Grounded with Aisling Ni Cheallaigh
Throughout my career I had a terrible feeling that I was starting too late, because I hadn’t gone to circus school, had no dance background, was not born into a circus family. I believed whole-heartedly in the myth of a straightforward path to the top of the art form and was constantly worried that I was on the wrong one. I came to aerial almost accidentally in 2012. It was definitely not meant to be a career, just something fun to do for a week at this thing called the Irish Aerial Dance Fest run by Fidget Feet Aerial Dance. But I was immediately hooked, in fact, I became a woman obsessed. I put my plan for a masters degree on hold and launched myself into training.
I met an incredible group of people and we trained together and made our first show. I started working for Fidget Feet and got to make shows with them. I got funding from the Arts Council of Ireland to travel to Canada and train with as many aerialists as I could get my hands on. And for the first few years I never really thought about where I was headed. I never asked myself what it was I was aiming for. Friends and family would ask me about my future plans and I would always say ‘It’s not like I want to be in Cirque du Soleil or anything, I just want to be the best that I can be’.
But that wasn’t exactly true. In 2018 I did audition for Cirque du Soleil and at the very end they asked those of us who made it to the end of the arduous process why they wanted to work for CDS. As I was waiting to answer I realised that I had always wanted to be standing right there, I had always wanted to be able to say ‘I work for Cirque Du Soleil’. Because in my mind, that was the yardstick by which all aerialists were measured. CDS was filled with graduates from prestigious circus and dance schools, ex-olympians and protégés from circus families — people who were on a straightforward path to circus since childhood.
This idea that I was not as good as everyone else, that I’d ‘cheated’ in some way or taken the wrong path has a name, it’s called imposter syndrome. Last year I finally got around to reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (If you haven’t read it I would highly recommend it, especially if you’re thinking of starting a Patreon, Go Fund Me or Only Fans). In it she gives a perfect description of something called ‘The Fraud Police’.
“The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of ‘real’ grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
Getting into the CDS database should have cured me of my own particular brand of imposter syndrome. I could finally feel like I belonged, that if the fraud police turned up I could tell them CDS had offered me contracts, and then politely ask them to fuck off. But I felt the same as I always did and what’s more, the people I had met along the journey, the people I thought were on the straightest path to their art-form felt exactly the same way as I did. That’s when I realised that nobody actually knows what they are doing, that there is no straight path to anything in life. There is no freeway, there is only a tangle of paths full of twists and turns and exciting side adventures.
In a year that I know has been so hard for so many people I feel bad admitting that it has actually been a really good one for me. 2019 into early 2020 ended up being my real tough one. I managed to break my own heart twice which is quite an achievement in itself. Then as Covid hit I lost the tour myself and my circus partner had organised for the spring, (including the chance to bring our show to the new English National Ballet stage) and he decided to take a step back for circus and so we had to put the show to bed. Fidget Feet had to cancel all of its shows and plans, including the Irish Aerial Dance Fest. Everything just stopped. And once it did, I realised I was finally able to breath again. I had thrown myself into work to distract from heartbreak and pain and sadness and when the work stopped all I was left with was time. Time to deal with all the things I had been running from and which had been chipping away at everything I was.
This year has been a process of putting myself back together and finding out that I am not the same person I was in 2018. I still love to train and improve my aerial skills but the real pull is from creation, making work and being involved in making it. I’ve started thinking about things in the future that are not aerial related for the first time in years. I’ve been thinking about photography, music, even the possibility of one day maybe having children. It’s been scary, having this thing I’ve been so sure about for so long suddenly become uncertain. I still love it, I still want to do it every day, but I don’t think I want it to be so all consuming anymore. I want more out of life, I just haven’t figured out what that ‘more’ is yet. But I know it will come, because the tomorrow always follows today and as long as you don’t fall asleep there are always more twists and turns up ahead and exciting side adventures to be had.
Where to find Ash online
Watch ‘Resurrection of the Moon‘, the latest work by Aisling Ní Cheallaigh and Cormac Byrne