Three students who discovered aerial—and how it’s impacting their dance careers

At UNH, students—like Kayla Lennon, pictured here—can perform up to 11 times a year.

Blair Davis hung 60 feet in the air, tethered by a rope and harness to one of the tallest buildings on campus at Washington and Lee University. No, she wasn’t trying a daredevil stunt. She was dancing, catapulting herself off the brick wall to extend her limbs to heights they’d never reached before. Aerial dance—movement that happens in the air on apparatuses like Davis’ rope and harness—is no longer solely for circus performers. It’s everywhere! Colleges, musical theater productions and even traditional “grounded” dance companies are getting in on the act. Here, three students explain how a college dance experience in aerial helped them develop new physical strengths and skills and opened up career pathways.

The Buff Ballerina

Davis didn’t arrive at W&L as an aerialist. She was a ballet student who fell in love with aerial during an intensive four-week course during her sophomore year. “Aerial gave me a new sense of fearlessness and trained me to use my body differently,” she says. “With the rope and harness, you have to engage your core incredibly to keep your body parallel to the ground, and you need to be able to climb up to the top of the fabric before you can do any tricks with silks.” Her physical control, honed from years of ballet, allowed her to quickly develop the necessary core and upper-body strength, but she struggled with not having mirrors for instant feedback. Getting used to a no-mirror zone enhanced her awareness of her body in space: “Aerial really helped develop my proprioception skills,” she says.

Beefing Up Her Resumé

Kayla Lennon discovered the University of New Hampshire’s aerial classes when her hometown dance teacher enrolled and brought the technique back to her studio. Lennon followed in his footsteps. “You can find ways to dance at any university,” she says, “but learning aerial in such a structured way is really rare.” Within its theater/dance BA, UNH offers an aerial class that spans experience levels: All students attend twice a week to work on basic technique, and advanced students come for an additional weekly workshop to learn accelerated movements. (Lennon’s favorite trick? Hanging by her ankles from the trapeze.) Students can perform 11 times a year (in end-of-semester showcases and site-specific or studio performances) and train on almost every apparatus available: silks, hoops, trapeze, Spanish web and nets. Lennon now teaches aerial classes at her home studio during the summer and plans to audition for aerial and dance shows when she graduates this spring. After seeing UNH alumni get cast in the Canadian run of the musical Pippin, which features aerial dance, she’s optimistic about the increased viability aerial skills will give her as a dance professional.

Tangential Tracks

Meghan Critchley wasn’t sure she wanted to major in dance. Discovering aerial changed her mind. “I hadn’t even heard of aerial until college,” she says. The University of Wyoming senior grew up studying ballet and jazz at a studio but fell in love with the freedom of vertical dance. “We’re so used to ‘technique, technique, technique,’” she says. “When I’m in the air, I’m more creative, more focused on new ways that I can move.” Of course, new movement brings new physical challenges. Critchley, who hopes to ultimately pursue physical therapy, says that although aerial decreases pressure on the limbs, certain apparatuses (like the harness) increase pressure on the lower spine. “As more dancers go into this field, figuring out how to keep them healthy will be a new frontier of research,” she says. DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Washington and Lee University offers a four-week aerial intensive.

Apparatus Primer

Bungee: two bungee loops suspended from the ceiling for the dancer to harness into

Hoop (also known as lyra): a steel hoop—resembling a hula hoop—hung from the ceiling

Net: crosshatch fabric arranged in a sling shape and hung from the ceiling

Rope and harness: a harness tethered to a vertical point via a rope

Silk: a long strip of fabric suspended from the ceiling at its center point

Spanish web: a rope wrapped in a cotton fabric covering and suspended at one end. At the top, a loop is attached to the rope for the performer to insert an ankle or wrist from which to hang.

Trapeze: one or more suspended horizontal bars with vertical lines attaching it to an overhead mount point

 

Where to Study Aerial Dance

East Tennessee State University

Johnson City, TN

Apparatuses: low-flying trapeze and silks

Facilities: aerial dance studio with eight silks and two low-flying trapeze

Performance opportunities: an aerial dance showcase at the end of each semester and a yearly main-stage dance concert

Degree offered: minor in dance (a major will potentially be implemented in fall 2017)

Aerial classes offered: three levels of aerial dance (beginner, intermediate, advanced)

University of Colorado at Boulder

Boulder, CO

Facilities: studio with rigging for six apparatuses

Apparatuses: low-flying trapeze and fabrics

Performance opportunities: up to six shows a year (concerts and informal showcases)

Degrees offered: BA and BFA with aerial coursework; MFA students can choose an aerial track as a secondary area of interest in their degree

Aerial classes offered: one technique class, though students can also take independent study at the nearby Frequent Fliers School and Company

University of New Hampshire

Durham, NH

Facilities: 22-foot ceilings in the studio; six stations where aerial dancers can work simultaneously

Apparatuses: silks, hoops, Spanish web, nets, trapeze

Performance opportunities: two end-of-semester shows and additional performances for community groups (in the aerial studio) and the student body (outside, on campus buildings)

Degrees offered: BA theater major with a dance option; dance minor

Aerial classes offered: one technique class, offered two days a week for beginners and three days a week for advanced students

University of Wyoming

Laramie, WY

Facilities: studio theater with rigging for 12 dancers

Apparatuses: rope and harness

Performance opportunities: one on-campus concert per year and an aerial show every other summer at Vedauwoo, a nearby wilderness area

Degree offered: BFA in dance performance or dance science

Aerial classes offered: two levels of technique class

Washington and Lee University

Lexington, VA

Facilities: dance studio rigged with six stations, with interchangeable apparatuses

Apparatuses: rope and harness, silks and bungee

Performance opportunities: fall (student-choreographed) and winter (faculty-choreographed) end-of-semester shows and a capstone showcase for the four-week spring aerial intensive

Degree offered: dance minor

Aerial classes offered: semester-long class during winter term and an intensive during spring term

 

Photo by Talia Pepin, courtesy of Lennon; opposite page: photo by Kevin Remington, courtesy of W&L University

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox