Queens of the Air: Remarkable Female Aerialists Who Rewrote the Rules

Amy Stewart, a PhD student with the School of English, introduces some of the 19th century female aerialists and explores how they broke down barriers and rewrote the rules when it came to gender stereotypes and sexist beliefs.

Photograph of a female aerialist

By the 19th century, the circus was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in both Europe and the United States. At a circus in the 1800s, you might expect to find equine performances as well as clowns, contortionists, and aerialists: individuals who performed daring stunts in the air using equipment such as rings, ropes and the flying trapeze. 

The circus provided a unique landscape within which women could demonstrate their physical skills and be seen as equals with men, coinciding with an increase of women involved in both paid labour and activism in wider culture. “It is not the case that the coming of the circus created the female performer”, argues Steve Ward in his book, Sawdust Sisterhood. “What it did create, however, was the opportunity for women to express themselves creatively through a more legitimised medium.” 

In this way, the circus also represented a financial opportunity for women, allowing them to earn money through their skill and, in a select few cases, become celebrities and household names. In fact, women were often the highest paid performers in the 1800s, “in part”, writes Peta Tait, “because they accentuated ideas of danger in a society where women were thought weaker and therefore inherently more at risk of falling.” Whatever the reason for the rise in their success, with their physical strength and virtuosity, female circus performers helped challenge attitudes to women’s bodies at the time. 

Here are just a few female aerialists who broke down barriers and rewrote the rules when it came to gender stereotypes and sexist beliefs.  

Leona Dare (1855 - 1922)

Leona Dare (real name Susan Adeline Stuart/Stewart) was an American aerialist, most famous for her bold stunts performed on a trapeze hanging from a hot air balloon. She performed in the United States, as well as throughout Europe, touring England, France, Spain and more under the moniker ‘Pride of Madrid’ and ‘Queen of the Antilles’. 

One of the aspects of her act that made it so remarkable was the ‘iron jaw’ – dangling by her feet from the trapeze, she would hold up her partner using only her teeth. The sight of a strong woman holding the weight of a man rallied against the image of women as weak or docile. The showcasing of women as fit and active also challenged the notion that physical exercise was harmful for women, and posed a direct contradiction to the ‘rest cure’ popularised by physician Silas Weir Mitchell (and scrutinised in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in 1892). “Just as women’s public activism contradicted prevailing notions about separate spheres,” argues Janet M. Davis, “women’s athleticism at the turn of the century confounded the standard of the neurasthenic, asexual woman.” 

Miss Lala (1858 - after 1919)

Miss Lala (real name Anna Olga Albertina Brown) was a mixed-race aerialist performing near the end of the 19th century. She appeared in the circus from the age of nine and was known for her performances on the flying trapeze, as well as her iron jaw and cannonball acts.

Miss Lala’s strength and virtuosity is immortalised by French impressionist painter Edgar Degas’ Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879). In the painting, Miss Lala is seen suspended from her teeth, being hoisted toward the ceiling. Degas, who enjoyed many such popular entertainments, likely captured the sketches for his oil painting on the spot. Miss Lala at The Cirque Fernando was the only painting by Degas to feature a person of colour and remains one of the most recognisable portraits of a female circus performer in existence. 

Lillian Leitzel (1892-1931)

Nicknamed the ‘Queen of the Air’, Lillian Leitzel (real name Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan) is one of the best-known female circus performers in history. Standing at just four feet and nine inches, her diminutive stature belied her physical strength, which allowed her to perform her signature act on the roman rings. Fifty feet above the ground and without a net, she would propel herself up and around the ring with just one arm, a move known as the ‘one-armed plange’. Each one would dislocate her shoulder, and she would often perform one hundred rotations during the course of her act.

Leitzel’s extraordinary star power ensured she gained celebrity status, something uncommon amongst female performers at the time. At the peak of her career, her weekly earnings were said to be “more than the average American’s yearly salary”. She also broke the stereotype of women as meek and agreeable – she was famous for her ferocious temper, and was said to fire her faithful maid up to four times a day. 

Antoinette Concello (1910-1984)

Antoinette Concello was a Canadian aerialist and part of a husband-and-wife trapeze group called the ‘Flying Concellos’. She is best known for completing what’s widely considered to be the most difficult trick on the flying trapeze: the triple somersault. To complete this trick, the flyer would need to rotate three times in the air before grabbing the hands of the catcher on the opposite trapeze. 

Some sources claim Concello as the first to accomplish the triple somersault, others attribute it to the lesser-known aerialist, Lena Jordan. Either way, Concello’s consistent achievement of the trick saw her become one of the most accomplished female flyers of all time, challenging the notion that women’s bodies were not capable of the same feats as men’s. 

Leona Dare, Lillian Leitzel, Miss Lala and Antoinette Concello are just some of the women who have blazed a trail for women in the circus arts. Today, women continue to excel in the field, challenging limiting preconceptions about women’s bodies and gender roles. 


Davis, Janet M. “Respectable Female Nudity”, The Routledge Circus Studies Reader, edited by Peta Tait and Katie Lavers. Routledge, 2016, pp. 173-197.

Tait, Peta. “Risk, Danger and Paradoxes in Circus”, The Routledge Circus Studies Reader, edited by Peta Tait and Katie Lavers. Routledge, 2016, pp.528-545.

Ward, Steve. Sawdust Sisterhood: How Circus Empowered Women. Fonthill, 2016.

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