Aerial dance

Traditional tango moves are stretched, expanded and turned upside down as a pair of dancers attached to bungees skim across the surface of the floor—without touching it. She walks up his legs and down his arms, and he holds her in lifts impossible without the aid of the apparatus. Aerial dance, which relies on equipment to lift dancers, is known for its ability to add dimensions to choreography  impossible to achieve in conventional dance.


Aerial dance originated in the 1960s when postmodern dancers like Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown started experimenting with taking dance from the horizontal to the vertical realm in order to extend the possibilities of the modern dance vocabulary. Nearly 50 years after those first explorations, there are aerial dance companies, international aerial dance festivals and schools devoted to teaching the genre.


“The aesthetic is like any other dance form,” says Nancy Smith, artistic director of Frequent Flyers Productions based in Boulder, CO, “but you can go much higher, cover space to a much greater degree and elongate and draw things out like you wouldn’t be able to do without the use of apparatus.” Here, DS takes a look at the highs and lows of aerial dance.


High Accessibility
“As long as you have a moderate level of physical fitness, you’re ready to give it a try,” says Chloe Jensen, co-director of Ameba Acrobatic and Aerial Dance in Chicago. “Aerial takes a significant amount of upper body and core strength, but a dancer can develop those things through the study of aerial dance techniques,” she adds. While Jensen’s company teaches students as young as 5, Smith and Jayne Bernasconi, artistic director of Air Dance Bernasconi in Baltimore, co-authors of the book Aerial Dance, think 10 is an ideal age to start. Before then, kids can be too reckless with their bodies. “They don’t have a sense of fear yet,” explains Bernasconi.


A sense of fear is one thing, but what about a fear of heights? Professionals say that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Much of aerial dance has nothing to do with being up high. “It’s about using the equipment to discover new possibilities of movement,” Jensen says.


Each apparatus can be hung high or low. “You can stay low and do swings under the bar,” explains Bernasconi. “You can grab the bar and run underneath it, kick off and bring your feet off the floor. You can bring your toes up to the bar and stand up or climb up the ropes to the ceiling. It all depends on where you want to take it.”


What to Expect
Expect to work progressively, working your way up in space. “A beginner starts with her feet on the ground touching the bar at the low-flying trapeze and then progresses to hanging, to sitting, to swinging and to going upside down,” says Smith.


Bernasconi’s warm-up begins with arm-strengthening, shoulder-rotation exercises and core stability work. “The stronger your core is, the less strain aerial work will have on your shoulders because the shoulders are really what takes the brunt of the stress,” she says. Then she introduces students to the single-point trapeze with an exercise she calls pulling taffy. “You’re still on the floor, but you fall into space holding the trapeze,” she says. “It warms up your hands as well your body and helps you to trust the equipment.”


It’s not uncommon for students to experience motion sickness. “You’re off the ground and upside down and the movement and spinning can create vertigo,” says Smith. Expect to get bruised and sore in ways that you don’t from traditional dance forms. You can also get calluses on your hands and the backs of your knees, and shoulder injuries are common.


While there’s obviously a certain amount of risk involved with aerial dance, a reputable instructor will work to minimize that risk with safe rigging. “We run about eight classes a week and 15 hours a week of company rehearsals,” says Jensen. “We have never seen a serious injury.” When looking for an instructor, insist that he or she take the time to explain the rigging system and teach you how to check it yourself. “It’s like packing a parachute when you’re jumping out of an airplane,” says Bernasconi. “You probably want to be the one to pack that parachute so you know exactly what’s going on.”


Prep Talk
Since the equipment used in aerial dance is unpredictable, improvisation is an important part of the work. “You may go to grab the apparatus and it’s not where it was every other time in rehearsal,” explains Smith. You have to be prepared for sudden changes.


In preparation for your first class, hang off playground equipment to gain familiarity with being upside down. “In choreography, you have to know where your body is in space when you’re not touching the ground,” says Smith. Hang on the monkey bars. Practice pushups with your hands underneath your shoulders and your elbows close to your side. “This way you’re building your back muscles and abdominals,” says Bernasconi.


Once you’ve prepped yourself for using muscles you didn’t know you had, assumed the risk and psyched yourself up for being suspended in mid-air, Smith suggests freeing your mind in order to reap all the benefits of the genre. “Aerial is a very liberating art form, and it spurs people’s creativity,” she says.

 

Photo: Kristin Piljay 

Latest Posts


Photo by Jayme Thornton

How Paloma Garcia-Lee Manifested Her Dream Role, in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story"

On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it's something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. "I wrote in my journal: 'I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.'"

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo by @mediabyZ

Am I Less Committed to Dance Because I Have Other Passions? (Spoiler Alert: NO!)

Let's face it—dance is HARD, and in order to achieve your goals, you need to be committed to your training. "Still, there's a fine line between being committed and being consumed." Dancers can, and should, have interests outside of the studio.

Not convinced? We talked with dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements and two multifaceted dancers, Kristen Harlow (a musical theater dancer pursuing a career in NYC and Kentucky) and Kallie Takahashi (a dancer in her final year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and got the inside scoop on how having hobbies outside of dance can inform your artistry, expand your range and help prevent burnout.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo courtesy of Brittany Conigatti

Go Behind the Scenes of Annie Live! With Brittany Conigatti

Unwrap your candy canes, pour the hot chocolate and round up your fellow theater lovers: NBC is kicking off the Christmas season with its latest live-broadcast TV musical. Annie Live! premieres December 2 and features a star-studded cast, including Harry Connick Jr., Tituss Burgess, Megan Hilty and, as the title character, young phenom Celina Smith.

Luckily, people got a taste of what the special will entail when the cast kicked off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a performance last week. But since you’re never fully dressed without a Dance Spirit exclusive, we caught up with Brittany Conigatti, one of the young orphans and adult ensemble members in the show, to learn what it was like putting together a large-scale live production for the small screen.

The cast of Annie Live! poses for a group photo. The cast of Annie Live!Photo courtesy of Conigatti


Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search