#413: The Firebird Suite, Part 2: City of Lights, Fields of Corn

December 17th, 2014

On Monday, we met trapeze artist Camille Swift. Once you read that illustrated tale, here’s part two of her story.

Don’t wrap your hands, the small woman said as we sipped coffee at a shop beneath the rumbling Blue Line.

The woman, Camille Swift, has only known two trapeze artists who wrap their hands — one had eczema, one was a Parisian flight attendant whose bosses wanted silky-smooth femininity whilst handing out drinks. That slight separation dulls your sense of touch and body awareness; even a fraction might be dangerous.

“Even if it involves a crazy amount of pain, you want your skin to be in contact with the apparatus because that way your body knows you’re in contact with the apparatus,” she said.

l’Oiseau de feu

She calls it “circus,” not “the circus.” She speaks of it in the non-American sense, where it’s an art form considered on the level of opera, theater or dance.

“Here in the United States it’s still kind of an underground art form that people look a little askance at at times because they don’t really know what it is, but in France they have big, state-funded circus schools,” she said.

After discovering the trapeze in Chicago, Swift moved back to Champaign, where she taught French at the University of Illinois. A cocktail party conversation at a faculty mixer netted her a semester assignment in Paris.

She showed up in February, too late for the circus semester, but she was able to take classes at Association Volaverunt.

Although she is also a visual artist, she decided to focus on the trapeze during her time in France. Training on the trapeze was cheaper than renting an art studio and purchasing supplies.


In 2012, back at U of I, the closest circus was at Illinois State University in Bloomington, 50 miles away. Swift looked into it just to be told it was for ISU faculty, staff and students only.

“I was like, ‘All right then. I guess I’m going to do my own thing.’ So I bought two trapezes, I had my trainer at the time start to train me to teach and I opened a little trapeze school in Champaign.”

It was $500 a trapeze, plus shipping, but the hard part was finding a place to hang them. To preserve both the aerialist and the drywall, static trapezes need to hang from open ceilings with exposed trusses.

Swift found a cheerleading and tumbling gym “in the middle of a cornfield.”

“It probably was more designed to store tractors in,” she said, laughing.

But those same architectural limitations help keep Top Star Trapeze (named after the gym it operates out of) the only aerial arts school in Champaign. When Swift made the move to Chicago, she turned leadership of the school over to one of her very first trapeze students.

The industrial lofts from Chicago’s now-dead manufacturing past make a better home.

Among reclaimed uses like bakeries, photography schools and design studios churning Chicago sports memorabilia, Swift performs and trains at the Aloft Loft with El Circo Cheapo, filling urban blight with silks and trapeze.

Camille Swift twists in the air and flies. She also breakdances dressed as a dinosaur and performs as the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix for Acrobatica Infiniti – The Nerd Circus, which a friend and colleague named Tank is forming (and you can bet your ass I’m going to be writing a story on that one once it gets going).

Spinning, flying with feminism and the trapeze, Camille Swift is the firebird, doing slow spirals in the air.

Video provided by Camille Swift.

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