Teaching Tips

So You Want to Fly? Here's a Few Things to Know About Aerial

Melecio Estrella and Jessica McKee at Yosemite. Photo courtesy of BANDALOOP

Melecio Estrella, the associate artistic director of Oakland, California–based vertical dance company BANDALOOP, has been an aerial dancer for 15 years. With aerial dance becoming increasingly popular, Estrella shares five things to consider before jumping into an apparatus and up into the sky.

1. Build your core. BANDALOOP dancers are supported by a pelvic harness attached to a rope, so strong core muscles are essential. "The question becomes how can you constantly be engaged in your core and then be able to free up the rest of your body on top of that?" says Estrella, who incorporates Pilates into his pre-aerial ritual.

2. Take time to mobilize your spine. "We use a lot of techniques from modern dance and yoga to mobilize the spine and warm up the muscles that run along the side of it," says Estrella. "That's really important for the spine to be strong and free in a horizontal orientation."

3. Cooling down is key. In Estrella's case, the work is so demanding because he holds his body sideways. Taking time to shift orientation to gravity and recuperate after flying is all that much more important. He and other company members use yoga, breath work and somatic practices to cool down.

Estrella performing with PINK at the American Music Awards. Photo by Katherine Barcsay, courtesy of BANDALOOP

4. Participate in dance practices that support aerial work. Estrella cites contemporary, modern dance and contact improvisation as great supplemental dance practices for aerial work. "Dancers need to have an honest relationship with gravity and a multidimensional awareness," he says. "There should be comfort being upside down and comfort being sideways."

5. Prioritize safety. "I would advise dancers to be diligent about safety practices and to take care of their bodies. Take a workshop with us or with a company that's well-established in their safety language and protocols," he says. "The thing about the work is that it looks risky, but it's really not."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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