Pros and Cons of Self-teaching in Aerial Arts

Pros and Cons of Self-teaching in Aerial Arts

This is a sensitive subject and aerialists hold a range of opinions on it. I am going to share my perspective as well as points gathered from my instagram followers (incorporated anonymously). This is just a start, not a complete analysis. 

Self-teaching is becoming increasingly popular now that many studios are temporarily or permanently closed due to covid-19. But some people have never had access to an aerial studio. The town I live in, which is rural, had no aerial instruction available before I moved here. Not everybody can afford regular classes (though everyone should find a way to incorporate professional live instruction, especially in the beginning, and I’ll discuss that more later). Some people feel too anxious in groups to be able to comfortably attend group classes.

The topic is very very contextual. The risks, benefits, and disadvantages of self-teaching can only really be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but I think there are a few key points that are important for anyone considering self-teaching to contemplate carefully. I am not going to cover rigging safety, but I’ll just include here my recommendation to use a freestanding rig designed for aerial, and/or hire a professional rigger. Use a thick mat and always train with somebody nearby. 

What is self-teaching?

The fact that it is actually possible to “teach” yourself anything is truly amazing. How can you arrive at a skill if you don’t understand it in the first place? The short answer is experimentation, but more on that later. 

Aerialists might have different definitions when they say “self-teaching.” They might mean that instead of going to a studio, they watch video tutorials or read an instructional manual. Another interpretation of self-teaching would have a stricter definition, in which the aerialist explores their body and the apparatus without any prompts or cues. 

Both of these methods have lots of benefits, but are also limited whether practiced on their own or together. That said, studying with a teacher and excluding these self-teaching methods also has limitations. Each approach to learning offers something unique. I suspect that no one method is as powerful and effective as a combination of methods. 

 

Who should self-teach?

Aerial is a high-risk activity in which you can get injured even when close to the ground. I do not recommend starting out in any aerial discipline without live professional instruction. Having a gymnastics or dance background can make learning aerial much easier, but an absolute aerial beginner simply does not yet have knowledge and skills that are specific to aerial movement. 

Even if you have videos or a manual, not having the physical presence of somebody who knows how to (res)cue you is a safety concern. In-person coaching is ideal for anyone starting out in aerial arts. Starting from scratch without an instructor carries high risk and is likely going to be inefficient. 

Experience matters. A student who has been taking lessons for months or years is in a much better position than the absolute beginner to start learning new skills on their home rig. This student presumably has been taught the foundations of aerial and has developed a context around risk, muscle engagement, and apparatus behavior. They are much better equipped than the absolute beginner to try out new moves or sequences, because they have the building blocks in place and know how to mitigate risk. 

Let’s also consider age for a moment. You could be 13 and extraordinarily disciplined, responsible, attentive to technique, and incorporating live professional instruction. You could also be 35 and skipping warm-up, ignoring fundamentals, going straight for tricks, and not incorporating any professional instruction. However, based on my observations, it is *particularly* likely for youth, who LOVE to play, to skip over things like a thorough warm-up, drills, fundamentals, and theory/technique deep dives. Youth may also have a less reliable radar for risk. 

I have observed that quite a lot of youth are out there demo-ing tricks while having minimal awareness of body engagement or aerial technique, and are instructing others via online tutorials. This is a concerning trend, so I wanted to include that I do not recommend self-teaching for youth. And anyone who is self-teaching should also incorporate live and/or virtual professional coaching.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-teaching

Freedom, flexibility, autonomy

Using tutorials to expand your portfolio of skills may be a great way to grow once you are an experienced aerialist. After a certain skill level, it can also be okay to replicate non-tutorial videos, but there is risk if you do not understand what you’re doing and don’t know how to break the skill down into safe pieces. 

The nice thing about working with tutorials is that you get to choose exactly what to work on and can pace your learning to perfectly suit your needs. You can take all the time in the world to explore the nuances of a skill until you understand it well. 

Being the sole person dictating your aerial practice can be empowering and rewarding. It can give you the freedom to explore exactly what inspires you, and you won’t find yourself stuck in a course or class that is above or below your level. If you find yourself self-teaching a skill that is too hard for you, you can easily change course. Note: always communicate with your coach if you feel like what you’re working on is not appropriate for your level. 

Sometimes group classes are completely amazing and structured well, but this is not a rule. Sometimes, there are too many students, or too many levels for the teacher(s) to manage effectively. Some communities are bursting with love and support, and some may end up with cliques and/or competitive vibes. Sometimes the curriculum feels too easy, or too hard, with not enough room for personalization. Definitely try expressing your needs to the coach (if you feel comfortable and safe doing so). But if you ultimately don’t resonate with the studio available to you, or feel anxious in groups, self-teaching can be a welcome alternative. 

The downsides to freedom, flexibility, and autonomy:

  • Unless you pay somebody to do it for you, you have to take on the burden of building your own curriculum. You may tend to only train skills you are drawn to while avoiding others that could be very good for you. 
  • Those who don’t learn easily from visual instruction may have a hard time with self-teaching.
  • You have to be really organized. You have to write up your aerial training plans ahead of time and study anything new before you begin training.
  • You have to be disciplined, and not skip the drills that keep you strong.
  • You miss out on the “surprise” element of what will be taught next in class.  
  • You have to motivate yourself. If you’re not going to class, you have to figure out how to make sure that you stay consistent.
  • You have to be the one to tell yourself to “do your other side.”
  • For many, not having classmates is not as fun as having classmates!
  • No feedback, unless you pay for it. You may not notice poor technique or areas for improvement.

