This week’s portrait truly does fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Ailsa Firstenberg – who goes by Al – has been teaching flying trapeze for seven years at seven different rigs on the East Coast. They have worked with flyers of all backgrounds including Alex Wong of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Ella Emhoff (Kamala Harris’s daughter) and Gigi Hadid. She’s just moved to Philadelphia to assume the role of Director of Flying Trapeze at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.
If you’re not in the know, Philadelphia was the birthplace of the American circus and is currently home to the first and only school in the country that offers a three-year education program and diploma in circus arts through Circadium School of Contemporary Circus. Classes start up this weekend and will run throughout the summer.
Where are you originally from?
I’m from Williamsburg, VA. A very small tourist town.
That’s where they recreate life from a time gone by.
Yeah, I actually was one of those costumed interpreters as a kid. I volunteered and cooked in the kitchen; I raised pigeons.
Yeah, they’re called giant runt pigeons and they’re the size of chickens. They were a staple of the diet back then. A squab is just a baby pigeon. I have so many fun facts about pigeons, I could talk about them for hours.
Nice, how about 3 fun facts?
Okay, they don’t leave the nest until they’re 6 months old, and by that time they’re fully grown, so apparently the meat is incredibly soft, like filet mignon, I’ve never had it though. They mate for life, and the coloring isn’t necessarily genetic so the babies can come out completely different then the parents.
Ha, that would change the world if that happened with us. If your child could come out any color!
My mother is a Scottish immigrant and my father is a New York Jew, so my brother came out looking like a Scotsman and my dad and I look Jewish, so we stick out like sore thumbs when we go to visit relatives in Scotland! My mother used to think that I looked exotic because in the South, [laughing] this was exotic!
My college roommate was from the south and Jewish with a Southern accent, so she’d say, “Y’all want some latkes?”
Yup! And I have a combination, so I’ll pronounce things in a Scottish way, like ‘mum’ instead of mom and shed-u-al or vit-a-mins but with a Southern accent.
What’s something racist that you overheard because people didn’t realize that you were Jewish?
Oh, a lot, one of the things my mom told me was that one of her friends once said, “Oh, I like your husband, even though he’s Jewish.” Or growing up, my best friend was told by her mom had told her that my dad and I were going to hell and she was sad because I wasn’t going to be in heaven with her.
What were some of the good things about growing up in VA?
It was safe. I didn’t really fit in there so I didn’t have a ton of friends, and my mom always felt bad and wondered if I would have done better in a big city, but I had a handful of good friends and at the end of the day I was able to go outside and explore and have a very adventurous childhood.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
It changed a lot. When I was really little I wanted to be a dancing zoologist, then I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist, someone who studies bones. I wanted to be a doctor for a while. Then in high school, as a female presenting person, especially in the South, there’s that unspoken discouragement, so I ended up veering more towards the arts and I started making videos and taught myself how to use Adobe Premiere, which was a top editing program, and the arts became my path. My life goal is still to become a doctor, but I’m taking the time now to use my body while I’m still able to do the things I want it to do.
I see you went to college in NYC.
Yes, I went to Marymount Manhattan College where I double majored in Dance & Media and Visual Media & Media Production, basically dancing and filming. I did a lot of documentary style filming which is still a passion of mine.
How did you end up on a trapeze?
Some guy at the dance college where I was had been doing a film at the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, a school run by Elizabeth Streb, who is a postmodern choreographer. Her company does a lot of falling and stunt work, and he did a lot of flying trapeze. He was looking for videographers, and I thought what the heck. I remember it clearly because it was the moment when I learned to say yes to things. I’d been really depressed, it was my freshman year and I was not in a good place. I didn’t have great roommates, didn’t have friends, I was miserable; Then I saw his email and I was back and forth on it and I finally said to myself, “You need to get out, this is what your degree is going to be for.” So I went and it was really cool to watch and since it was unpaid, he offered for me to let me come to the staff trainings. So once again I said sure and went to one of the training and learned how to do the flying trapeze! Being invited in made all the difference because I never would have done it on my own. I was super shy. I still kind of am with new things. But I fell in love with it and now I get to teach others.
What’s the hardest thing about trapeze?
For me it’s taking control of my lizard brain. The part of my brain that wants to freak out in the air. Because I’m scared of heights and I still do get scared if I’m trying a new trick, so it takes a lot of repetition to create those neuropathways. Your body should do about 70% of the work without you thinking about it. Your brain can do about 30% but if you have to think more than that, it’s hard to do in 18 seconds. Ideally you train enough so that you don’t even have to think that much. You need to trust your body to remember what it’s supposed to do.
Silly question, do the backs of your knees get sore?
You actually rarely do anything hanging from your knees, if you look at the catchers, you’ll notice that the bar is on the front of their thighs and their knees are wrapped around what we call the elbows of the trapeze which are padded. So most of the weight is held by the quads.
