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.
“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.”
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