Grounded with Jo Foley
Hello, my name is Jo Foley (she/her).
Right now, I am living in a shared warehouse in Tottenham, which, over lockdown has been incredibly stressful and suffocating but has had one major positive – access to aerial rigging. After varying experiences over lockdown – the meltdowns, the fear, the grit. Ultimately, it has enabled me to reignite my passion and feel like an aerialist again.
Before the pandemic hit, I was mainly working in the commercial side of circus – corporate events, larger scale arena events, commercials, and cabaret, alongside aloooot of teaching aerial and stretching.
I first discovered circus as a 14-year-old gymnast. My coach had seen an advert for a year long, after school circus project in my local theatre and suggested I auditioned. At the time, I had no idea what circus was but since my friends were doing it, I thought I would too.
We were lucky enough to get to try trapeze, hoop, silks, stilt walking etc. Nowadays, you can book an aerial class almost anywhere but at that time, it just wasn’t around. I had always liked performing and being physical but felt I never quite fit the boxes of ‘actor’ or ‘dancer’, which was all that I understood to be available.
After a year of being directed to create aerial and floor-based acts, I thought, bingo, this is it, this is where I fit, I had completely fallen in love with circus and knew that was what I wanted to do – my parents were thrilled, as you can imagine! I had managed to convince them to allow me to do the year course at Circomedia as a gap year, after my A Levels and then go to ‘real University’ after that.
My year at Circomedia only fuelled my passion for circus but I stuck to my word and went to university. I was miserable. After only about 3 months, I realised that I was trying to shoehorn a trapeze or a silk into every one of my University projects that I thought, this is silly, I clearly just want to do circus. So, I made the brave decision and I left. I went back home to Warwickshire, got a ‘real job’ and trained and trained and auditioned for Circus Space and got in! And then….I broke my legs.
This is possibly the most embarrassing injury story you will ever here but it’s too hilarious not to share. The ‘real job’ was in a clothes shop in a shopping mall in Leamington Spa. I was told it was haunted, (I know, I know…) it was a Sunday afternoon, and we were short staffed. I went to pick something from the stock room and thought I heard the ghost, then the sound got louder and closer and really freaked me out, so I ran out of the stockroom as fast as possible and leaped down the entire flight of stairs, breaking both of my ankles at the bottom. Turned out there was no ghost, (surprise, surprise) but another staff member coming back from lunch. I was wheelchair bound for 6 weeks. I then had to call Circus Space and work out what to do next. I was told they couldn’t defer me until the following year, so if they were clean breaks, without complications, then I should be fine in a couple of months, so come anyway. So, that’s what I did.
The first few months were obviously incredibly limiting. When we had to choose what discipline we wanted to specialise in, I was told that I could do hoop or silks because I was too injured to do anything else. In a way, this is the best thing that ever happened to me because I would never have chosen aerial hoop before my accident. I wanted to something ‘exciting’ like swinging trapeze, having zero forethought about career options. I have had so many wonderful experiences being an aerial hoop specialist. It turned out to be one of the ‘everything happens for a reason’ moments.
After graduating from the degree, I just fell into the cabaret scene by accident. Cabaret has always felt like home. It’s one of the few places I feel like I can be authentically myself and everyone else is authentically themselves, we all accept each other for the weird and wonderful people we are.
As the years went on, I developed into doing more commercial and corporate events, which was great financially. There have been some wonderful experiences in incredible places and I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and proud to have been part of some amazing shows. But alongside this type of work, there was a drip feed of disparaging language, which slowly ate away at my confidence. “the client has asked me to send someone leggy, so I can’t use you for this one, you understand, right?” “We already have enough blondes” “everyone else is 5ft6, so aesthetically, you wouldn’t look right” etc etc. I have always suffered imposter syndrome anyway, so these comments just fed that. I don’t think I realised how bad it had gotten until we hit the pandemic.
At that time, I was teaching so much. I thought that being busy = being successful, so if I wasn’t performing, I should be teaching as much as possible. It had taken a huge toll on me physically and creatively. I was in constant pain from spotting and demonstrating, I had so little time to train myself. When I did train, I was exhausted, in pain and completely brain dead from giving out my energy to other people’s practice, I felt like I was so behind everyone else.
