There’s something so effortless about flying, isn’t there? You lift your wings, feel the air beneath you, and soar to such great heights.
And then you come crashing down.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I recently tried my hand at the aerial arts, also known as circus arts, at West Ashley’s Aerial Fit. Co-founded by Clayton Woodson and Jordan Anderson, Aerial Fit offers classes in aerial silks and slings, trapeze and aerial hoop, acro yoga, and aerial yoga. But don’t let the word aerial fool you — you don’t immediately learn to fly, at least not in the effortless way we often dream about.
Woodson’s idea of and love for the aerial arts is actually pretty grounded. “I can’t say I ever had strong aspirations to take big risks, but being the son of an engineer, I always wanted to know how and why things worked. In other words, I’m a bit of a nerd. I think this is why I enjoy circus arts so much,” he says. Woodson and Anderson met while attending college at Oberlin — Woodson says he got Anderson’s attention by doing a handstand in the middle of a parking lot — and they started teaching aerial yoga and circus classes in Charleston in 2009.
In 2013 the pair opened their full-time “dedicated circus school” in West Ashley — a warehouse of sorts that features 25 foot ceilings. The logistics for the building are incredibly important; those beams above you are holding you up and, you know, keeping you alive. “We had structural engineers and the steel manufacturers provide drawn plans on how we were going to install the beams we need to attach our apparatuses. We also had riggers qualified to work with human loads double check our plans, and all lined up to install our gear once we had a signed lease,” says Woodson. And having safe stuff means inspecting safe stuff, too. “Having 25 foot ceilings is fun for training, but in order to do all of those inspections we decided that we had to invest in our own scissor lift. I think driving it is one of the perks of the job, but I hear it is an acquired taste.”
Now that you’re cleared on safety talk, let’s get another thing out of the way: Contrary to popular belief, the aerial arts are not the same as aerial yoga. Anderson lays out their differences pretty simply, “If you’ve ever been in a yoga class that used a block to help you in a pose, or a class that had a yoga wall with ropes, the way we use the aerial sling is very similar to that. An aerial yoga class feels very much like a regular yoga class, with the focus on breathing, alignment, and even bringing postures back down to the floor. In contrast, an aerial class teaches techniques specific to aerial arts. The apparatus is a prop for creative expression, for fitness, for skills.”
Got it? Good.
Creative expression is a huge part of the aerial arts, perhaps the most important part — other than not toppling to the ground, of course. Students are taught to work creativity into skill-based classes so that one day they could put on their own performance, if they so desired.
In my first aerial fit class I worked with slings, pulling myself up into a balanced position, arms and legs out, my core holding my ass on the pink swath of silky material. I was not far from the ground and if I fell, I would have landed on a mat. Still, the sensation was thrilling. That first position didn’t feel particularly sexy to me but by the time I was upside down, using my knee to pull myself into a half-upright position, I felt like a bonafide acrobat.
And that feeling is really what Woodson and Anderson look for in their students. “We’ve seen introverted students come out of their shell and begin to tackle being on stage, and being more assertive in their relationships and jobs. We’ve seen quiet or shy students develop a sense of authority and self-confidence, and begin to take healthy risks in their lives,” says Anderson.
“I liked it immediately, from the first class,” says student Maria Mezenko, who has been coming to Aerial Fit for a year now. “It was always inspiring to see people around here — once you see them in the air you think, ‘I also want to do that one day.'” And while Mezenko focuses on building her strength, other students, like Angela Rawlings, have taken their skills to new heights, specifically to performing.
If you’ve reached a certain skill level at Aerial Fit then you qualify to take a choreography class. During the four month course you create a character, pick out music, and fit your performance into the theme of the show. “There are nuances, you can add flair, make it prettier,” says Rawlings.
Both Rawlings and Mezenko fit into the category of the majority of Aerial Fit users — women in their 20s to 40s. And while the thrill-seeking nature of the circus arts can draw people from all demographics, Woodson notes the most common reason for people to try Aerial Fit is exactly what its name implies, fitness. “For the most part students come in looking for something different than going to a gym for a workout. Getting stronger and looking graceful or beautiful is a really powerful combination and that is what I think gets people coming back,” he says.
I certainly felt stronger — and sore — after aerial slings class, nursing mysterious bruises on my thighs and arms. I also felt pretty damn powerful, like maybe, one day, even if it required all the control and power my body had, I, too, could make flying look effortless.
Learn more at aerialfit.com.