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Learning to dance on air.

IF YOU DO NOT ALWAYS HAVE A WATER BOTTLE IN YOUR HAND THAT YOU ARE DRINKING FROM CONSTANTLY, THEN YOU ARE NOT DRINKING ENOUGH WATER," WARNS NANCY SMITH DURING OUR ORIENTAtion. Smith is founder and artistic director of Frequent Flyer Productions and sponsor of the Aerial Dance Festival, an international meeting ground and intensive for teachers, students, and professionals in the field.

In our pursuit of dancing off the ground, we had to reckon not only with gravity, safety, strength, rigging, and courage, but also with the fatigue and nausea of altitude sickness that can accompany the 5,000-foot-elevation of Boulder, Colorado. I was already appreciating my choice to arrive at the festival early. Two extra days gave my body the chance to produce more red blood cells. Coffee, because of its dehydrating effects, wasn't advised, yet I found it the only way to bounce out of my oxygen-deprivation stupor, so part of my morning ritual was to make my way on a borrowed bike to Prufrock's Cafe before my stilt-dancing, rope and harness, and vertical dance classes.

The summer classes included a broad range of what is considered aerial dance. They involved upside-down postmodern technique, dancing with bungee cords, hoops, low-flying motivity trapezes, rock-climbing ropes, harness and walls, fabric, a suspended steel merry-go-round, flying poles, and even stilts. Because of the relative newness of aerial dancing as an established art form, there was a sense of defining as we went, and discussions to that end were par for the course. The festival is a training ground for aerialists, now in its third year, and has well exceeded expectations. One hundred people gathered for a week of discussions, performances, classes, brown-bag lunches, video showings, and lecture demonstrations--but mostly to see what was out there, to share ideas and information, to be inspired, to collaborate, and to set their own definitions of aerial dance. The possibilities seem endless.

When I'm introduced as a modern and aerial dancer, everyone always asks me, "What is aerial dance?" (My modern dancing does not generate the same intrigue.) I can only reply with the obvious and seemingly facetious, "Dancing in the air," because all the means of doing this, I am sure, have not been discovered yet. The lunch gatherings were filled with questions about how to do what has been imagined practically and safely. As Emily Grieves, a fellow aerial-dance artist, stated, "Until we can fly ourselves, our apparatus is inescapably our partner."

And what forms that apparatus takes are bounded only by our imagination and the laws of physics. No longer does "aerial dancer" only mean "trapeze artist." Sculptors, welders, and riggers create things to hang from, bounce off, and dance on. Whether they defined themselves as aerialists, aerial artists, aerial dancers, or modern dancers who like to fly, students at the festival seemed to be dreamers, miracle seekers, and curious visionaries, extending the boundaries of what is possible.

HARD TRAINING IS ESSENTIAL TO manifesting the vision. Although there is no specific aerial technique yet, combinations of yoga, Pilates, modern dance, ballet, contact improv, circus training, strength training, and even Feldenkrais techniques were used. David Clarkson, the stilt-dancing teacher, professes to train at least four hours every day to remain strong and limber. Gymnastics or circus training may help with the upper-body strength but it "definitely helps to have a dance background because it translates to fluidity," says Cathy Gauch, a fabric aerial-dance artist and teacher. Dancing helps with proprioception, integration, and projection and, many dancers believe, differentiates doing "tricks" from performing art.

In aerial work, even more than in dance, building core strength is primary for stability and protecting the lower back. However, it is upper-body strength that seems to get people's attention; many women declare that they could never do aerial work because their arms aren't strong enough. You get that strength through use, and it will come gradually. However, some do speed it along by doing push-ups, pull-ups, and other strengthening routines. Although upper-body strength has been generalized as a male trait, many aerial artists are female. Admittedly, the sense of empowerment that comes with literally supporting one's own weight is an appealing and challenging aspect of aerial dance. After her first week of aerial dancing ever, Karen Hu said farewell to me by yelling, "See you next year when I'm buff!"

I was hooked because of the physical challenge but also because the movement enacts in reality the feeling of flying you know in dreamtime. After years of training in ballet, I discovered modern dance's fluid falls into and out of the floor; I was delighted to work with gravity instead of always fighting against it. Surrendering myself to gravity, momentum, and other laws of physics, I found that aerial dance disrupted my kinesthetic orientation and added another dimension to movement. Even though it sounds contradictory, when you are up in the air, you have to be more grounded. It is essential to be present in the moment and aware of smooth transitions and transfers of weight.

AERIAL DANCE TECHNIQUE MUST include safety knowledge. Just as beginning ballet dancers learn how to turn out from their hips and plie after jumps to protect their knees, and contact improvisers learn how to protect their backs when carrying another's weight, in Aerial Dance 101 (if there were such a thing), we learn how to rig, check, and replace our equipment, how to tie the safest knots, what strength bolts and rope and aluminum to use, and often, how to build our own apparatus. The classes at the festival maintained this focus on safety. We had spotters when we played on the rock-climbing wall and we practiced falling off stilts in a way that would lessen the impact on our bodies. We had Feldenkrais-style lessons in how to walk efficiently without moving our hips, for once stilts were strapped to our legs the amount of potential strain was magnified. Although no serious injuries occurred, sore muscles, calluses, and braises were common in all the classes. Even the teachers had braises to show off as purple badges of honor. Arnica, a homeopathic remedy for soreness, was a staple for self-care, as was ginger, which can help lessen the nausea and motion sickness caused by spinning and hanging upside-down.

Aerial work is commonly thought of as inherently dangerous, but I think it is not any more so than other forms of dance. Many aerial artists say that hanging from a rope high off the ground with equipment that they and their riggers have checked multiple times is safer than, say, driving on the freeway. Aerial work presents an illusion of danger, which is part of what makes it both exciting for the audience and so powerful to perform. Confronting and breaking through fear to feel centered, secure, and fully present is an empowering experience and quite addictive.

If you want to fly at the Aerial Dance Festival next August 4-11, contact Nancy Smith at 303/245-8272 or go to www. frequentflyers.org.

WAY OUT ON A LIMB

Margaret Stivers wing-walks with the Silver Wings Flight Team in Chino, California (without a parachute but with safety lines), dancing on a Stearman biplane at 160 miles per hour 2,000 feet above the ground in sheer Watercolor Dancewear for air shows, commercials, and photo and video work.

Kiran Haithcox is a modern and aerial dancer. She is co-founder of Satellite, an aerial dance group, and Glitterstix, a stilt-dancing trio, both based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Title Annotation:studying aerial dance
Author:Haithcox, Kiran
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Words:1251
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