Powerful and Positive Body Movements
Lou Kramer uses her body to create powerful and beautiful movements in a variety of disciplines. We chatted with her about her training as an aerial artist, hand balancer, and contortionist, and found out what motivates her to push her body to the extreme as she uses her physical presence as an impressive medium of self expression.
How did you first get involved in aerial arts and contortionism? What about these two practices do you enjoy the most?
I was living in southern Brazil in 2013, and the person who would eventually become my spouse invited me to “do circus” one day. I had no idea what that meant but said yes anyway (he’s really cute) and ended up doing aerial silks for the first time. The more I dabbled in the various disciplines (silks, lyra, trapeze, etc.) I discovered that I felt really connected to hand balancing and contortion. To me, circus is magical and has so many elements of very serious dedication and discipline woven into this very open and welcoming environment that is at the same time very playful.
How much time do you have to dedicate to perform these movements and positions? Is it more of a slow build-up to achieve a routine or pose while working on multiple movements, or do you focus your energy on one at a time?
I recently decided to hold myself accountable for a minimum of two hours of mindful training per day, and it’s made an immense difference in my ability to understand movement and feel comfortable pushing my body in new ways. I warm up with a little bit of everything, and then specifically focus on whatever I need to work on for the bulk of my training, depending on what kind of performances I have coming up or whatever I’m into that day. Rest days are also very important so one or two days a week I don’t do anything at all, which is almost always the most difficult part of my schedule for me to respect.
Fortunately, the strength and flexibility I need to improve my handstand line or chest stand will also facilitate cleaner and stronger movements on the silks and vice versa, so cross training keeps things fun and exciting. Unfortunately, it feels like flexibility and strength goals are in a constant push-pull of working against one another. The stronger I get, the more I have to stretch to maintain my flexibility. That increased flexibility requires more strength to protect my joints and safely control my limbs in their new and improved range of motion, which means I’ll have to stretch more to balance out that new strength. It never ends!
Even though I try to be consistent, I definitely get addicted to certain movements. Some weeks I can’t stop thinking about a specific type of handstand or backbend, and that will dominate my training. The week after is a world of hurt though, because I then have to address whatever I let fall by the wayside and balance it all out. Bodyweight training requires constant dialogue with every part of your body at all times. There’s a huge difference between quality movement and just going through the motions, so if I neglect or don’t connect with any single part of myself, physical or mental, all the other parts are forced to carry the extra burden. This disrupts the bodily harmony I need to achieve my goals and the shape or figure I’m trying to present aesthetically will suffer as a consequence.
What about using your body in such amazing ways brings empowerment and confidence to your life?
It’s the wildest feeling to be able to move your own body using only your muscles and ability to mentally connect with yourself. I had participated in organized sports my entire life starting at the age of four, but my experience with them was always an externalization of force, me acting on some other object and transferring my energy into it. With handstands and contortion, it’s like spreading out that energy through my entire body. The power remains within me in a supercharged loop. It’s very centering and has allowed me to get to know and either overcome or accept parts of myself that I wasn’t really aware of or didn’t care to examine before. Some days, if I’m feeling particularly philosophical or powerful or theatrical or whatever, I’ll start spewing things about how if I control my body and I control space, then I am god and other goofy stuff like that. It sounds super cliché, but it’s almost like I realized there was an entire universe inside of me, and that also made me realize that I’m ultimately doing alright and can practice improving other aspects of my life the same way I practice contortion or handstands.
Do you find that using your body as a form of self-expression gives you strength in other areas of your life as well?
I think having a relationship with our bodies is one of the most powerful forms of social and political resistance available to all of us as individuals. This is especially relevant in today’s political climate where body politic is front page news every day and we’re discussing so many ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. Circus bodies are unique because the physical demands placed on them create shapes that don’t fit into what we socially accept as archetypically “male” or “female.” I think strong, ambiguously gendered bodies working together in an environment requiring absolute trust and teamwork can be an enormous tool for us as we try to understand and question our social perceptions of what is “natural” or “acceptable.”
We’re trained to see the body as something extremely sexual that should be demonized. One of the most powerful results of circus training for me personally has been cultivating the ability to embrace a non-sexual embodiment of self. I accept my body as an important tool for self expression, capable of an entire spectrum of emotion and feeling, not just a sexual vessel. I try to value and treat it with respect in all situations, and I don’t feel ashamed or restrained by things that I think a lot of people have a really hard time with, like nudity or even “simple” things like insisting on eating well to fuel my beautiful machine.
