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Chasing After the Anti-Run: Aerial Class

For the third part of a summer alternative fitness series (see also: pole dancing and twerking), I chose to channel my inner acrobat and attend an aerial class

If you’re wondering what in the world an aerial class is, take a look here at an experienced acrobat displaying her chops on silks. Aerial skills are the foundation for all of the gymnastic climbing and looping around strips of fabrics, called silks, that are a main component of circus shows and Cirque du Soleil productions. Aerial dancing is a gymnastic form of using silks, which typically hang from the ceiling and often brush the ground. Recently, aerial moves have transitioned into the world of fitness classes, offering core strengthening and increased coordination.

As I mentioned in my pole-dancing piece a few weeks back, I have an immense fear of heights. So of course I sampled the only two fitness classes around that make a point of keeping you off the ground. Childhood Me adored Cirque du Soleil shows; the lights, the music and the acrobatics entranced me. Adult Me sees the same moves and immediately jumps to the worst conclusion: a broken collarbone, a shattered femur, really any broken limb. But I braved those fears for the sake of this article, and for the experience itself -- and I’ve lived to write my tale. 

The class took place in Mid-city at a gym called NOLA Xtreme Fitness. It’s a renovated car garage that now holds an open-space weight room below and two studios up top. My best friend (in town visiting and slightly annoyed that I had dragged her along on this fitness experiment) and I were directed upstairs to the studio on the right. 

Now, I teach Zumba in a cushy studio in central Ohio in an athletic center that has two full walls of mirrors. I’m used to what we shall call normal. This studio was everything but. Normal, that is. It sits on the top floor with an atrial ceiling, but no windows. Punching bags line the walls, as do weights and flowing silks that, in a matter of minutes, we would be climbing like primates. 

Students display Arabella on horsetail silks

Students display Arabella on horsetail silks

Seven of us, including Kirsten and myself, join an instructor named Alex. Yet again, I was asked to sign a waiver for injuries; I can only assume that if you are entirely uncoordinated, silks could be a legal trap. While our aerial class was taking place, some kind of extreme class also was happening. I didn’t catch its goal, but at one point attendees were chucking medicine balls at the ground with grunts that would rival Maria Sharapova. Their purpose was unclear; I would have asked if the instructor hadn’t been a giant male with angels tattooed on his calves. I’m 90 percent sure those angels are scarier than I’ll ever be. 

We would-be aerialists started in a circle, offering up our names and experience in aerial arts. Besides two girls who had each taken one class prior, we all were newbies. And, honestly, I liked it that way. When you’re trying a new sport or fitness class, it’s always good to have a relatively equal plane of inexperience. Otherwise, the self-conscious doubt comes bubbling up like sweat.

The warm-up consisted of jogging across the mat-covered floor in the traditional knees and other variations. We then proceeded to do three kinds of abs – my nightmare – as well as a variety of stretches. Thanks to the medicine ball group, we were blocked from some of the shorter silks that lined the far wall. Thus our class was treated to the luxury of starting on high silks.

What I learned from our instructor is that there are two kinds of silks that we would use that day – hammock and horsetail. The hammock is what one would expect – hanging silk with a sort of sling at the bottom near the ground. The horsetail involves two silks that come to a large knot at the end, on which you can stand. I guess none of us were advanced enough to use silks without some sort of tie at the end.

The first few moves were cake. They included stepping onto the knot at the base of the set of silks, holding near your armpits, tipping slightly forward while still holding on, tipping backward to experience your weight and how that affects your balance in the silk. Then we went on to more advanced moves.

In the Arabella move, you shift forward and take one foot out of the base and point it straight forward. The Star is a slightly more complicated move, requiring that you stand with the loop of the silk base right below your shoulders and flip backward, so that your head is pointed toward the ground and your feet out to the sides. It’s the basis for the next move, Chair, and it’s extremely terrifying the first couple of times you try it. Kirsten and I were absolutely baffled that the others in the class, not including the two who had prior experience, were able to simply flip backward, worry free. I was that kid who never did a somersault because I was afraid of injuring my neck.

After a few tries, we got the hang of Star. It’s actually quite comfortable. From Star, you can wrap your legs around the silks from the outside and hook your toes. Then comes the hard part – using core strength to rock your upper body upward and grab onto the silks above your feet. The key is to bend your knees. But my legs are short and my abdomen even shorter; I lack abdomen and upper body strength and had a slight panic attack at the thought of letting go of the silks at any given point during the class. I may or may not have had a slight push to get up there. Alex, our instructor, promised that Chair would hurt at first, but after a few classes it would be the most comfortable chair you’ve ever sat in.

Lies.

Okay, I only went to the one class. And I would definitely consider going to more. But I don’t think I’d ever find this Chair comfortable, no matter how many classes I attended.

Me, struggling to pull myself up into Chair position

Me, struggling to pull myself up into Chair position

Despite needing a small push (it was negligible, really, no more than a strong breeze) into Chair, I was relatively satisfied with my performance in the class to that point.

And then came the flip. Remember, I was the kid who ran away from somersaults. The kid who was absolutely terrified of sliding down the playground fireman pole. So when the final move we attempted was a flip into Star, I simply couldn’t. I just didn’t have the guts.

The class ended with some core moves on the four silks as well as push-ups. Kirsten and I may have cheated on the “egg roll” position, which incorporated the hated flip-in move.

Kirsten happily hanging out in her silk Chair pose

Kirsten happily hanging out in her silk Chair pose

All in all, I’ve found in aerial a class that I would definitely return to. Adult Me still has that secret desire to be an acrobat in a Cirque du Soleil show. Now, I know that the people in those shows are extensively trained acrobats, athletes, who have dedicated their lives to the craft. But I could do all the moves minus the flip-in! That has to be worth something.

If you’re considering going to an aerial class at NOLA Xtreme Fitness, I suggest you call and make sure that you get Alex for an instructor. She was kind, incredibly talented and encouraging 100 percent of the time, which is critical when stepping outside of your comfort zone.

The day after my class I was slightly sore, but knew I had gotten a good core workout that incorporated so many stretches that it had increased my flexibility, something I’ve been trying to get back since I stopped religiously attending yoga classes.

New future plan – be an aerial artist. I call dibs on the purple silks next time.

Emily is an editorial intern at Nola Vie. Contact her at [email protected]