understanding embodied social behaviour.


The author’s interviews are part of an Australian Research Council-funded Aerial Archive that documents the performances of leading Australian aerialists working in traditional and new circuses across a range of acts.

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