This Is How an Aerial Performer Restarted Her Career After Having Both Feet Amputated

Starting with relearning how to do everything, this time with prosthetic legs

Erin Ball ascends a length of bright pink fabric hung from the ceiling, pulling up with her muscular, tattooed arms and stabilizing herself by gripping the material with her inner thighs. Her legs end a few centimeters below her knees. She hooks one over the silk to hang upside down, then wraps the fabric around her waist. Her glittery false eyelashes shimmer in the light as she poses before launching herself into a breathtaking drop.

Ball’s discipline, called aerial circus and popularized by Cirque du Soleil, entails doing tricks on fabric, rope, trapeze, hoop, or other apparatuses suspended in the air. Aerialists, as performers are called, combine grace and flexibility with serious core and upper-body strength to pull off jaw-dropping moves.

A decade into her career as a performer and teacher, Ball makes it all look easy. But after becoming a double amputee a few years ago, she’s had to work hard to get back in the air and reclaim her identity as an athlete.

In 2014, Ball got lost on a walk in the woods near her Kingston, Ontario, home.

A police dog found her six days later, unconscious and suffering from extreme frostbite. Doctors amputated her damaged feet and part of her lower legs. After the surgery, she spent much of the next year lying in a hospital bed, struggling to accept what had happened and wishing she could die.

“I didn’t know any amputees,” Ball tells SELF. “I really had no idea that my life could continue and resemble what it had been before in any way.”

Eventually she decided something had to change. She wanted to go back to circus training, though she wasn’t sure if it was possible. While many amputee runners and wheelchair basketball players have increasingly sizable and visible communities to turn to, Ball didn’t know any other aerialists without feet.

She started learning to walk with prosthetic legs and did pull-ups, push-ups, and Pilates to rebuild the strength circus requires.

She arranged to hang her silks at a friend’s fitness studio. The ceiling was lower than ideal and she was out of shape. Ball slowly made her way up several flights of stairs to the space. She began with the skills she’d taught in beginner classes, tying knots around her prosthetic feet and standing up on the fabric. She quickly realized a lot of things wouldn’t work the way they had before. Her new feet wouldn’t flex, a key motion that helps aerialists brace themselves on the silks. The prosthetic legs weighed her down and the silks twisted them in painful ways.

“I felt like I had a pinky toe and it was on fire,” she remembers. It was the only time she’s experienced phantom limb pain, or discomfort that feels like it’s localized in a body part that’s been removed.

But Ball persevered, relearning all the basics with her prosthetic legs on. Then she took them off and started experimenting. She discovered tricks to get into standard positions without using her feet and came up with new ways of moving in the air.

“Creatively that just opened up so much,” she says. “I’ve created all kinds of climbs that probably a lot of people can’t do, because I can fit into smaller spaces and just kind of sneak my legs through.”

She now performs with and without prostheses, sometimes attaching confetti cannons and colored smoke grenades to either her “meat” legs—a term some amputees, including Ball, use to describe their bodies—or the prosthetic ones if she’s using them. The different leg attachments she uses in her acts, which include extra long circus stilts and cones, change the way she moves. Attaching a longer or heavier piece of material to her body shifts what aerialists call a balance point, or the spot, usually somewhere on the lower back, where she can place her body to rest hands-free on a trapeze bar.

Since aerialists are constantly lifting their own bodyweight, some assume certain moves are easier for Ball now, because her legs are shorter and therefore lighter. But she says amputation has almost always made tricks harder whether she’s wearing her prosthetic legs or not. When she doesn’t have her prostheses on, she’s using her inner thighs to grip the fabric. When she does wear her prosthetic legs, they weigh about 13 pounds total. She can’t engage them the way one can engage limbs that are part of the body, so it’s like having ankle weights on for every move. Her gait walking on prosthetic legs also tightens up her hips, which has caused Ball, a former yoga teacher, to notice tightness in places she hadn’t felt in years.

Whether it’s doing tricks in the air or lifting weights in the gym, navigating fitness as an amputee is a highly individual process.

Ball has now has a community of below-knee amputees to consult, but they have different kinds of feet and different size limbs. “People can give me ideas, but I really have to figure out what is going to work for me,” she says.

Before becoming an amputee, Ball took a teacher training course where she was asked if she wanted to teach circus to people with disabilities. At the time, she had no idea how she might do that. Since then, she’s developed a curriculum for aerial circus coaches to train amputees, called “Flying Footless.” This summer at her wheelchair-accessible studio, she’ll host her second circus camp for amputees and others with limb differences. “I'm a lot more confident in working with different bodies,” she says. “Now I see it as a really interesting, fun challenge.”

Ball believes fitness professionals who work with adaptive athletes should remember that everyone is an expert in their own body.

The trainer’s role is to offer suggestions and not be too rigid about doing things a specific way. “Let go of the standards,” she says. “If it’s not there for a safety reason, don't be afraid to let it go. I really believe that there's no such thing as ‘wrong’ unless somebody is hurting themselves or somebody else.”

Amputation has changed how she defines success for herself and her students. Before she prized a certain aesthetic in the air: super straight legs, super pointed toes. Now, she says, “I'm more focused on what shapes can unique bodies make, versus let's make all bodies make the same shapes.”

When she was first adjusting to her new body, Ball used to hide her prosthetic legs under leg warmers so people wouldn’t stare. Today she has fun expressing her identity as an amputee and finding the humor in it. She wears earrings made of Barbie legs and tiny dangling knives, and she recently got a tattoo of a hot-air balloon filled with severed feet. On Halloween, she posted a photo on Instagram of herself wearing an apron splattered with fake blood, raising a cleaver above a pile of plastic zombie legs.

She wants new amputees to know the transition after surgery is hard, but it doesn’t stay that way. “My life is actually better now,” Ball says. “I’ve built a community and just connect with people on a much deeper level than I used to.”