Learn To Fly (and Shape Up) with Aerial Dancing


Published: November 5, 2009

If you think you can’t fly in real life, think again.

Around 1 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, I saw a mini-version of Cirque du Soleil before my eyes. A student was climbing up a trail of thin, elastic fabric hanging from the ceiling, wrapping it around her waist and hanging upside down. Then she separated the fabric so she had two strips, one for each hand. She wrapped her wrists with the fabric so she could do somersaults, spins, and twirls… all in mid air. Without a grimmace on her face, she flew through the air like a dragonfly and spun like a fan. Then, about a half hour into the class, it was my turn.

I wanted to take on a new workout, and I found my chance while reading Time Out New York a few weeks back. When I discovered that aerial dancing classes were only two blocks away from Fordham, I was determined to take flight with this sport.

We started off with a few basic stretches before we got into any acrobatic and aerial work. Then the instructor took out the mats and supervised as we practiced handstands. While we were taking turns getting coaching from the instructor, a student pulled down the curtain-like strips of cloth (called “fabrics” among aerial dancing students) from the ceiling.

When the instructor gave us the chance to try some tricks ourselves, I supposed that it couldn’t be that hard. It’d be like the monkey bars or the tire swing at the park. I was so excited to get into anti-gravity mode with the fabrics that I sprung from my spot on the floor to start climbing. With a big smile on my face, I grabbed the stretchy material so I could get in the air as quickly as possible.

“Anybody who enjoys the exhilaration of a rollercoaster or simply having the limitations of the floor removed would enjoy aerial dancing,” said Emily Vartanian, aerial dancer since 2003 and instructor since 2004. “You miss the floor after a while because once you push off you’re committed. Air resistance is it.”

When I tried to climb up the fabric, what happened next surprised me: I fell. Multiple times. Despite my experience with yoga and martial arts, I felt like a newcomer to this mid-air sport. What looked so simple when the “dragonfly” student was on the fabric had me feeling like a three year old wearing heels.

With some of the moves, I had to wrap the fabric around my wrists and ankles in such a way that they wouldn’t fall out, sometimes while five feet in the air. It took me several tries before I could do the mid-air split and upside down twists that some of the more experienced students were doing almost as soon as they got on the fabric.

For many of the dance moves on the fabric, students were hanging upside down. When one student had her turn on the fabric, she wrapped the fabric around her waist and slid all the way down, just two inches above the floor.

“Dancers usually take to it very well,” Vartanian said. “People who have done gymnastics take to it well and so do martial artists. If you can already do the splits, then the transition will be easier. Anybody can do it, though.”

My arms, legs, back and shoulders ached 30 hours after the workout, so much so that doing my laundry felt like weightlifting. I could tell I had gotten a workout.

“The strength you build is advantageous because you have more control as you travel through the space. You build a lot of strength, especially in your core and your arms. You don’t have the leverage that the floor provides anymore,” Vartanian said.

I am someone who enjoys being in control, and doing this workout was a way to have that control for a little bit and then let it go so I could fly. The rush I got from thrusting myself into the air of the open studio was unforgettable. I will definitely be going back again, and I’d recommend it to any daredevils and adventurers out there. Why not, instead of having your head in the clouds while you do homework, take a break and get your whole body to fly?