By Jessica Levine
“You should come watch,” my friend said to me about 9 months ago, “I’m in a show that’s Cirque du Soleil meets gymnastics and I’m performing on aerial tissu.”
“Aerial tissue???” I asked.
“Well, no, tissue with no -e….it’s also called aerial silk and it’s great.”
So I went to watch and it completely took my breath away. My friend (and the other performers) displayed such strength, control, beauty, and balance 20 feet in the air that I was thoroughly amazed. I couldn’t get the performance out of my mind; I knew I had to try it.
The next weekend, I drove out to the studio (more like a warehouse, really) for my first class. For two hours, I pulled, pushed, flipped, and spun. I spent a significant amount of time in the air (only about 5 feet up—I was a beginner!), and brought home photos on my phone to prove it. It was HARD, and I could barely grip the steering wheel on the drive home, but I kept mulling over what I had learned, eager to get back in the air.
After that first class, I was hooked. I go every week, twice a week if I can find time, and have progressed rapidly. I started by learning poses in the air. Then I started learning drops. A large amount of strength and control are required for each maneuver and the eventual goal of everything I’ve learned is to make each movement look graceful and effortless (which I assure you, it’s not).
Aerial tissu requires a significant amount of upper body strength. The most basic move is climbing and it involves pull-up after pull-up. This continues to be a workout for me and it’s not unusual that I’ll reach the top of the tissu and be winded if I’ve climbed too quickly. Turn that into a 4-5 minute sequence of poses and drops and my muscles and my breathing need some recovery time once I’m back on the ground.
Just as important as upper body strength is core strength. Keeping my body upright and balanced in three dimensions requires a huge amount of stabilization. Take away the floor and my limbs can pretty much flail all over the place. Climbing requires pulling up with my arms, but also using my core to lift up my legs for every inch of height I gain. As a more advanced student, I regularly invert my legs over my head and this requires significant core strength, especially to do it over and over again.
Before starting aerial, my fitness routine primarily involved running, climbing stairs, and weightlifting. In the weight room, I keep it basic, focusing on squats, deadlifts, benchpress, and rows, and last year my new year’s resolution was to be able to do a full legitimate pull up (which I crushed in March, just 3 months later!). As a result, at my first aerial class, walking up to a piece of fabric hanging from the ceiling and pulling myself up wasn’t beyond my ability. Doing it on and off during class for 2 hours, however, was still very challenging. Since then, I’ve gotten stronger by adding in more exercises to my gym routine that simulate the motions I perform in the air.
Like many other aerial students at my studio, I video myself on the tissu so I can go back and study my body position while listening to the advice my teacher gives as she watches. I’m amazed by what I can do in less than a year and I daydream about the chance to perform sometime soon.
It can still be scary. I feel the adrenaline at the beginning of every class. Will I be strong enough today? Will I make a mistake? Will I fall?
I notice when I up in the air, I’m wholly involved in what I’m doing. For that time, there’s no space in my mind for what to make for dinner, who to email back at work, or when to call my parents. I am concentrating on where to step and how to wrap the tissu and I’m tuning in to my body to keep my balance. In this, tissu requires intense concentration in addition to physical strength. It’s the exhilarating and beautiful combination of the two that keeps me climbing into the air every week.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JESSICA LEVINE trains in the Los Angeles area at The Aerial Classroom.