Here’s What You Need To Know Before Trying Aerial Circus Classes


Hi there! I’m Susie, and I’ve been taking aerial circus
classes for five years now.

Hi there! I'm Susie, and I've been taking aerial circus classes for five years now.

View this image ›

Until pretty recently, to learn any circus skills you had
to be born into a circus family, go to a professional
circus school, or literally run away with a bunch of
traveling acrobats. But today, recreational classes (for
normals like you and me) are becoming available in more and
more cities around the world.

I got started when a friend invited me to join her for an
“aerial class.” I didn’t know what “aerial” was, but I
quickly discovered it’s a ton of fun and a great workout,
especially if you’re not a gym person (hi).

Just so we get this out of the way: It may sound
incredibly obvious, but aerial is ~not~ the kind of workout
you can DIY
— even if you have previous experience with
gymnastics or dance, or were really good at climbing the
monkey bars when you were little. I’ll get more into that
and how to find a good instructor in a sec.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s what you need to know to
get started safely and find the right aerial class for
you.

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1. “Aerial
arts,” “aerial circus,” and “cirque-style fitness” are broad
terms that cover a whole bunch of different activities.

So what is all this stuff, even?

“Aerial” refers to any apparatus that’s hung in the air,
from a simple rope
to a giant metal cube.

Some of the disciplines most commonly taught to beginners are
aerial
silks (two long strips of fabric rigged from the
ceiling),
lyra (a metal hoop hung in the air), and trapeze (which
can be
“flying” — the kind over a net that you may have seen
Carrie try on Sex and the City — or
“static” and lower to the ground).

Some schools and teachers offer sampler courses that let you
try a few different apparatuses. Others specialize in a
certain discipline or prefer to focus on teaching one at a
time. Consider trying more than one apparatus to see which
you like best.
I started with silks, fell in love with
lyra a few years later, and now train and perform on both.

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2. Aerial
yoga is a different (very cool!) thing entirely.

Aerial yoga is a different (very cool!) thing entirely.

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In an
aerial yoga class, you’ll do variations on typical yoga
poses using a fabric hammock like the ones above. You’ll be
going upside down, but you’ll stay close to the floor while
the hammock supports your body weight. (Aerial
hammock, where performers use the hammock to do tricks
and drops higher off the ground, is a separate circus
discipline you can also take classes in.)

Aerial yoga is a great option if you’re already a yogi and
want to mix up your practice, or you want to try some
inversions but you’re not thrilled about heights or are
worried you won’t be strong enough to climb the fabric.
But when I refer to “aerial” in this post, I’ll be
talking about aerial circus classes rather than aerial
yoga.

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3. You
don’t need to have a particular body type to do aerial
circus.

As one of my aerial teachers, Laura Witwer, puts it in on her

blog, “Circus has room for every body, every age,
every creative soul who just doesn’t feel like being bound by
gravity today.”

If you’re hesitant because you’re not sure you’ll have the
strength or stamina to keep up, look for studios that offer
beginner-friendly aerial circus courses. Some schools also
offer classes labeled “aerial conditioning,” which are
designed to build your endurance by doing exercises on the
apparatus, without any pressure to learn tricks.

“If you are significantly over or under weight, very tight in
the muscles, or are working around a dodgy fill-in-the-blank,
the work has to be modified,” Witwer writes. “But so what? It
doesn’t mean you don’t start. It means you modify.”

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4. Aerial
can be accessible and adapted to people with different
abilities.

When I posted a callout on Facebook for aerial instructors
who’ve worked with students with disabilities, I was
overwhelmed with responses. People who use wheelchairs,
have had amputations, or have other mobility limitations are
learning, teaching, and performing aerial circus arts all
over the world.

Lauren Watson of Queensland, Australia, was partially
paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident and came to
aerial after struggling with physical therapy. “Don’t think
you have to stick with silks, especially if you do have
mobility limitations in your legs or feet,” she told BuzzFeed
by email. “Lyra and hammock are great introductions into
gaining a sense of spacial awareness, and because they are
apparatus that allow you to rest, you can still gain strength
in your arms and core without having to worry about injuring
your lower limbs.”

