Melissa Coffey was never much of an athlete. She routinely failed P.E. classes as a kid, didn’t like sports and couldn’t touch her toes until she was in her 20s.
Then in 2003, she found herself in London witnessing an aerialist up close.
“I’m watching this performer, and my girlfriend is watching me watch this performer, and my jaw is on the floor,” Coffey tells Q magazine.
Her girlfriend bought her aerial lessons for her birthday. The aerial scene in Atlanta wasn’t much at the time, but Coffey (second photo set, below) found a class in Athens and would drive 90 minutes each way to take a 90-minute class.
“I was definitely looking for empowerment and physical power, and my own inner power in a lot of different ways, and becoming an aerialist definitely gave me a lot of internal and physical power,” she says.
The budding aerialist began training in addition to being a performer, and in late 2016, she went to a queer circus weekend at the New England Center for Circus Arts.
“It was really inspiring to see a whole bunch of queers really dive in deep together,” Coffey says. “I was like, ‘That’s it, I have to do this every month. I can’t let this idea slide on. I just gotta make my own thing in Atlanta.’”
That thing was Queer Circus Jam, a free, monthly playshop for LGBTQ people who want to train, play or practice circus and aerial arts together.
The classes are free-flowing. Members, some of whom appear on the following pages in this week’s Q photo essay, begin by circling up and talking about what they each want to offer and want to get out of the class.
“Sometimes we talk about what our pronouns are and what we want to be called,” Coffey says. “Then we play games or do yoga or some sort of dance warmup, then we have an hour of doing what people’s intentions are. There’s always aerial stuff. It’s not really a class, it’s more like a fun workshop.”
For Coffey, there’s a certain magic involved in groups that are exclusively queer.
“Whenever I’m in any space, as much as I want to think that I am open and free, when I go to queer spaces, my whole being goes, ‘Ahhhhhh,’ like I just jumped into a pool. It’s so refreshing,” she says. “There’s something there where I can speak my language, I can express myself and people don’t say, ‘Oh well that’s kind of weird,’ or ‘Oh I don’t really get that’ and also ‘Why aren’t you like us?’”
One day, being open and free at Queer Jam involved wigs — lots of wigs. Someone brought a box of them in, and that settled it — everyone wore wigs throughout that session.
“To me, authentic expression is extremely important, and there’s no way to lie when you’re dancing really,” Coffey says. “So if what I’m doing is aerial dance, why would I protect other people around me from the parts of me?”
Next, Coffey will be taking the queer circus jam idea on the road. In September, she teams with playshop member Patrick Joseph Boston on Bloom, a queerness and wellness retreat at New Moon Gardens, a private, gay-owned farm 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta.
The retreat includes power vinyasa, aerial yoga, daily mindfulness meditations, plant-based community meals, cultural discussions, free movement workshops, dance and ritual.
“I believe wellness is important for all humans, especially the queer community,” Boston said in a press release. “Historically, queer people have met in the cover of night life because it was the only safe space. As we evolve as a community, as society accepts us more and more, it’s important to provide other safer spaces for queer people to gather, support each other, grow and promote a whole, authentic self. Our goal is to make Bloom one of those spaces.”
All photos of Queer Jam aerialists above and below by Jon Dean, jondeanphoto.com
I’m a bisexual circus artist. I do aerial, contortion, cyr wheel, partner acro, fire eating, flow arts, and flying trapeze. I'm also extremely passionate about the Earth and animals.
Queer Circus Jam has been really great for me because I don't often get to be around other queer people. I still live with my mom who isn't fully comfortable with me being bi. So, to be able to connect with queer people through something that I love so much as circus is super rewarding and is helping to expose me to more types of people and learn from them.
Ever since I was very little, I've always been obsessed with fantasy, especially things like fairies. I always believed I had wings in my back that we're going to sprout once I was ready (embarrassing, I know). But my biggest dream has always been to fly. I’ve wished it on every star, every birthday candle, every 11:11 on the clock. I found my wings in the circus. F is the most freeing feeling in the world.
I teach yoga. I eat a high-carb, low-fat, fruit-based, raw vegan diet. I play over a dozen musical instruments from trumpet to piano to ukulele. I’m passionate about movement and overall wellness.
[Queer Circus Jam] has been a beautiful part of my yoga and movement journey. I have connected with some awesome souls. I’ve learned amazing skills and body awareness and have had some of the best fun ever since being a child.
Being that I was raised in a single parent household with my mother and two younger sisters, I have always naturally held a masculine role as supporter, protector, leader, guide. So [with flying], it feels nice to let go and let someone else lead and control the situation for once. This is probably my favorite thing about flying—the act of surrender my power and control and trusting someone else to support me.
Nathan Dahlkemper aka Flipper
I’m a union production designer and scenic painter for film. I also love life and try and bring community together any way I can.
I started doing circus in college in a circus skills class. I haven’t performed in public, but I keep aerial silks in my home. I love the circus jam, because we can share skills and talk outside of the bar scene. When I fly, I feel like Peter Pan or Tinker Bell.
In aerial, I do straps, fabrics and rope. Otherwise, I run a law firm and write things for whoever feels like publishing whatever topic I'm hopped up about.
I’ve been coming to QCJ since it started and try to teach people who are new what I know. I believe very strongly that we need athletics/sports in our lives to be happy. Toxic masculinity and stereotypes keep queer people from taking up sports, and our desire to distance ourselves from the bro culture that rejects queer people often leads us, erroneously, to avoid sport.
But we need sport to be healthy, to dance without back pain, to live in the present, to meet other people, and when we equate bro culture with sport, we suffer dearly for it. Queer Circus jam, like other queer sport affiliations, brings people of all identities and bodies into something necessary and too often missing in our happiness as queer people.
Circus is also fun and inherently open to the outcast--it has an anti-competitive feel in that we are all each doing our own acts. it doesn't have the barriers that inhibit queer people from entering a lot of sports. it's easy to feel like you're the Other when you're the one queer person in a locker room, or adjusting to a recent change in hormones in a gendered atmosphere. circus is fundamentally about celebrating what makes you unique, often what makes you weird, and there's no locker room or expectation about your physical abilities or gendering of the apparatus. you go up and you do you.
I am college sophomore living artistically. For me, Queer Circus Jam is an exploration of movements, both foreign and familiar.
When I am in the air, I feel free, true and strongly beautiful.
I have a lot of passions and curiosities and am very open to learning something new all the time. I'm very determined; when I want to do something, I give it my best. I am very unhappy if I don't give my best, in everything.
Queer Circus Jam is amazing. When I'm in the air, it feels like I'm flying, just me and the silk. I've had a very good experience, which gives me more motivation to do better and better.
I have family members who feel like [being an aerialist] is for women and people who are very gay. I find that view disappointing. I think it's for everybody. Lesbian. Straight. Gay. If you want to do it, just do it, no matter what people say, what your family says, just do it. Enjoy it, that's the most important thing.
I'm fitness trainer, yoga, acro, dance and massage therapist. I love helping humans to be more active, better movers, connecting mind and body. For me, being an aerialist is playing, exploring, using all my senses with other humans allowing to create good vibes in high frequency.
Since I attended the first jam, I was hooked. So many awesome creatures eager to share their knowledge in a playful way with a lot of caring and love. I like the honest open-minded spirits with no judgment. It’s feels so welcoming in a safe space. This community is growing rapidly, and I'm here to support and be part of it.
To fly is empowering, facing my fear of heights was one of my goals to be up, meditate and enjoying the view. That's a great progression to transcend.
This feature originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below, and pick up your copy at LGBTQ venues around town every Wednesday.