1st Edition

Female Aerialists in the 1920s and Early 1930s Femininity, Celebrity, and Glamour

By Kate Holmes Copyright 2022
    196 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    196 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Female solo aerialists of the 1920s and early 1930s were internationally popular performers in the largest live performance mass entertainment of the period in the UK and USA. Yet these aerialists and this period in circus history have been largely forgotten despite the iconic image of ‘the’ female aerialist still flaring in the popular imagination.

    Kate Holmes uses insights gained as a practitioner to reconstruct in detail the British and American performances and public personae of key stars such as Lillian Leitzel, Luisita Leers, and the Flying Codonas, revealing what is performed and implicit in today’s practice. Using a wealth of original sources, this book considers the forgotten stars whose legacy of the cultural image of the female aerialist echoes. Locating performers within wider cultural histories of sport, glamour, and gender, this book asks important questions about their stardom, including: Why were female aerialists so alluring when their muscularity challenged conservative ideals of femininity and how did they participate in change? What was it about their movements and the spaces they performed in that activated such strong audience responses?

    This book is vital reading for students and practitioners of aerial performance, circus, gender, popular performance, and performance studies.

    Introduction: Producing allure and popularity  1. Democratising experience: Diverse transformative performance spaces  2. To glamour: A kinaesthetic fantasy of weightlessness  3. Skilful vulnerability: Showmanship and the performance of skill and risk  4. Performing and negotiating muscular femininity: Aerial celebrity and the modern girl  5. Absorbing activity into femininity: Moving bodies, citizenship, and beauty  Conclusion: Updating aerial celebrity and re-evaluating practice


    Kate Holmes is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter. Her aerial research explores contemporary and historical audience experience from a practitioner-perspective, using approaches that include examining space, gender, and exercise history. Her research has appeared in journals, including New Theatre Quarterly and Early Popular Visual Culture, and in edited collections.

    ''Kate Holmes’ meticulously researched study of the ‘20s and ‘30s female aerialists’ world is awesome in its reach and detail and in the sheer grace of her writing. She brings to life the 'forgotten' aerial queens of the era, recreating in close-up the intense physicality of the performers’ acts, their arduous training, and the apparatus essential to support them. And, reaching beyond the artists’ performances, personalities and lives, Dr. Holmes explores ideas of celebrity and concepts of beauty and danger in chapters which travel deeply into American and British cultural history and the meanings and nuances of circus and showbusiness in the interwar years.'' 

    David Mayer, Emeritus Professor of Drama & Research Professor, University of Manchester

    '' This book offers a wonderfully engaging yet scholarly exploration of celebrity aerialists and early twentieth-century circus at the peak of its popularity. It conveys the glamour of leading female performers of trapeze and rope acts who were widely admired for their muscular athleticism and their extraordinary gravity-defying feats. Kate Holmes’ innovative specialist circus history responds to the crucial question as to what audiences encountered through the dynamic performance when circus was central to social experience. She explains that although these female performers amazed with their daring, they became renowned because of trained skill and deliberate artistry. From concepts of space and democratization to celebrity and audience seating arrangements, this excellent circus history extracts the complex layered significance of the circus in culture.’’

    Peta Tait, FAHA, Professor, La Trobe University

    ''Female Aerialists in the 1920s and Early 1930s is an exemplary study of how to research embodied experiences of the past. Interweaving extensive archival research with her own phenomenological sensations as an aerialist, Holmes painstakingly reconstructs the visceral thrill of being an audience during this important historical moment. A must-read for anyone interested in circus, spectatorship, and the construction of femininity.''

    Dr. Kirsty Sedgman, Lecturer in Theatre, University of Bristol