I clearly remember a job in 2019 with a lot of other aerialists and I found myself crying in the toilets before we went on, thinking that I wasn’t good enough. The following day, I was flown to France for a 2-week rehearsal and then onto Mumbai for the shows. The choreographer, (who I had never met before and has since become a wonderful friend and helped me a lot over zoom in lockdown to rebuild my confidence), kept asking me why I was so hard on myself. I had no idea; it had just become normal.
My lockdown, like everyone else’s I’m sure, felt like a huge rollercoaster. I got through by teaching online classes and falling back on an old skill of portraiture (which I hadn’t really done much of since A Level art and my god, starting from scratch with a new art in the middle of a pandemic – arghhh!!) I used to talk about the “lockdown wall”. I’d be ok, I’d just get on with it, ignore those niggling doubts, keep training, keep doing what you can, just get through it. Then, boom, completely out of nowhere, I hit a wall. All hope was gone, all energy to keep pushing on had run out and all that was left was “what the fuck am I going to do?” I hit this wall many times over. Christmas was the worst. That is usually my busy season with so many exciting, fun, and festive events. I am used to working most days in December and then collapsing with my family, eating, and drinking all the things while I recover. This year I had one show. Online. It was great to have done and to have had something to focus on but finishing my act, full of adrenaline, hearing nothing because I only have a computer screen as an audience, no atmosphere and suddenly I’m in my living room in costume and full show make up, it was incredibly depressing. Brexit was also beginning to happen, and we were about to be thrown into a 4 month long lockdown. For a few months there my future felt incredibly bleak.
I reached a point in mid-January where I realised, I had a choice. I get to decide my future. I could keep on plugging away teaching and having no real time for myself or I could use this time as a gift. I lived in a warehouse with access to rigging. Why not spend this time working on my skill and developing my practice?
So that’s what I did, I become the student for a change, I took classes, I worked over zoom with the choreographer I had worked with in France/Mumbai and slowly but surely, over the months, I began to find myself again.
There are 3 important things I have learned from lockdown.
You can only do what you can with the tools you have at the time. I.e stop being so hard on yourself. Each day your mental health, physical health, creativity, knowledge, openness etc will be different. There is no point comparing yourself on a day you felt on top of the world to a day you could barely get out of bed.
Comparison is the thief of joy. Stop comparing yourself to other people. If you try to be someone else, you will only be a second rate them, you have plenty to offer when you are uniquely you.
1.Day. At. A Time. The future can be an overwhelming concept. Truth is, no one really knows what is going to happen. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that one day, you can be walking your local park for the umpteenth time, worrying about not working and 5 minutes later you get a phone call asking you to fly to the other side of the world next week. Or not. You just don’t know. The only thing you do know how you are feeling today. So, take control of that.
Coming out of lockdown, so far, I have only done shows that make me happy. Shows where I feel comfortable. Shows where I can be my ridiculous, silly, nervous, oversharing self and I am accepted and embraced for it. I can do without shows that make me cry in the toilets, no matter how big the agent or the money is.
If I could go back and give my younger self some advice, it would be – stop worrying and keep going. You’re not too fat, too short, not good enough. When I look back at photos and videos of me from 10 or so years ago, I remember how I felt looking at it for the first time. I would scrutinise it if it wasn’t perfect or God forbid there was an ounce of fat on my body, gross! Now I look at them and think, wow that was amazing, I wish I could be like that now! I completely lost all that time to imposter syndrome. You don’t get that time back. We aren’t going to be able to do this forever. Except… I finally learned to embrace that gift of time over lockdown. To work harder and smarter. I feel like myself again, like an aerialist again but more importantly, I’m older, wiser and I’m damn well not going to miss it all this time.
To follow Jo and find and more about her:
Facebook: Jo Foley
Photographer credit: Jenny Dale
Image description: Dressed in a beautiful embroidered and sequinned short white net jumpsuit with matching thigh length stockings and long gloves, Jo hangs from two hands and one foot, in a backbend, looking up towards her white taped hoop.