Quality of Movement and Personal Happiness in Aerial Silks

-What makes an aerialist look fluid and graceful?
-How can quality of movement be cultivated?
-How does a performance setting affect quality of movement?

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching aerial silks is watching my students grow into relationship with the fabric as they become more skillful and connected within themselves and with the apparatus. On day one, every student is filled with questions and uncertainty. They frequently become disoriented by the new spatial reasoning requirements and don’t understand how to let the fabric slide and support from one moment to the next. I remember attempting to climb in my first class and just NOT getting it. 

After a few classes, the progress is remarkable. It’s not just that the students have become familiar with a few skills, but that they are developing their holistic relationship with the fabric. What I mean by “holistic relationship” is an understanding of the nature of the material we work with and how that relates to our bodies. The formation of this relationship is evidenced in becoming better able to predict how the fabric will move whether training familiar or brand new skills. It would be like being able to apply concepts in math to solve a problem critically rather than just following a formula or a set of steps.

In silks, a holistic relationship with the fabric allows the aerialist to explore unprecedented wraps and tricks, because she knows that, for example, even if she is doing something she’s never tried before with her legs, she has one or two hands up above and if what happens below the waist doesn’t work out, she won’t fall. In addition to improved logical analysis of the fabric, quality of movement is also developed, because the aerialist learns how to move efficiently and with the fabric rather than over/under-exerting and fighting.

An image that frequently comes back to me is that of a cat jumping on a table. The cat never has too much height. She just jumps exactly high enough to seemingly weightlessly alight on the table. You can liken this to a same-side knee hook. It’s very common for a beginner to “throw” their leg at the fabric, jostling it a bit. With continued experience, the aerialist will *place* her knee perfectly with no extra umph. By observing her relationship with her body and the fabric, I can usually guess an aerialist’s approximate level within seconds of watching her.

The holistic relationship with the fabric is dependent on relationships formed within the body itself. The abilities to locate and isolate muscles, orchestrate muscle groups toward a single purpose, and maintain strength throughout the range of motion all promote quality of movement and a deeper relationship with the fabric. Because of this, anybody who comes to aerial silks with a dance, gymnastics, yoga, or other body-awareness intensive discipline will appear to be further along than other beginners. I attribute my quick learning in aerial silks to my extensive background in yoga. I have also come across some research suggesting that meditation supports intra and inter-body relationships. 

There are many different factors in being “good” at silks. You could certainly argue that what makes an aerialist “good” is knowing hundreds of tricks. However, I argue that being able to do even pretty complex wraps or difficult dynamic tricks with low quality of movement is not as important to the art as doing simpler tricks with grace. In a holistic aerial silks practice, these grow at a similar rate. As you diversify your portfolio of skills, your quality of movement will naturally improve BECAUSE you are exposing yourself to a great variety of possible interactions with the fabric. Likewise, in a holistic aerial silks practice, you improve strength, flexibility, coordination, and theory at similar rates. 

Even though progress in quality of movement is visible within days or weeks, of training aerial silks the journey continues for years, and perhaps with no end. For example, four years in, I’ve just had a new breakthrough with my hip key! It’s an extraordinarily beautiful process and every minute, from wild momentum-filled movements to graceful fluidity, has its important place.

Trying too hard, AKA overthinking will undermine progress in quality of movement. It helps to take time to break down tricks and skills into minuscule parts in order to develop technique, but to develop quality of movement, everything ultimately needs to be brought together in real time. Excitingly, I have found that flowing with music best promotes this. Relaxing into the moment is really helpful…and you might then guess that this is what can make performance tricky.

If you don’t feel comfortable on stage, you will lose some quality of movement. This is something I have to work hard on, while others will feel totally natural in front of an audience. A pretty interesting intermediate option is to perform using Instagram live. This feels less vulnerable as there are no actual bodies present in the room whose energies you would be picking up on. As my own journey unfolds, I will update this blog with more insight into becoming comfortable and natural on stage. 

As you develop as an aerialist, try these tips to develop quality of movement:

  • Take up a practice of yoga, gymnastics, pilates, tai-chi, or dance
  • Practice meditation with focus on the body, perhaps with muscle isolation practice
  • Watch animals in motion
  • Video yourself and look closely at your technique
  • Follow graceful aerialists on Instagram
  • Put on music and flow
  • Perform for an Instagram live audience to become more comfortable “on stage.”
  • Be in love with what you do. Shed toxic competitiveness and self-doubt so that the love you feel for your art can luminesce through your movements.

Always feel free to weigh in with ideas, reflections, and questions.