The Womyn’s Circus – by Jean Taylor

An extract from What Are Dykes Doing?: Collected Non-Fiction, by Jean Taylor (Dykebooks, Melbourne, 2019)

I’m standing on my head, fingers intertwined, forearms braced along the floor as I ease my feet away from the wall and balance there for a second or two. Feeling my body stretching upwards, feet pointed towards the ceiling, and aware that, like many of the activities I find myself doing at the Womyn’s Circus, I’ve never done this before. And I’m doing it now.

Me.

Balanced on my head like the circus veteran I’m rapidly becoming.

~

When I first joined the Womyn’s Circus on the 23rd April, 1991, I was a forty-seven year-old lesbian feminist whose motto was: ‘whenever I feel like exercise I lie down until the feeling passes’—(Robert M Hutchins). As a political activist the most exercise I got was walking on the IWD, ILD and Reclaim the Night marches, writing the minutes at the various collective meetings and doing a stint at the photocopier from time to time.

So, you can imagine my shock and horror when I went along to those first workshops where I was expected to do handstands, forward rolls, warm-up exercises, including one that was aptly named ‘sit-ups from hell’, cartwheels, shoulder stands, thigh balances and other contortions too complicated to describe. Then it was climbing ropes, walking along the tightrope, swinging on the trapeze, womyn standing on my shoulders and balancing on my up-stretched legs while I lay on the floor.

It used to take me several days of agony, with aching muscles I never knew I had, to recover from each workshop, in time for the whole process to start all over again. My body, which had never struck anything like it in its life, was stupefied. My mind wasn’t coping too well either. Whenever Sally, our trainer, told us what we were going to do next, and always something that I’d never contemplated doing for a minute in my wildest dreams, my head would be muttering, you’ve got to be joking! You want me to do what?

Mind you, we did do some gently co-ordinated poi work. I was also learning to juggle, and just occasionally we did an exercise that, much to my surprised delight, my body was quite capable of doing. And, of course, as the weeks went on, everything got that much easier to do, my body was invigorated rather than agonised and I was beginning to feel pleased with myself and the skills I was achieving. By the end of that first year I went into the performance rehearsals as one of the stilt walkers, albeit on the smallest ones, and more than capable of doing a few plate tricks, as well.

I’m not a little proud, I don’t mind admitting, that I was able to work through the fears I felt while I was learning to walk on those stilts. To the extent that, after my experiences during the three week season of the performance where we were walking on our stilts outside on the uneven group, nowadays I feel quite confident each time I strap the stilts to my legs, stand upright on my own and take a walk around the warehouse space. And have even progressed to slightly higher stilts already this year. Indeed, my first public appearance as a circus womyn was when I lead the Reclaim the Night march in Geelong in October last year and did the entire walk of several city blocks on stilts. As for the plates, I can toss, drop and catch them in a way that makes it look co-ordinated and magical in true circus fashion. I have to say, I can juggle, but it’s not what you’d call a fascinating sight as yet, but every now and then I pick up those balls and keep working on it.

~

I stand, legs apart and slightly bent, my arms extended to grasp the biceps of the womyn either side. And another womyn starts climbing, one foot on a thigh, the next on my shoulder to stand upright. The next womyn stands on my thigh on the other side and eventually is standing with one foot on my other shoulder. And so on. Till we three standing braced in a triangle as the base have three womyn standing balanced in a similar fashion on our shoulders and holding on to each other for support. And Sally is saying that the next step is to get a womyn standing on the shoulders of the three womyn on top of us.

My mind fairly boggles at the image this conjures up. I know that the strain on the face of the womyn next to me to maintain the balance we have just now achieved is reflected on my own. That the muscles in our legs and arms are straining to stay braced without collapsing, that our shoulders will be aching this week because the feet of these womyn have had to be rearranged to find the correct spot to stand on our shoulders without undue agony. To even contemplate a third tier under these circumstances is beyond our capabilities, let alone begin to imagine how she might possibly get up there in the first place.

And yet, after these many months of placing my body in positions I’d not thought possible, I have come to an appreciation of Sally’s indisputable skills as a circus trainer. If Sally says that a womyn will stand on the shoulders of the womyn on my shoulders then quite naturally, somewhere along the line, that will happen. I have learnt that if a womyn stands or sits on my body in a way that her foot fits against my neck by following the contours or her knees are placed on my bent back, just so, then I hardly feel the pressure of her full weight at all. I have learnt that being 48 and physically lethargic is no barrier to developing circus skills and becoming a whole lot fitter than I’ve been for many a long year. It’s also confirmed for me the value of womyn-only workshops, of taking responsibility for ourselves and our learning processes and beginning to trust in our own innate abilities as well as the dexterity of others.

~

I’m tying up the bootlaces of the pair of roller skates I’ve just put on my feet for the very first time in my entire life. I stand upright and step onto the concrete floor to try them out. It’s like slipping on glass and I clutch frantically at the rail to stop myself falling. I have no balance whatsoever. This is one of those moments when I say to myself, what the fuck am I doing with roller skates on my feet yet, I’m reminded that the first aim of the circus is to have fun. This is fun? Floundering around making a fool of myself? I think back to my very first time on stilts and how petrified and incompetent I’d felt wobbling around and learning to fall on my padded knees so I wouldn’t break my wrists. And how far I’d come to be able to call myself a stilt-walker, these days.

A couple of weeks later, I’m roller skating round the large warehouse space, very tentatively, very cautiously, still terrified of falling, but look at me, no hands. And all being well, I might very well, come performance time in October/November this year, be as capable of roller skating as I am now on stilts, miraculous as that may seem now from my very tenuous position, swaying around on these tricky little wheels tied to my uncoordinated and fearfully inexperienced feet.

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Jean Taylor is a radical lesbian feminist writer and activist based on Wurundjeri country in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. Jean’s books include Stroppy Dykes: Radical Lesbian Feminist Activism in Victoria During the 1980s (2012) and Lesbians Ignite set in Victoria during the 1990s. Her work can be found at http://www.dykebooks.com.