For two weeks this month, most of the dancing in Boulder, CO, will take place in the air, as Frequent Flyers Productions brings together the nation’s top aerial dance teachers and artists for the 11th annual international Aerial Dance Festival. Director Nancy Smith is particularly proud of this year’s lineup, which reflects a new-found synergy between the circus and aerial dance communities.

No previous dance or aerial training is required, and students as young as 10 may enroll. Beginners can take classes in bungee, low-flying trapeze, aerial fabric, hoops and vertical dance. “It’s possible to teach beginners on any apparatus, as long as there is a highly skilled instructor,” says Smith, who started her aerial dance company Frequent Flyers Productions in 1988, after studying low-flying dance trapeze with Robert Davison and Terry Sendgraff. “We like to start people on the low-flying trapeze, because it’s the easiest place to gain skills that can translate into other apparatus. The silks [aerial fabric] are popular right now but require considerable upper-body and core strength.”

Advanced and intermediate students, many of whom are teachers, enjoy the more challenging classes and the constant discussion on instructional technique that happens on the sidelines. (Smith practices the mentorship model of teacher training. For those looking for a more formal approach, she suggests a program at Nimble Arts in Vermont run by Elsie and Serenity Smith, formerly of Cirque du Soleil.)

According to Smith, aerial training informs any form of dance. “Aerial training builds a tremendous sense of your body in space that you can import to your ground-based dancing,” says Smith. “Also, the apparatus allows you to build strength and develop stretch that would be impossible without this equipment. For example, hanging from the knees or hips over a bar provides traction that you can’t get without the apparatus. Moving from complete inversion to right side up builds proprioception.”

Aerial dance education is constantly evolving, and teachers must keep up with innovations in equipment, which is either custom-built, purchased from circus equipment suppliers, or appropriated from rock climbing equipment. “There are quite a few riggers out there who are testing equipment all the time and sharing the results to help keep us all safe,” says Smith. “A trained teacher knows what to do to keep students safe and monitor their progress, and what’s appropriate for their level.”

When Smith started the festival a decade ago she described it as “a lost tribe coming together.” Today the communal atmosphere continues and is one of the main perks of the gathering. “The level of cross-pollination of ideas is amazing; we are partly responsible for the blending going on now between dance and circus artists,” says Smith, who also
credits Cirque du Soleil. “During breaks you see people sharing clips of their shows and talking shop. My hope is that people leave with their minds opened and having had a new experience in their body.”

August 2–15;

Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston, TX.

Photo by David Andrews, courtesy Aerial Dance Festival

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