No one ever forgets that feeling of being the last one picked in a gym class, but this was so much worse. There I was standing in a line of nine aerialists, out of breath, mascara running, I knew I had done more than enough to get this job. I was without doubt the strongest and most technically capable in the line up, but I was also the tallest, most muscular and as usual the only black performer. As each of the eight names that would be cast in this show were called out, I became more and more certain that this was going to be the last time I would put myself in a situation where I was judged for my appearance rather than my skill.
I began my aerial career late. When I arrived in France, seeking out the best trainers I could find, I was told that at 24 I was too old to follow this particular dream, I would never reach a professional standard. I worked hard and proved myself against my peers, who had been in circus training since their childhood, but again I was told I would never work, 'my look' was just not right. I learned that I would never fit the image of an aerial ballerina so decided to make a virtue of difference and push the areas where I was exceptional, become stronger and more dynamic and embrace the power in my body. It gave me my USP but it also taught me that uniqueness in the wrong hands can be exploited; I remember walking out of one job after the director asked me to be 'a bit more Grace Jones'.
There were amazing experiences, I found myself drawn to the companies working outside of the mainstream and commercial worlds. I worked with some passionate and inspiring people and in particular a number of female-led companies that were side-stepping tradition to make work on their own terms.
They inspired me to find a way to take control of my destiny and my identity, to make work that allowed me to be entirely who I am and not be what anyone else thought I appeared to be. In 2004 my own circus company, Upswing, was born. One of the biggest challenges I have faced has been gaining the confidence to recognise the leadership I have shown in turning the company from an individual concern into an award winning producing company. Working with a dedicated and supportive team of creatives and artists, I have now created and directed several shows that have toured internationally and devised projects that have stretched my creative potential beyond theatre walls. The instinct and desire to challenge the status quo has flourished into a fully-fledged creative vision that we can share with audiences in a variety of forms and contexts.
Even so, I have had people undermine our successes: when we were first awarded significant funding a fellow artist told me it must be due to an affirmative action scheme. Longevity and continued growth are the responses to those kinds of suggestions.
Red Shoes, photographer credit Steve Eggleton
The Circus I love is an incredibly inclusive community but it has not always been visibly representative. My aim with Upswing, in addition to producing amazing work, has been to contribute to making the circus community more creative and more inclusive. We want audiences, particularly young people, to see themselves represented authentically in circus performances and ensure everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any physical disability has the opportunity to engage in circus, and the confidence and resources to reach their full creative potential. And to those who don't see that the problem is there, I would point out that, to my knowledge, I am the only black artistic director of an established circus company in the UK.
Born and Raised is an an ongoing series that shares the experiences of British people from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities in Britain. If you'd like to use our blogging platform to tell your story email firstname.lastname@example.org or if there's an issue you'd like us to explore, email email@example.com