I began this post this on 16 July 2020, and in the time since, have thought about my ambivalence and the extent to which my writing on this theme is obfuscated. It lives in the margins.
I wore a metal-boned corset to write, black lace. And heels – Pleasers, 7-inch, shiny leather. I never thought I’d wear either. I’d written all this in my head, while swimming (pre-COVID), running on the Uloola Falls fire trail, back when I lived nearby; about this unrecognisable version of me. Both accessories have particular historical and socio-cultural significance, and is likely the reason the dressing is done in secret.
The word ‘lyra’ has its origin in the constellation, from the lyre of Orpheus. As an aerial apparatus, its first recorded use was in 1893, where it really did resemble the musical instrument. Lyra, pronounced leer-ah, as in “to leer” is an aerial discipline I began in mid-2019. Before this time, aerial artforms, be they pole, silks, sling or trapeze, never appealed to me beyond admiration for their athleticism, physicality, and beauty. They are each wrapped up in a performative spectatorship, where sensuality and the intimate workings of the body are indefinably bound in a kind of gravity-defying voyeurism. I refrain from calling these artforms sport, especially today, December 20 2020, where sex workers, who pioneered the origin of many commonly practiced aerials decry the latest erasure on their livelihood through the latest terms and conditions of a major online platform. Increasingly, sex workers, educators and advocates will be further stigmatised and erased, while at the same time, those practicing many of the same moves under the umbrella of ‘fitness’ – think “pole fitness” – are exempt.
The people I know who wear these shoes are strippers, sex workers, scientists, teachers, burlesque artists, journalists, remedial therapists, lawyers, software engineers and more. They’re women, men, non-binary. They respect that this piece of attire has a history that can’t be ignored for the sake of a sanitized propriety.
The first time I tried lyra, I felt nauseous for nearly ten hours afterward, and yet I desperately wanted to try again. The feeling, as best as I can describe it, is both structured, with the form and resistance of the metal hoop, and yet fluid – both flight and swimming.
I cannot remember why I began, and my answer used to be that I wanted to practice a new form of fitness where I could work on my coordination, which I’m quite self-conscious about. Really, and with some honesty, I think it was a quest for some form of beauty I could see reflected in my own movements.
In the studio, one wall is covered in mirrors. Quickly, you are drawn to tracking your progress in the mirror, following the gestures of that other you, this inverse doppelgänger. At times they are flawed, an unpointed foot, a mistimed spin, a clumsy invert. Other times, you stare in wonder, as they catch their weight, roll through inertia and suspend on nearly nothing. And it is you.
Our instructors encourage us to film ourselves, so we can later review, and assess our motion, but also be proud of progress made. I would wonder at times, at the vanity of this pride. I was shy and halting with compliments, even those I might offer myself. And then the natural realisation many others have come to before me: selfies, photographic self-portraits, don’t we demonise and mock them as forms of vanity? While conversely they are examples of people (especially women) in control of their own image and how they are portrayed.
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)
As a teenager, I took photos of myself. Self-portraits. I was embarrassed as to why, and it was done in private, in shame. At times some of those images were made into paintings, with the photos transposed into a new medium. Why was the searching of the aesthetic in the self, in and for my own exploratory pleasure, so shameful?
Lee Kofman wrote on the complicated relationship between beauty, vanity and the self, and like her, my current position is this:
At the age of 32, I performed lyra in front of strangers for the first time, something a younger-me would never imagine. Pre-COVID, at the end of each term, the studio holds a student performance night for those who wish to enter. At Speakeasy, it is a night of pole, lyra, burlesque, sling – complete with pasties, feather fans, sequins, fishnets, heels, skin and lace. It’s a sexy environment, but also somehow nurturing? This gorgeous cornucopia of bodies in their diversity: stretchmarks, scars, bruises, tattoos. Fat bodies, thin bodies, disabled bodies. This moment was celebration, but it was also one of the times in my life I was most anxious. I’ve never sweated so much, or felt my heart beating so fast. The audience is small, about thirty people, most of them other students, or their partners or mums. The less than four minutes of routine whirled by in a haze, during the spinning everything else disappeared. Afterwards, my hands still trembled.
It’s a strange form of unrecognition, to know that the photos, the video of this person, is you, but somehow not one you’re familiar with. I’m still not sure who that person is in the hoop, and how much of her I take with me when I come down again, if, perhaps, there is a little more each time.