My First Time: Aerial Arts

Featured Article, Fitness
on September 18, 2012

My friends looked at me like I’d lost my mind—or my enunciation skills.  “Aerial what?” each one invariably said. “You know—like the circus,” I answered lamely.

The truth was I didn’t know a thing about aerial arts other than what I’d seen in photos: women doing splits hanging onto cloth ropes or pulling themselves up on a trapeze swing. Cirque du Soleil came to mind, minus face paint.

“You’re going to kill yourself, Mama,” my 29-year-old son said helpfully minutes before I left home for my first session.

Still, despite the skeptical input of friends and family, I was eager to try what looked like a return to my childhood fun of hanging upside down from tree boughs, my skirts over my head. What’s not to like?

I pull up in front of what looks like a warehouse for the hour-long class of aerial basics. But the space I step into is tiny, with room enough for two 12-inch thick matsand pathways around them.

I introduce myself to the instructor, Heather Poole, and when she shakes my hand, her grip is so strong I’m reminded of cartoon weaklings withered by a greeting.

“Strong shake,” I say, albeit not yet on my knees.

“That’s what happens when you take aerial arts,” she says.

Her smile is big—as are those of the other four students. I am older than all of them by at least two decades.

We warm up with 20 minutes of yoga floor poses—downward dog, plank, wide-angle seated bends, bound angle pose. So far so good—we are still on the ground.  But then we chalk our hands like girls on a gymnastics team, heading one by one to a trapeze swing hovering over a mat. First, our hands spread apart on the bar, we hang from the swing doing tiny strengthening lifts called shrugs. “They help you become aware of how to hang on aerial apparatus, engaging the shoulders and larger back muscles to keep safe,” says Poole.

Then the aerial fun begins. Like squirrels, the other four students, hands together on the bar, each use the momentum of their swinging legs to pull into a crunch then invert their butts over their heads, their legs straight out over their shoulders—like a partial backward somersault in the air.  They twist their ankles, feet flexed, around the swing’s ropes, and drop their hands, their torso now hanging from the bar. Easy, right?

My turn. I put my hands together on the bar, swing my legs, and my body sags like a kitten’s held by the neck.  My bottom is happy placed where it is, no inclination toward inversion.  I start again, and the teacher hoists me over, my legs straight out.  Unbelievably, Poole praises my effort.  I even get some “Attagirls” from my squirrely new friends.

Now the teacher’s onto me, and the exercises she offers me are different than those she offers the others. Fine.  While they slither up and down cloth ropes, Heather teaches me how to climb one: Twist the rope around one foot and shimmy, hoisting knees to my waist, pulling down on the rope with my other foot, moving my hands up as I go. I do about one lift and Olive Oil’s biceps surrender.

But Poole’s not giving up and neither am I. She knots two hanging cloths together, creating a sling. I slip my arms around the sling so it now crosses the back of my waist, and I thrust my legs up, twisting them outside the cloths, and unbelievably I’m hanging upside down, the sling pressing into my back, my twisted feet holding me firmly in place. I do it again and again, laughing like a kid on a bough.

What’s wonderful about aerial arts is that you can do tough poses like inversions and deep stretches while your body is supported by the aerial sling.  In this way, it’s a great complement to its cousin, aerial yoga. In just the bit of inversion I practiced, my spine seemed to yawn happily, stretched and released. And somewhat to my surprise, the poses were a wonderful workout.  The next day, muscles mute for years were speaking to me again.  Now, I just have to keep them talking.

What to Wear

Dos and Don’ts