Aerial Arts for All Bodies

Jennifer Jonassen takes an aerial class with Michelle Sargent. Photo by Sierra Lisa

By Jennifer Jonassen

About a year ago I was working on a circus variety show in L.A. called Your Town Follies. One night, I was talking to my fellow cast mate Michelle Sargent, a seasoned professional aerial artist and circus performer. I was telling her that the beauty and artistry in aerial acts always made me cry. There was a definite longing in me to do it. In fact, “it might be the only thing I would ever consider losing weight for” I said. To my surprise Michelle told me that she thought I could do a lot of the work as I was and that she’d be happy to give me a lesson.

My first class was amazing! But in the days leading up to the lesson I was nervous. A year had gone by and I had gained weight and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. In fact, according to the doctor’s scale a few weeks ago I was at my heaviest. I decided to show up at the lesson anyhow and just face my fears even if it meant facing failure. But astoundingly enough Michelle was right! I was able to do quite a few positions and tricks. Certainly a heck of a lot more than I originally thought was possible. And I have to say that it was wonderfully liberating and freeing. It felt amazing to be supported by the silk fabric hammock, which Michelle assured could support thousands of pounds.

We worked together for an hour and a half and I discovered muscles I have never used before. Afterwards, my hands were deliciously sore and felt unbelievably strong. I left the lesson feeling a lot more confident and hopeful about life. Anything seemed possible. I am over 40 years old and over 350 pounds. I am also able to flip backwards into an upside down position and get into a full split.  But I would have never known I could have done that without the phenomenal spirit and open mindedness of Michelle Sargent, whose interview I am happy to share with you here.

JJ: So have you been training since you were a child?

MS: My background isn’t actually in circus arts. This is maybe why I believe anyone can do it. I came to it after college. I didn’t even know about it. I was a singer and was offered a show where they needed singers on trapezes. They gave me a class to try it and I started doing it for fun and then two years later I was a professional. And it really took my career onto another path for 15 years. And I love it. I am also still an actress and singer.

JJ: What have been some of your favorite moments in your career?

MS:  One of the seminal moments in my career, a completion point in my life was when I was finally in a show and I really always wanted this to happen. It is really hard to find this in circus—I was in a show in Europe called My Life where I was doing my aerial act, I was singing, I was acting, I was clowning, and I was dancing. I wanted to be in a show where I could utilize all my talents and skills and be a triple threat.

JJ: I think you’re more of a quintuplet threat! What has been the most challenging out of all the things you’ve done?

MS: I think everything has its own difficulties. It’s all challenging. I guess the show My Life was the most challenging because it’s hard to do an aerial act, come down, quick change, and then come out and sing opera. It was physically really challenging. I always thought it would be fun and easy (laughing).

JJ: How many shows a week?

MS: Seven shows in six days.

JJ: Wow! I have watched you onstage and you always seem so centered as a performer.

MS: There’s something about being onstage and connecting for me. To me it’s like magic. Something ephemeral and alchemical happens. Performing is alchemy to me.

JJ: Have you ever struggled with body image issues?

MS: Yes. Absolutely. This is something I feel very strongly about and I speak about. I never have had a weight problem per se but I’ve struggled with weight image my entire life. Growing up in California and being a performer, actress, singer, and finally a circus artist in a business where literally your next paycheck depends on whether you are 105 pounds or 110 pounds is really hard on the brain. It’s really difficult to separate my own personal self-love and self esteem with how I make my money and pay my rent. To keep those separate and not begin to identify with that 105-pound muscle, which is actually just my tool and not me, has also been a struggle. And probably always will be. Once I retired from circus I went for a year and a half feeling I was no longer attractive to men because I went from 105 pounds to 115, which is such a small amount and in all honesty I look better now than I did when I was a working acrobat. When I was a working acrobat I looked a little creepy. But in my body image, in my mind that was sexy and because it was equated with my value, my monetary value as an artist. And we’re all taught from a very early age that value equals looks—I’m getting so emotional about this because it’s such a huge deal. I mean when an eight year student of mine complains that her calves are too fat I get really, really upset because I know that there is something inherently wrong with the system. So the answer is yes, I have always struggled with body issues.

JJ: How do you get to the other side of those feelings?

MS: At least part of it for me is taking action. If I’m struggling with body image I try to do actions that are compassionate. I will take walks. I will take myself out of my brain and get into my body.  

JJ: Great answer!! Any upcoming projects?

MS: I am concentrating on acting and improv. And singing as well!

JJ: And teaching!

MS: Yes! For me what inspires me about aerial is that I love helping my students find their own unique and artistic voice. The important thing to know if you have a desire to do aerial work is just to know that there are realistic steps and repetition involved. You should go into it knowing that it takes time. Allow yourself that time to go through the steps. Don’t be defeated if it doesn’t happen right away. It’s not about the goal, it really is about the process. If you can only hold yourself up for five seconds then tomorrow try for six. Everybody comes to me—and no matter what age or size—with the same fears. Everybody is afraid they’re not strong enough. Everyone is afraid to go upside down. Everyone’s hands hurt after class. And everyone feels a little rush!

For more information on Michelle Sargent, visit her website at:

You can view some of this aerial lesson in the documentary FAT by Julian Dahl 




9 thoughts on “Aerial Arts for All Bodies

  1. This is such a phenomenal story! I’d love to try an aerial arts class. It looks like so much fun!

    This answer right here, ” If I’m struggling with body image I try to do actions that are compassionate. I will take walks. I will take myself out of my brain and get into my body. ”

    Is such a beautiful and mentally/physical productive thing to do for yourself. To take a moment just to connect to your physical self and get away from every negative thought you have is such a mentally/spiritually rewarding experience.

  2. thank you for all of the supportive comments! Amanda- I would call aerial or circus schools in your area and just ask if they are open to working with you. They will usually have you sign a waiver no matter what size you are in case of injury. Some schools may have you start slower and build your upper body strength first.

  3. This is just incredible. And thank you for including a photo of you during your lesson. It’s inspiring! Is there a way to find out if classes are available in our own areas? I’m in Oregon, for instance. Great article, thanks again!

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