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)


The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox