Hurtling towards the ground in a thirty foot freefall with nothing but a thin sheet of fabric between your legs is an everyday occurrence for the Zen Arts aerial dance crew. Born in the 1970s, aerial dance is the performance art of dance-like movements upon an aerial apparatus attached to the ceiling, with moves choreographed in all three dimensions of space, moving up and down, left and right, and back and forth. Although the talented Zen aerialists make it seem effortless, this risky art form takes a lot of courage, trust, and strength.

Aerial dance came about thanks to acclaimed dancer and choreographer Terry Sendgraff. In 1975 Terry introduced a new form of improvisational dance she coined “Motivity,” self-described as an emphasis on “the individual’s discovery of her or his unique aesthetic using a system of sensory awareness while on the ground and in the air.” Professionally trained in all forms of dance including modern and ballet, as well as gymnastics, Terry’s motivity genre mainly took place on a single-point low flying trapeze, upon which she performed various hangs, poses, and motions.

By 1978 Terry had founded “Fly By Nite,” the first ever women’s trapeze dancing troupe, performing regular shows at the Motivity Center in Berkeley, CA. By 1980 Terry established her Motivity Company. And since then Terry has been performing, collaborating, and teaching, helping to spread the aerial dance genre into the widespread phenomenon it is today, used in virtually every Cirque du Soleil production. She has won countless awards and honors including an Isadora Duncan Solo Performance Award in 1989.

Aerial dance is a total body workout, utilizing great strength, balance, agility, and flexibility across the entire body. Since grips are done with both the upper and lower body, an aerial dance performer must be well-conditioned all over, with emphasis on an exceptionally strong core. In most aerial dance performances aerialists do not utilize safety lines, so they must rely on their own strength and skill to ensure they do not fall.

Even though aerial dance is often performed solo, the apparatus upon which an artist is performing often becomes a substitute dance partner, for the aerialist must choreograph movements in consideration to the motion and balance of the apparatus itself. Add in another performer on the same apparatus and the difficulty of the task has just multiplied threefold, since now the performers must maintain balance with each other and complete their movements perfectly and synchronously.

There are hundreds of possibilities when it comes to aerial apparatuses, with new ones being concocted every year, but among the most popular are the trapeze, lyra, tissu, hammock, rope, and cube. All apparatuses can be used solo, with one partner, or multiple partners, with duos and groups performing various lifts and balancing acts for added effect.

Aerial trapeze, the original circus aerial apparatus and the one Sendgraff initially used to create aerial dance, is probably the most popular aerial dance apparatus used. It consists of a bar hanging from the ceiling by two ropes, fixed either at one point (allowing for full rotation of the swing) or two points (allowing for motion in only one direction). Trapezes can be static, swinging, or multiple, allowing for flying between trapeze bars. Tricks performed involve various hangs using the feet, legs, arms, or any combination thereof, with duo tricks involving some sort of support of the second aerialist.

Aerial lyra (also known as aerial hoop, ring, or cerceaux) is a steel ring that resembles a hula hoop, also fixed at either one or two points. Just as trapeze this apparatus can be static, swinging, or spinning. Furthermore, many of the tricks performed on trapeze can also be performed with the aerial lyra.

Aerial tissu (also known as aerial silk, fabric, chiffon, ribbon, or straps) is the use of fabrics hanging from the ceiling as a performance apparatus. The fabrics are usually a poly blend that allows for medium stretching, with a width depending on personal preference as well as size of hands. Aerial fabrics usually hang to the floor or even longer, giving the extra slack needed to perform various tricks. Most aerial fabric acts need vertical space of about 20 to 30 feet in order to perform tricks safely. Performers may use one, two, or more fabrics in any given aerial tissu routine.

Aerial tissu tricks are usually divided into three main categories: climbs, wraps, and drops. For the most part these are self-explanatory, with a climb being when a performer ascends up the fabric, a wrap when a performer wraps their body (or portions of their body) within the fabric, and a drop being when a performer descends down the fabric. During all of these tricks performers create various aesthetically pleasing poses. The more complicated the wrap, the easier the pose, since there is more friction holding the body up, taking a portion of the work off the performer. Drops are obviously the most dangerous and difficult of the three and are usually performed following a wrap. A common drop is the windmill, in which the performer unravels the fabric wrapped around their body, descending towards the ground with legs spread apart and spinning. Some drops are even performed in a state of complete freefall!

Seeing as aerial tissu artists are only as safe as their own strength, some performers use rosin, a sticky resin from conifers that increases friction, in order to improve their grip. Furthermore, duo aerial silk can be particularly tricky since partners must support and balance one another’s weight, a feat requiring implicit trust and confidence.

Aerial hammock is similar to aerial tissu except that the fabric loops back up to the ceiling to create a hammock-like apparatus to perform in. Aerial hammock tricks are the same as tissu tricks with the addition of cradling elements, in which the performer can lie within the fabric of the hammock without the support of a hand grip, foot hold, or additional aerialist.

Aerial rope (also known as corde lisse, meaning “smooth rope” in French) is a large rope apparatus that involves many of the same tricks as aerial tissu including climbs, wraps, and drops. Aerial rope is usually made from a soft cotton in thickness of 25-30 mm. Just like in aerial tissu, performers must utilize various foot locks to ascend and descend the rope, as well as to perform various intricate poses and tricks.

Lastly aerial cube incorporates a large, hollow, and side-less three-dimensional cube upon and through which performers exhibit various holds and poses. Like most other aerial apparatuses, performers on cube must pay particular attention to each others movements, for any untimely or wrong gesture could throw the entire apparatus into a state of disequilibrium.

Other types of apparatuses include aerial bungee, performing somersaults and various tricks attached to a giant bungee cord, aerial perch, performing grabs and poses against a fixed pole, and aerial net, performing tricks similar to those in aerial tissu utilizing a netted material.

Since aerial dance is usually performed without a safety net or harness, aerial professionals must go through rigorous practice and training before attempting a live performance. Accidents do occur, like in November of 2009 when an aerialist had to be hospitalized after falling during a holiday show at the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles. The seasoned 26-year-old performer fell nearly 40 feet when she slipped while hanging upside from a lyra, a trick she had performed countless times before.

One of the main safety precautions aerialists take is performing in tight or form-fitting clothing to allow a full range of motion without the interference of materials. Baggy and flowy clothing can provide superfluous material that can intermingle with the apparatus as well as grip attempts by the performer. In addition to safety reasons, many wear minimal clothing to show off full muscular definitions and body lines as part of the aesthetics of the act, showcasing the beauty of the human body and its capabilities.

Starting in 1999 in Boulder, CO, the Aerial Dance Festival is an annual gathering of aerial performers to share, learn, and discuss various tricks and new techniques. Put on by Frequent Flyers Productions Inc., the festival consists of two weeks of demonstrations, seminars, workshops, and classes, providing a forum for aerial dance artists from around the nation to join together.

Today many modern trapeze schools offer courses in aerial dance. To try your hand at aerial dance simply research a trapeze school near you and ask which apparatuses they train in. Or if you’d like to leave the difficult stuff to us, call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email at [email protected] to witness a breathtaking Zen Arts aerial dance routine first-hand.

For more of our favorite photos of Zen Arts aerial dance check out the thumbnails below or visit the Zen Arts Facebook page.