What do you like to do when you’re not on the bar?
I do a lot of rock climbing, and I coach it too. Knowing how to do rigging for trapeze really helps with learning to do rigging for rock climbing outdoors. It’s interesting because it’s influenced my bar work because in rock climbing you kind of have to give in to your bones. To let your bones do the work rather than your muscles so that you don’t get fatigued. So in trapeze, people often want to tense up on the bar and hold on tight, when in reality, you can hang from your bones a bit and relax and breathe into it. Personally, rock climbing just allows me to slow down unlike flying which is a high intensity, fast paced thing.
Do you do any other modalities there?
I do trampoline and straps and duo trapeze. Those are my main skills other than being a dancer.
You’ve had some big name clients; does anyone stand out?
Well, the work with Ella Emhoff and Gigi Hadid were both modeling shoots. The shoot with Ella was low key and casual and we had a good time. The same with Gigi Hadid, but that was much more involved and exciting because, wow, Gigi Hadid! It was incredible watching her model, when she would hit a pose it was flawless, you could just picture it in the magazine with no editing. I’ve seen other models who were great at posing, but there was just something about Gigi that was elevated. And it was a joy to see her take control of things, like if someone asked her to do a thing one way, she’d politely say, “No, that’s not going to work, here’s how we’re going to do it.” It was awesome. A funny thing, I didn’t know that I was going to be in the shot, but you can see the back of me as I held her wrists from the bar. Since I wasn’t planning to be seen on camera, I was wearing cow print shorts, because I liked them, but apparently the cow print didn’t fit the aesthetic because in the printed version, they made them black! You can see that shoot in V magazine, the 134th edition, I think.
How do you identify and what was your coming out experience like?
I currently identify as a lesbian. I first started finding the words for things in high school. I’ve never been a really sexual being, I identified as asexual for a while, [laughs] but I think a great part of that was just not being into men. But I remember watching a tv show in middle school and one of the characters identified as bi and declared, “I don’t love men or women, I love people.”
Growing up my mother asked me if I was a lesbian, and I gave her that line. She was just like, “Ailsa, everyone is.” So I came out as bi in high school and then in college I’d fluctuate between bi and ace as I was figuring things out. It took until about a year ago for me to fully come out as lesbian.
I’ve known I was queer my whole life, but I didn’t know that I was gay my whole life. That heteronormativity sat hard in my mind, and it’s still bothersome, that feeling that I’m not… I won’t say complete, but that I’m not worthy unless men find me attractive or unless I’m dating an attractive man. It’s that heteronormativity that’s preached to you since you were born and gets ingrained in your brain.
I’d be working with friends and say things about women’s bodies and touching them and how beautiful they were, and my friends would say, okay, you are gay. It seems I was the last to know. It didn’t completely click until I was romantic with my current girlfriend. Being with her was the first time I didn’t have to be coaxed. In the past, when I was being intimate with people it was very awkward, like, “Okay, now you need to do this; or I’d love it if you did x, y, z to me; or is it okay to continue?” but with my girlfriend it just feels fluid and seamless and joyful the whole time. So that’s when I fully accepted the label of lesbian, but we joke that I have to come out again every couple of weeks just to remind myself, because I forget. I’ll find a man attractive and say something, but then it’s like, do I really want to be with them or is it that as a more masculine presenting lesbian, I want to be them? Am I confusing attraction with admiration?
I understand. Now let’s do some rapid fire questions. On a plane, aisle or window seat?
Window, definitely, I like to look out at things.
How do you practice self care?
Self-care for me is being alone. I interact with a lot of people, but I’m a shy homebody at heart. I like to be alone with my cat, Hermes. He’s a service cat who comes everywhere with me.
Do you travel a lot?
If you consider moving every 6 months traveling then yes, but I’d love to do more actual traveling. I currently live in a tent adjacent to the circus campus. There’s a house on the property that I can use, but I sleep in the tent.
What was your favorite bedtime story?
I don’t know that it’s a favorite, but I have warm memories of my mother reading me “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and the Harry Potter series.
When did you last build a snowman?
I do not like the snow or cold, so it would have been a long time ago.
And you’re sleeping in a tent? Brrrrrr.
Yeah, there have been a few cold nights here, hopefully it’ll warm up soon. In September I’ll head out to my next location.
So what’s going on this weekend at the school?After more than a two-year break due to the pandemic, we’re bringing back the trapeze classes and workshops. We’re having a media opening this weekend outside weather permitting. Adults and children as young as six years old can fly through the air on the outdoor rig at the circus campus. The classes are $65 and you can book them at https://phillycircus.com/flying-trapeze/. The classes are two hours long and are offered multiple times a day. You should come out and try it!