Mel Stevens, an aerialist and teacher with Aim to Fly
UK who has a spinal cord injury, says it’s important
for students with disabilities to focus on having fun, come
up with their own goals, and have an open dialogue with their
instructors about what’s working and what isn’t.
“Listen
to your body and feed your body,” she told BuzzFeed.

Canadian aerial performer and instructor Erin Ball (that’s
her above) had to relearn how to maneuver in the air after
her lower legs were amputated. “I am discovering more and
more skills and transitions that would not work the same way
with feet,” she wrote on her
blog. “It makes me wonder if we have even begun to
explore the potential that actually exists for humans to
adapt.”

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5. It’s not
just for women.

Most of the other students in the aerial classes I’ve been in
have been women, but don’t let that stop you — there’s plenty
of room in the aerial community for people of all gender
identities and expressions. (And if you have external
genitalia, read this
post about protecting your bits while you train.)

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6. You
don’t need a ton of upper body strength to start, but if
you stick with it you might develop some serious guns.

You don't need a ton of upper body strength to start, but if you stick with it you might develop some serious guns.

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OK, this move is still #goals for me, but I’m about a
thousand times stronger than I was before I started taking
aerial classes. Five years ago I couldn’t do a pull-up. Now
I can do at least one without cheating from a dead hang,
and a few more on a good day. (My coach, Laura, calls them

“the most important exercise on the planet” for
aerialists because lifting your own weight is part of so
many moves.)

Coming into your first aerial class with a high level of
upper body strength — say, from rock climbing or a regular
lifting routine — can certainly help you progress faster.
But if you feel like your arms are about as strong as limp
spaghetti noodles right now, don’t worry. Nobody expects
you to be super-buff in a beginner class, and your
instructor will modify things accordingly.

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7. You’ll
get a great core workout, too.

“Aerial arts is a whole body exercise,” Emily
Scherb, a Seattle-based physical therapist and circus
instructor, told BuzzFeed by email.
That’s because you
need to create your own stability through the core, upper
back, and shoulders while you’re hanging off the ground, she
says.

“Just hanging from the bar in a properly engaged position
involves finger flexors, the rotator cuff, scapular
stabilizers, abdominal, and glute recruitment to connect and
stabilize the whole body. When you add in climbing or turning
upside down, you still need to maintain that core engagement.
You’re going to be working hard!”

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8. You
don’t have to be super flexible, either.

You don't have to be super flexible, either.

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Full splits look pretty, but you 100% do not need to have
them to come to aerial class. (I’m still working on getting
mine!) If you can’t touch your toes or do a backbend,
you can still do aerial.
It’s all about starting where
you are and working toward where you want to be.

That said, regular yoga practice is a good complement to
aerial classes if you want to improve your flexibility.
Some circus facilities also offer supervised and assisted
stretching classes, and even contortion, if you want to get
mega-bendy.

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9. Consider
what class level and format will work best for you.

Some studios and teachers offer classes tailored specifically
for beginners; others offer mixed-level classes that
beginners are welcome to attend. If you’re in a mixed-level
class, your instructor should still be giving you plenty of
individual attention and modifying the moves for a
first-timer. If you’re not sure what the class
descriptions mean or what level you should be in, call or
email first to make sure the class you’re signing up for is
beginner-friendly.

Some places offer drop-in classes, which you typically
reserve and pay for online. Others require you to sign up for
a series of classes over several weeks or months and pay for
everything up front — not great if you’re commitment-phobic
or travel a lot.

If you’d rather start with one-on-one instruction or go
with a friend, many teachers offer private or semi-private
lessons for up to three people.
Expect to pay more per
hour than you would for a regular group class.

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10. Find
a qualified teacher who practices proper safety measures.

Find a qualified teacher who practices proper safety measures.

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Like any kind of exercise, aerial comes with risks,
including paralysis and even death. So it’s incredibly
important to make sure you work with an aerial teacher who
knows how to keep you safe. (Also, check in with your
doctor first and make sure you’re good to start a new
exercise program.)

How do you know if you can trust an aerial instructor,
school or studio?
Ask where they trained and how long
they’ve been teaching, says Adam Woolley, head coach at the
Philadelphia School of
Circus Arts and safety program manager for the American Circus
Educators Association (ACE). Look for someone who has
specific experience teaching aerial arts — performing and
instructing are two distinct skill sets.

