Guide to Getting Started in Aerial Arts

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One of the most frequent questions I get asked (almost on a daily basis) is: How do I get started as an aerialist? This question is so vague and broad that I put together this Guide to Getting Started in Aerial Arts to hopefully help answer some of the questions surrounding this topic. An aerial practice is ongoing and indefinite...it is a long-term investment that requires a lot of time, energy and lifelong learning. This blog is also inconclusive, because I’m sure as time goes on I will edit and add things that I have forgotten, but—it’s at least a place to start, for you and for me!

You see videos of aerialists moving effortlessly through the air orr maybe your recent trip to Vegas has you feeling inspired to try something new. So where to begin?

Understand what aerial dance & fitness / circus / aerial yoga is and is not, so you can understand what becoming an “aerialist” means to you. 

The words are often interchanged but there are many different aspects behind each of these categories. I could dive into a million vocabulary words on this topic, but I’m going to focus on defining these three for now: “aerial dance/fitness,” “circus,” and “aerial yoga.” 

Aerial Dance & Fitness - most “pole & aerial studios” would label themselves as dance and fitness. These classes are centered around group fitness and exercise while utilizing dance techniques in aerial silks, aerial sling/hammock, lyra (hoop), flexibility/contortion, pole fitness, dance trapeze, traditional dance classes, etc. Generally speaking, aerial dance & fitness studios do not offer high level acrobatic classes or teach some traditional circus art skills like juggling, clowning, etc. Some studios focus more on technique and strength while others focus more on artistry and performance. Every studio is unique in its mission and community. Artists/athletes in this category can fall on a spectrum between being “hobby aerialists,” that simply just want to have fun and make friends through aerial arts, to being professional aerial dance instructors, performers and studio owners.

Circus - If you say you want to become a circus performer, know what this means. Circus arts generally encompasses high level acrobatics, highly skilled aerial work and also a variety of ground acts and performances. While a good number of circus performers are also teachers in their craft, the majority of circus artists focus heavily on performing as their main priority and career. The technical definition of circus is: a traveling company of acrobats, clowns, and other entertainers which gives performances, typically in a large tent, in a series of different places. There are various circus centers and schools around the world that study circus arts intensively for the sole purpose of placing acrobats into cirque shows and productions upon graduation.

Aerial Yoga - Aerial yoga is a type of modern yoga practice that blends traditional yoga poses, pilates and flexibility with an aerial yoga hammock. There are hundreds of certifications available for aerial yoga, just as there are traditional yoga certification classes. Not all certifications are created equal so do your research if this is something you are interested in obtaining. Aerial yoga is typically not categorized as “aerial dance.” Some studios only teach aerial yoga and nothing else, just like there are thousands of boutique studios that only teach traditional yoga. For the most part, aerial yoga is a grounded or low-flying practice in an aerial yoga hammock, focused on meditation and accessibility. Dynamic movements and drops are not usually part of an aerial yoga curriculum.

Aerial dance/fitness, circus & aerial yoga all serve their purpose in the world and all vary greatly in their intention & execution. Do your research and decide which area is appropriate for you--could be more than one!

Okay, so what’s next?

  1. Find A Coach / Mentor / Training Partner / Home Aerial Studio or Training Facility

This is absolutely, without a doubt, one of the most important things you should do FIRST. Find a mentor to support you on your journey. Someone you look up to to ‘show you the ropes’ (pun intended), preferably someone local to you that you can access in person. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of brilliant artists out in the world. Seek out the mentor that speaks to your soul. A good coach can guide you through safety, injury prevention, training and provide a plethora of knowledge and wisdom. Keep in mind that good performers do not always make great teachers and vice versa. I’m not saying you’re coach is going to be perfect or know EVERYTHING —they are humans too! But find a wise artist/coach/studio in the area of your choosing to help guide you through this new and exciting process. 

  1. Get Educated on Aerial Arts Safety

This is huge. The second most frequent message I receive on an almost daily basis: “Hi! My name is so-and-so and I just got an aerial _______ apparatus. Where can I hang it?

PLEASE, do yourself a favor and check out some of these safety & rigging resources below before you ask any aerial professional, rigging professional, studio owner, etc. how you can hang an aerial apparatus in your home or in your backyard tree. When it does come time for you to purchase your own equipment, you will also want to research aerial arts equipment suppliers. Not all equipment is created equal.

Vertical Art Dance | One of the leading aerial arts companies providing innovative rigging solutions. They sell top rated equipment, customizable free standing truss structures for home or studio and even have free aerial safety resources available on their website and YouTube channel

Rigging Books:

Introduction to Rigging: Aerialist Essentials by Steven Santos

Introduction to Rigging: Aerial Fabrics by Steven Santos

Entertainment Rigging by Harry Donovan

Arena Rigger’s Handbook by Delbert Hall & Brian Sickels

Ashley Book of Knots, The Knots Bible by Clifford W. Ashley

Rigging Math Made Simple by Delbert Hall

Entertainment Rigging in the 21st Century by Bill Sapsis

Stage Rigging Handbook by Jay O. Glerum

Injury/Prevention Safety Books:

Applied Anatomy of Aerial Arts: An Illustrated Guide to Strength, Flexibility, Training, and Injury Prevention by Emily Scherb, DPT. 

