chapter  3
24 Pages

Cross-dressing and female muscular drag

Bird Millman was celebrated for performing popular dance steps on the wire and when she left RBBBC in 1923 the world’s biggest circus hired ‘dainty dancer’ Berta Besson.1 Like Millman, Berta wore a softly feminine, calf-length dress with flounce and fluff, except that Berta was Herbert, a female-impersonator wirewalker who had worked in circus since at least 1916. It was as if the physical action, the dancing on the wire, had acquired a feminine look but did not require a female performer. While cross-dressing was common in nineteenthcentury theatre, what made aerial acts distinctive is that muscularity blurred gender identity, and therefore it was, and is, staged as part of an act’s heightened physical action. Cross-dressed male aerialists and highly muscular female aerialists challenged prevailing social assumptions about the body’s gender identity, but their practices were also artistic strategies.