Does the fact that you can perform such spectacular physical feats give you the courage to tackle other mental tasks with more vigor?
Mental focus, the ability to tolerate and work through discomfort, accepting criticism as a vehicle for learning and not a personal attack, these are all skills I actively work on when I do handstands and contortion that help me be a better friend, spouse, employee, student, etc. I watch a lot of cartoons (a lot of cartoons) and two that I always return to are Naruto and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I identify so much with the protagonists in both series. They are playful and goofy, and on very difficult journeys that require them to let go of a lot of petty emotions and childish attitudes in order to tap into their true potential. The shows also talk about chakra and energy flow within our bodies, and how we can harness that energy in a positive way. I’m obsessed with triangles as a shape and foundation for movement, there is so much nerdy physics happening in my brain while I bend. I’m also starting to explore how mental visualization can help me perform better in circus training and help me deal with rage and anxiety, two forces that negatively affect my ability to function in work or relationship situations.
Bruce Lee is remembered for his physical prowess, but he was also a philosopher and is absolutely one of my biggest influences in mind/body training. I am still very much a beginner in hand balancing and contortion, but have already felt noticeable changes in the way I mentally react in daily life, so I can’t wait to see how this mental focus continues to develop. Be water, my friend.
You often share videos and photos of your aerial routines and contortion poses on Instagram. How does sharing what you've been able to accomplish on a public platform further motivate you? Have you found the online community to be supportive? What about the community of other aerial artists/contortionists that you've worked with in person?
The difference between training and performing is the “self-consciousness” of knowing that someone else’s eyes will see what you’re doing. It’s scary to put something that you made out into the world, and whether it’s a live audience or a virtual one, being able to get feedback from others is an essential part of the process for me. I always say I feed off the “fairy dust” of interacting with other people, and Instagram has been so important for that.
When I first started training silks, we didn’t have an instructor or facilities close to us, so we learned from Instagram and Youtube. A lot of people in the aerial fitness community would want to pull their hair out over that, but we did what we could with the resources available to us at that time and calculated risk is also historically a part of circus. I have “training buddies” in Sweden, Korea, Norway, Canada, Brazil, New York, California, all over, that I’ve never met in real life but I talk to every day to trade training tips and personal life updates. One Insta-friend (bailiff by day, homesteader in every other available moment) told me I had inspired him to return to weightlifting and that he was almost benching 300 pounds again, and that affected me so profoundly. I’ve “met” the kindest people that are doing all kinds of cool, interesting things with their lives and I really appreciate what that’s done for me as far as pushing me to perform live and feel comfortable putting myself out there.
As I said before, mutual trust and understanding is absolutely necessary for safe execution of circus tricks because you are literally holding someone else’s life in your hands. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a bunch of talented and intense individuals. My circus master is this amazing Argentine dude named Lucas who’s absolutely incredible at everything cirque but whose speciality is hand balancing. We trained together a couple times before we found out we were neighbors, so we ended up spending a ton of time together. He really took me under his wing and taught me about his life philosophy, shared his acrobatic knowledge with me, and drilled me on my handstand form. I miss him so much, not only because I know my training would be progressing immensely under his guidance, but also because I love and trust him in a very real way. Most of my closest friends are circus people, and for as crazy and obsessive as we all can be, everyone’s really supportive of each other and not into competition or mind games because that’s just lame.
And finally, do you have any advice to someone who is interested in getting involved with aerial arts or contortionism? Where is a good place to start?
Just do it! People always think they’re not strong or flexible enough to start, but you never are! Those things come with time and patience and everybody has to have a first day, so why not do it today? I couldn’t even touch my toes for the majority of my life, no kidding, but everything gets less difficult one day at a time. There are great online gymnastics programs, like Gymnastic Bodies by Christopher Sommer or Catie Brier’s online contortion series, that can help you build a solid base for yourself. If you need encouragement, are starting from absolute zero, or just feel like it, find a studio or circus school near you and ask what they have to offer. Look at videos and pictures online, explore what options and disciplines are available. There are so many sides to circus, you might just find something that helps you love yourself and being alive as much as my training helps me!
Fire Nation vibes in an Air Nation body. Lou Kramer is a contortionist and hand balancer in training who lives in Pittsburgh, PA.