The Circus Doc Blog 

Rigging Blogs & Articles:

Aerial Rigging - What You Don’t Know Could Kill You by Laura Witwer

Issues in Tree Rigging for Aerial Arts by Liz Cooper

3. Take Things Slow

It’s easy to get really excited and feel like you have to learn everything all at once when you first begin. Take. It. Slow. Often times new aerialists jump right into teaching or even opening their own studios because they think that it will make them better aerialists. Wrong. Every single aerial teacher I know (myself included) will tell you their own training and progress took a backseat the minute that they became a mentor to others. Teaching is a wonderfully, rewarding career but it is also extremely mentally and physically exhausting. There are times when you will have nothing left to give yourself because you have already given it away to everyone else. Enjoy being a student. Enjoy the journey and the process. There’s so much to learn and the aerial world is constantly changing. Don’t feel like you need to know everything. Even if/when you become an instructor yourself, make sure you are always a student first. 

4. Decide Your Path
Do you wish to compete? Train in aerial arts as a hobby so you have a cool ice-breaking conversation topic? Teach at a dance studio? Open your own dance studio? Perform in a show? All or some of the above? It’s impossible to know exactly what your aerial journey is going to look like, especially in the beginning. But, it’s a good idea to think about exactly how you want aerial arts to serve your life so that you have a sort of compass to point you in the right direction. 

Here are some other things to consider once you have more knowledge/training/experience under your belt:

Online Resources, Tutorials & Private Instruction

There are a few online tutorial platforms and websites available for the aerial arts and content will vary depending on what you’re looking for. There are many benefits to receiving online instruction. Most instructors who offer online content I think would agree that it is not meant to replace in-person training/guidance but to supplement an existing program with a qualified instructor. If you are seeking online instruction, it’s imperative that you: 

1. Already have a physical training partner \ coach 

2. Understand the risks involved with the aforementioned safety concerns. 

3. Be safe and be smart about how, when and where you are utilizing online instruction. 

4. Last but not least, educate yourself on safe aerial rigging practices and precautions & enforce those practices 100% of the time.

Some of the online resources and instruction that I offer in aerial sling, silks, pole, flexibility, etc. are one-on-one video lessons, a monthly Masterclass and pre-recorded Tutorial Videos that can be purchased a la carte or in a discounted bundle.

Other well-known, online educational resources that are also available: Aerial Physique, Aerial Dancing by Rebekah Leach, Womack and Bowman and many others. 

Private lessons can also be very useful at any stage in your training. While they will typically cost at least 3-4x what a group fitness class will you will generally get 3-4x the attention, skills and knowledge. Private lessons can be a way to fast-track your growth and to also work closely with an instructor that you really connect with.

Workshops

Like all artists, you will hit a plateau at some point. Workshops can sometimes be the breath of life that you need when you’re in a training rut. They could also give you a kickstart as a beginner aerialist to see what professional instruction looks like. Workshops are CE (Continuing Education). You might get new material, find a new teaching style that really resonates with you, walk away with a new idea or approach to training or maybe you just become re-inspired all over again. Plus, when you take a workshop, you are supporting fellow artists & studio owners sustain a living in their craft. 

Certifications 

Certifications aren’t exactly “necessary” or “required” for an aerialist to become a teacher, performer or studio owner because there is no one singular governing body/entity over aerial arts. However, it can never hurt to have more knowledge and you should seek certifications because you want to learn (and maybe also be recognized for your dedication and education to your craft). Most studios require their instructors to have some level of group fitness or aerial certification and most insurance companies will ask for proof of certification if you wish to be covered under their policies (some even offer a discount for this). Again, not all certifications are created equal and every program is different. Some require very little contact hours with the instructor, some are only available online, some are only available in person. Decide if a certification is worthwhile for YOU and what would you gain from it as a member of the aerial community.

What Would We Tell Ourselves?

Last but not least, I polled my Instagram followers and asked them what they would tell their baby aerialist selves. Here is what some of them said: 

“It doesn’t get easier, but you get stronger.” - @kristenleal

“Form is everything! Active flexibility prevents injuries. Cross training is important.” - @the.aerialist.artist_jessie

“There are so many different ways to do a thing! Learn them to expand your creative toolbox!” - @heysexytiger

“Tricks are cool but making tricks look effortless is cooler.” - @laurashum

“Don’t push too hard. It leads to setbacks and in the end it’ll take longer to reach goals.” - @emily.a.swanson

“Only stretch splits when warm. Warm up always!” - @thelittleyogilaur

I hope you found this blog helpful, especially if you are reading this as a new addition to the aerial and circus community. This blog may be updated in the future with additional notes and resources (and feel free to comment below if you have anything to add), so bookmark it and check back frequently!

Happy flying, 

Holly