Step Right Up, for Emily Ainsworth’s “Worlds Apart”

Circus dancers wait for their cue in Circo Vazquez. Photo by Emily Ainsworth
Circus dancers wait for their cue in Circo Vazquez. Photo by Emily Ainsworth

After graduating from literature and anthropology programs at Oxford and Cambridge, Emily Ainsworth’s surprising next step was to run away to the Mexican circus. While performing as dancer “Princess Aurora,” Ainsworth photographed the expedition as a National Geographic Young Explorer.  She continued to travel the world photographing subcultures and allowing us to see these experiences through her lens.

Ainsworth will discuss these explorations in her talk, “Worlds Apart,” on November 12 at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“Circus, the carnivalesque, magic and masquerade are art forms as ancient as civilization itself,” Ainsworth said. “In ‘Worlds Apart,’ I will be sharing my experiences of time spent amongst performing communities who make these forms come alive.”

Providing entry to subcultures with the click of a shutter, Ainsworth has lived the adventures on multiple continents.  After participating in the “blood, sweat and glitter” of the Mexican circus (residing, eating and working with a community of performers), she took her knowledge further afield.

Photograph courtesy of Emily Ainsworth.
Photograph courtesy of Emily Ainsworth.

“During my time in the circus, I became fascinated with how performers from gritty backgrounds would, with a smattering of sequins and a prayer or two, elevate themselves above their everyday lives as they stepped into the spotlight,” she said. “So from the circus in Mexico, I went south to Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to find out why Carnival is synonymous with the city; about the samba pulse that keeps Rio’s heart beating; about the rivalry and roots of the different samba schools in the favelas. At the same time, I also had a less academic reason for wanting to find out about Rio Carnival — I wanted to dress up in a sparkly costume and dance on top of a float.”

After Rio, Ainsworth travelled to a magician’s colony in Delhi where many of India’s most revered performers — sword-swallowers, illusionists, puppeteers and contortionists — have lived since Indian Independence. The slum, which Ainsworth described as “a byzantine maze running with feral pigs and open sewers” is under constant threat of demolition, an example of the threat to the fringe communities she studies.

Ainsworth said she hopes her stories of magic, masquerade and skill will provide the audience with a peek into worlds that are largely inaccessible.

“I am hoping to give the guests a new insight into what life is like within these communities, and an understanding of what makes these ‘Worlds Apart’ so different, and so similar, to our own,” she explained.

In all of her travels, one thing Ainsworth said she has learned was that “a camera is a passport to any situation.” If the camera is her passport, her photos provide a ticket for the rest of us to stowaway on her journeys.  Though, what we see is only half the adventure.

“These communities have a tough time surviving in the 21st century, and really embody the ‘show must go on’ spirit. The experience of being accepted amongst these communities has been life-transforming,” Ainsworth said discussing lessons learned on her global ventures.  “I also picked up some pretty necessary survival skills — how to dodge bullets; how to French-kiss a tiger; how to unravel a pair of fishnets without laddering them.”

Ainsworth will share more behind the scenes tips and tales at “Worlds Apart” on Tuesday, November 12, at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased by phone at (202) 857-7700 or online.




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Meet the Author
Caroline Gerdes recently graduated from Louisiana State University where she studied journalism and history (her major and minor, respectively). As a native of the Greater New Orleans Area, she decided to explore her own backyard with help from a Young Explorers Grant. Caroline is currently conducting an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward. She seeks to record the community’s full history — its immigrant beginnings, the development of jazz, the depression and prohibition, desegregation and hurricanes. Caroline’s exploration is also a personal quest as her father and paternal grandparents grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her blogs reflect an inside look at New Orleans life and culture, especially the edible aspects.