This weekend I spent an hour hanging upside down from a steel hoop (covered in hockey tape for ‘padding’) while simultaneously trying to pull my foot behind my head. On Tuesday I practised climbing up two pieces of stretchy fabric and wrapped it with my body to make human-fabric pretzel combinations.
It took several years to work up the courage to take my first aerial class, but once I did it quickly became a major passion in my life.
Aerial is a type of acrobatics performed from a hanging apparatus. These pictures illustrated aerial hoop and aerial silks – which has been my main source of body movement for the past 5 years. Over that time I’ve increased my fitness, become part of an incredible community and learned to do some pretty neat looking tricks often while hanging upside down. All without the need to run away from home.
Aerial is just one kind of circus training discipline. One of my favourite things about circus training is the diversity of options ranging from gymnastics type floor work like acrobatics and handstands, to manipulation disciplines like juggling, clown (of course) plus many new ones emerging all the time.
It’s the diversity of circus that has kept me interested for so long. When I get bored, injured* or am travelling and can’t get into the studio I work on something else. Most circus disciplines take a lot of practice to become skilled at so I’ve learned to make peace with being a beginner in lots of things. I love aerial and have developed a decent skill set in hoop and silks, but I’m also proud to be a beginner juggler, cyr wheeler and unicyclist.
So when I wanted to develop better flexibility I turned to contortion. Initially, I just worked on assuming the standard flexibility positions like pushing up into bridge, sitting in splits, pancake (straddle sit with chest/belly to floor) or whatever position I wanted to work on and tried to relax into the stretch (yeah right). After injuring myself doing splits last year I bought a few contortion books and videos to improve my training. What I’ve learned from them has been very surprising. Adult flexibility training is mostly about building strength!
Take back bending for example. I already knew that that developing core strength is a critical factor for overall fitness. And so I’ve done planks, mountain climbers, sit ups, V-ups, straddle ups and more planks. When I started contortion training, I realized that all of that work I’ve been doing has made me strong in contraction, but that as soon as my core muscles stretched out long they quickly lost all their power. The same thing happened with my legs and hips. Attempting to move my legs around in extension without the contraction power of quads and glutes felt like a puzzle just trying to figure out which muscles to use at all. This has become a weird source of frustration and enjoyment as I discover muscles in my own body that I’d swear weren’t there before.
My other favourite thing about circus is that it is an artistic practice rather than competitive. Beginner skills done with artistry and technique can be much more interesting to watch than the most dangerous high level skills executed poorly. I’m counting on this aspect to keep me going as I get older. There are limits to what my body can do when it comes to doing difficult tricks, but I can always improve how I do the skills within my capability. Professionals combine all three but there is also a world of recreational circus students out there ready to welcome anyone wanting to give it a try. We all start somewhere, so if you’ve been thinking about trying one of the circus disciplines I strongly recommend that you find a studio/school/club and give it a whirl.
Side note on injury and danger: I’ve been injured many times, but never from falling. Bruises and overuse injuries are common, but falling in aerial is not. Because many circus disciplines (aerial and acro especially) involve height and inverting it is important to learn under the supervision of a qualified instructor. Good teachers care deeply about student safety. Learning skills low to the ground with safety mats and proper progressions are critical. The good news is that under these conditions, falling is something I’ve never seen happen at the beginner level.
Renee Frigault is a professional engineer and recreational aerialist. She works and trains in Toronto, ON.