#412: The Firebird Suite, Part 1: Feminism and the Trapeze

December 15th, 2014

She’s small. That’s what you notice when she sidles into the coffeehouse where you said you would meet.

You expected the cockatiel shock of henna-red hair shunted dramatically to the side. You expected the arched eyebrows and even the tinkling, slightly sarcastic-sounding voice to an extent.

But you didn’t expect someone who could flip and twist and lock her feet and dangle, kink her back and swirl through the air, raising herself slowly toward the sky by the tension of her wrists — you didn’t expect her to be so small.

Aerialist Camille Swift of Old Irving Park is five feet, five inches of the most powerful physical presence you’ve come across.

She’s the firebird.

Camille Swift by Emily Torem

The First Turn

The firebird spun in her room before she ever learned slow vertical flips around the static trapeze. She spun in her room for hours to her parents LPs until the day her mother was trying to put away laundry.

“Mom! I want to take dance classes!” she recalls herself yelling.

So she did, starting with jazz dance and moving to ballet at the age of 12, a late entry in that Black Swan field. She did it for eight years.

She painted, drew, wrote and, at 15, she saved up to purchase a bow to start archery. She started breakdancing in college and began training in Japanese swordsmanship while living in Chicago after college.

“I just didn’t like the idea of being a damsel in waiting,” she said, smiling over her cup of hot chocolate.

Body Awareness

Archery-honed deltoids would cause her ballet instructors to yell that she was holding her shoulders too high in fifth position.

She wasn’t. She just had more muscle mass and definition than the other ballerinas.

It was a familiar battle with the expectations placed on a woman’s body, and not just in ballet.

“You need to be curvy or you need to be thin and willowy. Pick one. You can’t be muscular,” she said.

She found trapeze through her Japanese swordsmanship sensei, who attended an El Circo Cheapo performance he wouldn’t stop raving about.

Swift got on the Aloft Loft mailing list and, eventually, signed up for a four-week silks class. That’s aerial acrobatics hanging from long, colorful trails of fabric. With archer upper-body strength and dancer body awareness, she took to silks and, later, trapeze.

Tricks of Strength

Unlike the flying trapeze of daring young men and sidekick origin stories, the static trapeze Swift specializes in exhibits “tricks of strength and contortion around the bar.”

“It’s the ballet of the aerial world. It’s kind of the foundation. You’re encouraged to start the static trapeze before you try any other aerial discipline,” she said.

It fit her aerial muse, but it also was a match for the body trained by bows and swords and disciplined by ballet.

“It was very refreshing to find an art world in which women, by default, have very, very strong upper bodies and are encouraged,” she said of trapeze. “I mean, you have to. So a woman who has a six-pack or gigantic lats, that’s fantastic. It’s something that you want and it’s something that you prefer. It’s utilitarian. That’s what happens when you hang from your arms and do crazy things.”

The firebird’s story will conclude on Wednesday, with callouses, Paris, a cosplay circus and setting up trapezes in a warehouse in Champaign.

Read more stories about circus arts in Chicago:

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You are currently reading #412: The Firebird Suite, Part 1: Feminism and the Trapeze by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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