 

Critical Thinking

Self-teaching will also encourage you to think critically about the skills you are learning. Since you don’t have a live teacher there to guide you, you will have to troubleshoot your own problems. Getting analytical about what you are learning is a really good way to better understand the skill. 

“Oh, that didn’t work…why not? Was there too much slack somewhere? Were my hips tilted? Did I forget to lift my chest?” The process of inquiry and hands-on problem-solving will deepen your knowledge–IF you follow through and don’t just abandon the skill. 

Now, I’m not saying that critical thinking never happens in a live class. Many teachers will turn students’ questions back on them to help them better understand what’s going on. However, when you’re self-teaching, it’s the ONLY way it’s going to happen, so you get a lot of practice. 

The downsides of critical thinking:

  • You can get stuck for way too long on a problem that a teacher could more swiftly help you solve.
  • You could get hurt in the process of troubleshooting (also true in class, but less likely with expert guidance available).
  • It takes energy to think critically, and sometimes it’s nicer to just go to the studio and have everything clearly laid out for you.

Creativity

Let’s consider self-teaching that does not rely on any instruction whatsoever. This might not be “self-teaching” as much as it is exploring–I think it’s a bit of a blurry line. I do believe this practice can enrich an aerialist’s training and artistry, and also stimulates the critical and creative mind. I also think it can only make up *part* of self-teaching, with professional instruction still being essential.

This kind of self-teaching might involve moving with the apparatus in ways that  you have not outlined beforehand. You should only do this if you know how to keep yourself safe and supported as you explore new positions and interactions within your apparatus. Under these conditions, you have a fresh mind that will take you to exciting places, which could bring you to innovate tricks and sequences (though you may come across things that many others have also already discovered and practiced extensively).

Whether something you discover exists or not already does not determine its significance to your learning process. What’s interesting is that you have abandoned what you already know in order to open to something new. This is the realm of creativity, and it has the power to bring a lot of happiness, even joy. I have used this method quite extensively to “invent” sequences, tricks, and poses. It is definitely possible that I am not the first to do these sequences, but I still got to enjoy the thrill of connecting the dots and building a series of movements that has interesting shapes and theoretical coherence. 

I encourage anyone who creates shapes or sequences not to be too caught up in notions of “ownership” of the discoveries. If you found them without anyone’s help, someone else could too. I absolutely believe in crediting creators of distinctive shapes and sequences especially when taken verbatim and shared on social media. However, just as care should be taken by aerialists who replicate others’ work, care should be taken by creators not to become overly possessive of something that is free for everyone–creative movement. Sometimes I fear I will post a sequence I believed I made up only to have someone else claim that I copied them. There is an interesting tension between credit and non-attachment, and we have to navigate that together in this community, especially since many aerialists are trying to make a living or partial living off of their skills. 

In another method of fully autonomous self-teaching you might use your knowledge of theory to devise tricks, sequences, poses, and so on. In this case you would sit down before you get on the apparatus, and you work out how you and it are going to move together. I used this approach when I was searching for novel ways from thigh hitch to catcher as well as entries into swing seat. Instead of searching around while in my wraps, I deconstructed the wraps I needed and used theory to figure out how else I could arrange them.

This method can be SO fun. It’s a mental challenge, and you get to test out your theories with your body! To me, this kind of hands-on experimentation and learning is mentally demanding but riveting.

Cons:

  • Added risk. When exploring new movements in the air or applying theoretical ideas, it is possible to make mistakes and end up tangled or unsupported. Risk can sometimes be mitigated by practicing close to the ground, but some skills require height. Using a mat and having somebody close by are helpful ways to mitigate. Using a doll to test your wraps can also be useful! 
  • Wasted time and energy. A lot of your ideas may not work out. However, it still may not be a waste if you learn from what didn’t work. 
  • You have to make time and space for either of these approaches and find out how they fit into your regular training. 

 

Conversations with other aerialists

You will definitely have conversations with other aerialists if you go to class, but if you do a lot of self-teaching, chances are you are watching and learning a lot online. You might end up reaching out to some aerialists you admire and forming a friendship. This has happened a lot for me! All this can still happen if you don’t self-teach, but I think self-teaching increases the need for online aerial interaction, since you’re not getting it in the studio. 

Cons: 

Not everyone that you reach out to will respond to you or acknowledge you.

 

Attitude

I once read a social media discussion on self-teaching in which somebody said that self-taught aerialists have a tendency to be arrogant and/or are not interested in receiving constructive criticism. I think this is definitely a point worth considering. I can see how someone would feel proud for being able to learn without going to classes. They probably had to figure out a lot on their own, and have built up some self-satisfaction around that. They also may not experience much constructive feedback unless they are incorporating professional coaching, so they might not be comfortable receiving any. I could also see it going the other way, where an aerialist is humbled because they know they only have their own limited mind to rely on. This is a great point for any aerialist to check themselves on. Being open to the insights from others helps us to grow and become better at what we do. 

As you can see there is much to consider when it comes to self-teaching in aerial. I don’t think there is one exact right way to go about it, but I do think there are clear ways to mitigate risk and maximize safety. I think that incorporating live, professional training is a game-changer and would recommend it to any aerialist. 

What do you think? Have you done any self-teaching? What was your experience? How do you stay motivated and inspired?