Every other year in August, a crowd of people gathers at Vedauwoo, a popular rock-climbing area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. They tilt their heads up, not to gawk at climbers, but to watch dancers hanging from ropes and harnesses as they perform against the curtain of a 200-foot rock face. Pushing off the rocks, the dancers strike poses in the air, flip over each other and move gracefully up and down the rock face. The scene, a combination of fluid choreography and natural grandeur, is stunning.

 

The biannual performance is put on by the University of Wyoming’s vertical dance program, a unique two-course sequence started in 1999 by geology and geophysics professor Neil Humphrey and Margaret Wilson, an assistant professor in dance. Together, Humphrey and Wilson teach students the basics of vertical (or aerial) dance, a form that features dancers suspended in the air performing traditional dance vocabulary. While some UW dancers who complete the program may go on to specialize in vertical dance, Wilson and Humphrey’s ultimate goal is to make the students better all-around performers, even when they’re firmly on the ground.

 

The seeds for the program were planted in 1995, when Humphrey, who had begun studying dance recreationally with Wilson, staged a flying scene in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the show, Humphrey went on to study vertical dance at the Project Bandaloop workshop at the Banff Arts Center in British Columbia. He attended in 1998, and upon his return teamed up with Wilson and director Rebecca Hilliker to stage a play at Vedauwoo that incorporated vertical dance. It was so well-received, and the students who participated were so enthusiastic, that Humphrey and Wilson easily convinced the university’s department of theater and dance to begin formally offering vertical dance.

 

The program consists of two one-credit classes: Vertical I, which is offered every spring semester, and Vertical II, which is offered every three or four years depending on interest and Wilson and Humphrey’s availability. Although there aren’t formal requirements to enroll, preference is given to dance majors.

 

Over the course of 16 sessions, Vertical I students learn how to use the equipment—including belay devices, static and dynamic ropes, pulleys and harnesses—required for vertical dance. (While some vertical dance companies use silk or ribbon, the UW program focuses solely on ropes and harnesses, so that the dancers don’t have to worry about interacting with and controlling other equipment.) Once they master equipment safety, they learn to dance while suspended. During the 16 sessions of Vertical II, students begin to experiment with choreography for different types of rigging.

 

In Vertical I, Wilson and Humphrey start by attaching ropes to the top of a theater grid and suspend the students just a few feet off the ground. They teach students basic movements, such as V-sits and planks. “They work with these to find the form,” Wilson says. Then they ask the students to move from one position to another trying new directions, dynamics and transitions. Not only does this help them get comfortable with their feet off the ground, it also requires that they use their dance knowledge.

 

“They are learning a lot about their bodies in the process,” Wilson says. “What works on the ground does not always work in the air, and if they just focus on the transition, they discover for themselves that they are moving in new and different ways.”

 

When the dancers become more confident on the rope, they climb to a higher position or lower themselves down from the catwalk onto ropes, where they work on movement ideas with a partner. “They create their own movement sequences,” Wilson explains, “because we have found that if they are problem-solving on the rope, they not only extend their vocabulary, but they are more comfortable as well.”

 

As the dancers gain competence in the air, they strengthen their back and abdominal muscles and develop a greater spatial awareness and understanding of their bodies, which enhances their performance in their other dance classes.

 

Though most Vertical I and II students are dancers, Humphrey says one of the first things they must understand is the different relationship to the audience.

 

“I have to remind them that as soon as you are lifted up in space, the audience has no idea where they should be looking,” he says. “On the ground, you typically know where the audience is relative to your body. In rope work, your orientation is often random—your feet may be pointing straight at the audience.”

 

Humphrey and Wilson emphasize the importance of using the whole body, making sure that every movement extends from the feet to the hands to the expressions on their faces. That way, “even if your back is the most visible body part,” Wilson says, “the audience sees you fully performing.” This  carries over to their regular dance studies as well, where the vertical dancers often appear to have more confidence.

 

Whether she ends up dancing on the ground or in the air, recent UW graduate Mary Alex Floyd says her vertical dance experience has had a tremendous impact on her. “Dancing on the ground is easier, and so is losing balance,” she says. “I am less afraid to try anything.” DT

 

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

 

Photo: Performing at the Vedauwoo rock-climbing area (by Skip Harper, courtesy the University of Wyoming)

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox