It takes guts and grace if you want to dance effortlessly around in 3D space gliding like an angel, floating like a snowflake, defying the laws of gravity, making death defying drops and generally looking like a total badass up there.
But guts and grace don't just appear out of thin air - they take dedication, cultivation, perseverance and yes a little bit of time spent on all six of the components that go into aerial training which are strength, flexibility, stamina, technique, tricks and artistry.
Tricks for kicks or aerial badass
It's totally fine if you want to come to class and learn a few 'tricks for kicks' so to speak. That's what makes it so much fun. But there may come a time when you want to dive a little deeper and turn yourself into an aerial badass.
If you're ready to get the most out of learning aerial you'll need to pay attention to all six of the aerial components...
So let's take a closer look at what's involved and how you should work on them.
Strength is defined as 'the ability of an individual to exert a muscular contraction or force against a resistance in a single maximal effort'.
Now that's a lot of fancy words, but basically we all understand that for an aerialist, strength is essential, so knowing which muscles to use and how to develop their strength is super useful.
There are three types of muscle strength: static strength, explosive strength and dynamic strength. Let's take a closer look at all of these.
1. Static strength
This is used when you try to move an immovable object, or carry a heavy object or in aerial it's when you hold a move on a piece of aerial equipment. There's no movement of the object and the muscles do not change length. This is known as isometric contraction.
2. Explosive strength
This is used when exerting a force in a short, fast burst. For example throwing a ball or in aerial - initiating a beat, executing a spin or drop, or any explosive aerial movement. This uses eccentric and concentric muscle contractions.
3. Dynamic strength
Repeatedly applying force, over a long period or in other words muscular endurance, which is a combination of eccentric, concentric and isometric contractions. This relates to aerial when doing reps of conditioning exercises, climbing a silk or performing any sequence of moves. Dynamic strength is what allows us to perform aerial, since the body is in a state of continual exertion while executing the moves.
How to train strength
To develop the strength needed for aerial you will need to carry out regular conditioning sessions. These include anything from a quick set of exercises before you go to work, to visiting the gym, seeing a personal trainer, hitting a Pop Fit class at Skylab, or doing self practice aerial sessions (Air time).
Ideally you'll need to be doing 3 X sessions per week in addition to aerial class, if you want to see a steady increase in strength. Doing aerial class once per week is not really going to get you swinging about up there all snowflakes and angels... just saying my friend, just saying...
Most people do aerial class and then add in some extra strength training on top of that just to boost the strength aspect. It also means that aerial class becomes waaaay more exciting when you start to realise how much more you can do.
Flexibility is defined as 'the range of motion (ROM) around a joint and its surrounding muscles during a passive movement'. There are different forms of flexibility training - each has its uses and should be properly placed within your training sessions.
Dynamic Flexibility is the ability to perform movements within a full range of motion at a joint. An example is performing leg swings as if kicking an imaginary ball, and is more movement specific than other forms of flexibility.
Static Active Flexibility is the ability to stretch an antagonist muscle using only the tension in the agonist muscle. An example would be a lying hamstring stretch, using no assistance from a stretch strap. The straight leg is raised as high as possible by contracting the hip flexors and quadriceps muscles (agonist muscles), thus stretching the hamstrings (antagonist muscles).
Static Passive Flexibility is the ability to hold a stretch using assistance from an outside force. An example would be the same lying hamstring stretch, using assistance from a stretch strap. This assistance allows the hip flexors and quadriceps muscles to only minimally activate.
How to train flexibility
Your body's capacity to stretch tends to be genetically inherited, but with correct exercises muscle flexibility can be developed. Gradually extending the amount that tendons, ligaments and muscles can stretch will gradually improve flexibility. The bad news is that as the body grows older so its flexibility decreases. And inactivity can also cause a decline in flexibility. So for those who wish to maintain a supple flexible body you need to undertake a regular stretch routine in order to maintain it. It's a case of 'don't use it you lose it'.
It's not just about looking good in the air
Obviously in aerial the more flexible you are, the more beautiful your shapes look, so every serious aerialist needs to develop a regular daily stretch routine if they want to look good in the air. But hey this is a very beneficial practice to do! Not only will your body love you for it but you'll find you'll be able to get more out of life in general. A supple, flexible body is a happy body - it's not just about looking good in the air!
Find what works best for you
It's really about finding a practice that works best for you. You need to find out what form of stretching you like and when you like to do it most so that you turn it into a daily practice.
For some this might mean getting up early and stretching as soon as they get out of bed. This has the benefit that you start the day feeling stretched, loosened, focussed and ready to face any challenges that the day may bring. The downside is that the body is usually pretty stiff and un supple first thing in the morning and you may not feel so inspired to do it.
For others it may be last thing at night. The body is usually more stretchy by this time so it can feel wonderful and motivating, as well as a great way to relax from the day. The downsides are that you may feel tired or easily distracted by work or social pressures and not want to stretch at all.
Then it's about finding what type of stretching works for you. Is it your own personal solo stretch practice (that you can do whenever you feel like) or do you prefer group practice (in which case you need to hit a yoga studio) maybe it's finding a teacher you admire and then follow on Youtube, or maybe you just want to stretch with a friend. Everyone has different needs so I suggest you spend a bit of time figuring out what works best for you and then get to it!
It's all about priorities - if its gorgeous splits and backbends you want. Then put that as priority... and simply spend a dedicated amount of time on your mat.
Stamina (or endurance) is defined as 'the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort'.
In other words the effort needed to keep going throughout an aerial routine, which combines both muscular and cardio vascular endurance (aerobic fitness). It also enhances performance since those with more stamina will be better able to perform with good technique.
Stamina also delays the onset of fatigue, which is an important factor in preventing injury.
During aerial class we usually focus on learning tricks and technique and so it's generally ‘stop / start’ in nature and more strength based. Classes therefore tend not to fulfil stamina training needs. So it's up to the individual aerialist as to how much and what kind of supplementary fitness training they might need / want to do in order to build the stamina required to perform an aerial routine.
How to train stamina
Coming to Air Time and practicing a routine is a great way to build this stamina. As mentioned we don't usually have enough time in class to do this, so practicing sequences of moves in your own time is essential when working up to doing a routine.
To increase stamina outside of the studio gradually build up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 2 - 3 times a week. It's best to try and choose a type of exercise that you enjoy and can fit into your schedule easily. Dancing, swimming, running or cycling are all forms of exercise you might choose that will compliment your aerial training.
As long as it gets your heart pumping it'll be building stamina levels.
4.) TECHNIQUE & GOOD FORM
First let's talk about good form.
It's important for aerialists to hold themselves correctly and make shapes with good form. This can be tricky since most of the time we are upside down and hanging in various strange positions and shapes! However no one wants to see sloppy shapes, it just doesn't look good.
These are some of the more obvious examples of practicing with good form.
pointed toes - yes the obvious one, no excuses you must point those toes
legs straight - obviously not when you are in hocks but for example in hanging beats or straddle inverts
arms reaching - not locked out but extending further than you normally would hold, reaching in a (gorgeous) long, extended, continuous line
ballet hands - you can look great but then spoil everything with the way you hold your hands, so pay attention to detail and hold your hands well
knees together - as a general rule knees look better together in hocks type tricks
head up - it's all about poise so hold your chin up... an aerialist should never look down
great attitude - relax and have fun, aerial should look effortless
Now let's address technique
This includes developing things such as co-ordination, agility, balance, possibly tolerance to pain and poise so that you execute your moves gracefully, effortlessly and awesomely.
Your teacher will teach you the correct technique since they already understand the ways that the body needs to move in order to execute it. And they will know what techniques are suitable for your body strength and capability.
Sometimes tricks require the body to learn how to hold or lift itself in certain ways that it's probably never done before. This takes time, patience and dedication. The body may need to develop new muscles or ways of moving, as well as build up pain tolerance.
Remember that first time you did a one leg hang or foot lock? Oucheee right...! Few months down the line - pah it's a piece of cake and you wonder what all the fuss was about...
How to train good form and technique
Well it's really about developing good habits. Great postural habits, great form and more specific techniques for specific moves. This doesn't happen instantly and will require dedication, repetition and awareness of what you are doing. Here's what you need to do:
Work on technique repeatedly to develop good habits
Check your shapes and lines in the mirror so you're aware of what you're doing
Film your moves and watch them back to self correct your form
Get feedback either from other aerialists or your teacher as to how you are doing and whether you're doing things wrong or can do them better
Make sure you're not developing bad technique
And finally tricks!!! Which is the fun stuff after all - yep it's the moves, drops, rolls, spins and poses that probably drew you to aerial in the first place. They can be quite addictive because there's always the thrill, satisfaction and sense of achievement when you nail that move for the first time after weeks of working on it.
Are you an aerial trickster?
Some people prefer to focus solely on tricks and this is totally fine if that's your thing. However there's more to aerial than this. If you work on your strength, flexibility, stamina and technique equally then not only will you find the tricks get easier, the safer you become in the air, as well as being less prone to injury.
Your aerial practice will also become more rewarding overall as you become more skilled at all the different aspects that go into aerial training.
I consider artistry being the part where you infuse your own personal story / style / character / imagination and unique qualities of expression within your aerial routine to produce what I call 'aerial with soul'.
Of course high skill level plays a huge part in what we perceive as great artistry, but I like to think that there's another level beyond, and this is what makes aerial so exciting and interesting to watch.
Most people can learn technically difficult sequences and clean them up so that they are fabulous to watch - however if you dig deeper and become more creative to find what is uniquely yours to express, then this is something far more powerful and watchable.
This may be through musicality, acting ability, stories, poetry, movement quality, costumes, characters... whatever it may be make sure that it is an expression of your self.
I truly believe that the most talented performers are ones that can tap into being both highly technical as well as expressing something unique and personal - a combination of both skill and soul.
How to develop artistry
1.) Watch other professional aerialists who’s style and expression you like. Study their performances and ask yourself what specifically makes their performance special or spectacular.
2.) Try and be creative in class. Start improvising and really playing with the apparatus to find your own style.
3.) Try to add in other skills. Such as dance styles (ballet / contemporary) or if you like poetry, make a soundtrack and see if you can perform with that. If you have musical skills perhaps explore singing or playing an instrument. Be a character. Act an emotion or a mood. Tell a story. The possibilities are only limited to your imagination.
4.) It's never too early to start. And if by any chance you’re thinking hang on a minute, I’ve only been doing aerial for (insert x amount of months) I can’t be an artist - that’s for the professionals. Well I’m going to stop you right there, because no matter how much time you've spent in the air, it's never too early to explore the creative process. In fact the earlier the better!
You can have the simplest of routines and turn it into something totally magical if you add your own creativity to the mix.
'Remember you’re an aerialist and an artist and 3D space is your canvas'