Training in aerial dance is still relatively new. When Nancy Smith, founder and artistic director of Frequent Flyers Productions and founder of the Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado, wanted to add aerial work to her repertoire, she locked herself in a studio for eight months to experiment. Keith Hennessy, former Contraband founding member and director of the San Francisco-based company Circo Zero, learned aerials in the late ’90s from circus artists while on tour with the French circus company he co-founded. For Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre in San Francisco, it was a circus company that inspired her “to start thinking about choreography in a new way—vertically, horizontally, diagonally, laterally.”
Today these artists are among the growing number of aerial dance teachers. Though they agree on many aspects, each artist maintains his or her own unique approach to the aerial dance curriculum.
Smith starts her students on the low-flying, single point trapeze, in homage to the matriarch of aerial dance and inventor of this apparatus, Terry Sendgraff (see TLC, August 2005). “I really do think it’s a great basis,” Smith says. “What you get from the trapeze is learning where your body is in space. You develop core strength, learn how to breathe, learn how to use your upper body, and that translates to every other piece of apparatus.”
Her students begin learning skills such as “Lion in a Tree” (hanging from the trapeze with one arm and one leg draped over the bar) or “Monkey” (a handy transitional skill of locking the arms around one knee so the body hangs from the bar supported by the knee and armpits). They then slowly begin linking movements together. Initially there is no phrase work similar to what you would find in a dance technique class. Instead there is free-form swinging to satiate the students’ craving for momentum.
Together with her dancers, Smith developed an aerial vocabulary. “You learn words, that’s the first step,” says Smith. “Then you can start making sentences and paragraphs and stories.” When students develop a new movement, they get to name it and it’s added to the vocabulary.
It takes a tremendous amount of strength to hang—even briefly—from most aerial apparatus. Though the first class may be humbling, trained dancers can take refuge in structures borrowed from more traditional models, such as a group warm-up or the use of improvisation to generate material.
Haigood takes her students through different movement ideas, such as rolling or balancing, on a variety of apparatus. Boulders suspended from steel cables, large hoops (one more than six feet in diameter!), and different levels of platforms are some of the many means to be airborne in her classes. Haigood’s use of varied apparatus comes from her work on site-specific projects, where there is a need to respond to different environments. “I change the situation as often as possible,” she says. “The students can apply their skills in different ways and deepen their understanding of what they already know.”
Even with exponential growth in the idiom, there are still few places where one can train in aerial dance. Festivals such as Smith’s fill the void, offering two weeks of intensive training with national and international aerial artists.
“I’m trying to give people as much information as possible about all the ways to be in the air,” Smith says. The 2005 faculty included Hennessy and Robert Davidson (whose choreographic labs are based on the Skinner Releasing Technique), as well as more circus-based artists such as former Cirque du Soleil performers Elsie and Serenity Smith and French fabric artist Fred Deb’.
Often students leave the festival with the hopes of building an aerial dance community in their hometown. For this reason, Smith makes certain that festival participants learn about rigging, safety, and injury prevention (a specialty of Elsie and Serenity, who have their own trapeze and circus school, Nimble Arts, in Vermont).
“Many people have a hard time achieving technical ability because they’re not using their bodies efficiently,” Elsie Smith says. The Nimble Arts form of injury prevention, which focuses on keeping the shoulders safe while hanging, and proper posturing in the air, “makes you more successful and promotes less wear and tear on the body.”
For Hennessy, the ideal aerial training combines experimentation and creativity with specialized technical training that only experts in the field can provide. “There are a lot of people who are making aerial work and their technical level is actually very low. They’ve learned six moves on fabric from their friends and then they watched Cirque du Soleil videos to learn a few more moves. And then they’re choreographing and making a website and then teaching. Because the work is so new, there’s a wide range of talent out there,” he cautions. “There’s no replacing learning fabric from someone who’s good at it, or a really clear introduction to trapeze and what the basic moves are.”
Dancers know you can’t get everything you need from one teacher. The same holds true in aerial training. Perhaps the best advice for entering this field is to grip the apparatus tightly, but keep a loose hold on expectations.
Cari Cunningham is the dance critic for The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado. She is currently pursuing her MFA in dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.