“I don’t mean to sound grim, but people die doing this,” the bald man says, his goateed face looking grave and his legs folded into lotus position. “This is dangerous. There’s nothing that’s going to take that danger away.” This momentarily silences the nervous giggles of two tweens.
“I hope that you are afraid,” says the man, who calls himself Myster Porch. “I hope that you are afraid of getting hurt, because if you’re not, you’re the person who is going to get hurt, without a doubt.”
A woman cautiously raises her hand.
“So . . . is there anything that’s . . . fun about this? You’ve told us a lot about what’s scary . . . but why are we here?”
Porch nods wisely and says only she can know why she decided to attend Sky Gym’s Intro to Aerial Dance. The class acquaints wannabe acrobats with swinging on trapezes, spinning on suspended metal hoops, and spiraling on long strips of fabric that hang from the ceiling.
Check Instagram and you’ll see photos of celebs stretching out on silks—from Khloé and Kourtney to January Jones. Fitness classes have sprung up to capitalize on the art’s growing popularity, with Reebok creating Jukari Fit to Fly, a session that combines suspension training and cardio. Even Hugh Jackman has reportedly said he does trapeze as an alternative to weight training.
But there are no celebrities in this class at Sky Gym, and nobody’s getting coddled like a Kardashian. Porch spends a great deal of time informing students of the very real dangers associated with the art. (A dancer with a troupe in Chicago died in January after he was hit with a steel acrobatics ring, and a Cirque du Soleil performer with the show Kà in Las Vegas fell to her death in 2013.) At Sky Gym, the facility’s ceilings are twenty-eight feet tall. And the mats on the floor are only one and a half inches thick.
After our “scared straight” talk, Porch gives us a quick warm-up—jumping jacks, rolling shoulders, stretching wrists—and some instruction on swinging from the silks. I twist a silk around each wrist twice, then hoist myself up and tuck in my knees. Yeah, it’s much tougher than it looks. It’s essentially an only slightly assisted pull-up. My partner and spotter, a fellow student named Mikey, pushes me like I’m on a rope swing at a lake.
Then we all take turns doing basic moves on various apparatuses: standing or sitting on knotted silks, sitting on the trapeze, and climbing onto and lying back on the metal hoop. The last, a co-instructor says, should feel like a metal thong in your rear (it does). Porch tells us that audiences never clap at the right times when watching an aerialist. They don’t realize that just getting on the trapeze—swinging your legs onto the bar, hanging by your hands and knees, then reaching for the ropes and pulling yourself into a seated position—is one of the most strenuous parts of any routine.
He’s not kidding. I work pretty hard on my upper-body strength, but these moves make me ache, particularly in my shoulders, lats, and hands. While this isn’t a cardio-intensive activity (at least at the beginner level), it’s definitely a workout.
At the follow-up class, which focuses on just the silks and moves like the “Lady in the Moon” and the “Gazelle,” the effort and pain increase tenfold.
I put a knot in the bottom of my two silks to create a U-shape. Then I put one foot on the knot, stand up, and shift the weight to the other foot while wrapping one silk around that ankle.
Holding the other half of the hammock with both hands, I swing my body through the two silks until my ankle is wrapped three times. With each wrapping, I have to use my arms to pull my body through the silks.
My “Lady in the Moon” looks more like “Panicking Trussed Pig.”
Porch is right about another thing: After all the hoisting and pulling I do to get set up, the glory moment comes when I’m already sitting on the trapeze bar, perched like a perfect parakeet. My arms push the ropes to the side and I position my legs like I’m doing a modified stag leap. That’s the easiest part of the day.
‣ Sky Gym in Sandy Springs offers instruction for adults and children who want to try the cirque arts. Intro $19, aerialsilksatlanta.com
‣ The Circus Arts Institute in Candler Park, founded by trapeze artist and social worker Carrie Heller, offers a variety of circus classes as well as play therapy for children. Intro $46, circusartsinstitute.com
‣ Inspire Aerial Arts on Metropolitan Parkway teaches students how to use aerial silks, hoops, and ropes for fitness or performance. Intro $15, inspireaerialarts.com
‣ The D’Air Project on Boulevard is a not-for-profit community arts organization with aerial dance for children and teens. Intro $20, dairproject.org
‣ Play Hard Gym on the west side is most known for its parkour classes, but also offers instruction on aerial silks. Intro $15, playhardgym.com
‣ Leap Trapeze in Athens trains all levels of acrobats on a high-flying trapeze rig. Intro $45, leaptrapeze.com
This article appeared in our July 2014 issue and is an extended version of an earlier blog post.