Ask the other students in your class how long they’ve been
coming to this studio or teacher. You want to be with an
instructor who’s built a real community and has had some
returning students for years — it’s a testament to their
skill and safety, Woolley told BuzzFeed. You can also ask
if it’s possible to observe a class before signing up to
get a sense of the teacher’s style.

ACE maintains a directory
of organizations that have paid their membership dues. It’s
a good sign if a place you’re considering is on that list,
Woolley says, though it’s not an endorsement of their
safety practices. (It’s also not necessarily a red flag if
they’re not listed, as ACE was only established in 2014 and
is still gaining members.)

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11. Be
prepared to sign a waiver before class.

Be prepared to sign a waiver before class.

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Not to be a Debbie Downer again, but if the teacher or
studio doesn’t ask you to sign a waiver on your first day,
this is a bad sign. It shows they’re disorganized at the
very least, and may even be unaware of the risks of what
they’re teaching.

“It shouldn’t be that different than your experience
coming to a gym for the first time,” Woolley says.
Look
for a professional website with instructor bios, a
well-designed logo, and an organized intake process, he
suggests. Expect to be asked about any injuries you have
and medications you take.

When you show up for class, you should see mats laid out
under the apparatus. (Yoga mats are fine for aerial yoga,
but aren’t sufficient for aerial circus.) In a beginner
class, Woolley recommends that no more than four or five
people be in the air at a time, so the instructor can keep
a close eye on everyone.

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12. Expect
to learn a few basics in your first class and stay pretty
close to the floor.

Typically you’ll start with some kind of warm-up, either on
the ground or using the apparatus. Next you’ll move on to
foundational skills, like how to correctly grip the fabric or
bar, start a simple climb, or get onto the apparatus. Your
teacher should go over key aspects of safe technique, such as
proper shoulder positioning and abdominal engagement.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t go much further than that on your
first day. A good teacher will make sure you’ve mastered the
necessary beginner skills before moving on. Your instructor
should also listen to you and respect your limits, rather
than pushing you to do things you don’t feel safe doing.

“You should always feel safe,” Woolley says. “At the
end of the day, while it is very different and it is a lot of
fun, it should not be that different from most group fitness
classes.”

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13. Wear
comfortable clothes that will keep you covered while you’re
upside down.

Aerial classes can have some awkward moments. Like when
you’re hanging upside down with your legs spread wide and the
instructor physically pushes your butt up above your head. Or
when the apparatus tries to pants you.

Running tights or leggings and leotards or shirts you can
tuck in are best. Avoid baggy clothes and zippers that can
get stuck on the fabric or bar.
You should wear more
clothing to an aerial class than you would to a pole-dance
class — you’ll want to cover the backs of your knees, your
stomach, your lower back, and your armpits for certain moves
to avoid friction burns and scrapes.

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14.
You’ll want to eat a light, nutritious meal a few hours
before class.

You'll want to eat a light, nutritious meal a few hours before class.

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Hanging upside down on a full stomach is no fun, but
you’ll be working hard, so you don’t want to show up
feeling weak or hungry.
I like to pack a nutrition bar
or a banana to munch on if I need it, along with a big
bottle of water to drink during and after class. (Read more
on what to eat before and after a workout
here.)

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15.
Expect to be sore the day after your first class. Like,
got-hit-by-a-truck levels of sore.

Expect to be sore the day after your first class. Like, got-hit-by-a-truck levels of sore.

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Even if you work out regularly, aerial classes work
muscles most of us don’t use every day.
Your forearms
will ache. Your abs will ache. Your hands will ache. You
get the picture. (You’ll get used to it!)

That intense next-day soreness is also linked to the fact
that you’re in the air, doing something totally new, which
can spike adrenaline, says Dr. Scherb. “With a little
adrenaline helping, you will have the ability to fire your
muscles more than normal, and afterwards that can lead to
more fatigue than expected,” she told BuzzFeed.

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16. Don’t
be surprised if you develop a few “apparatus hickeys.”

Don't be surprised if you develop a few "apparatus hickeys."

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Friction from the silks or rope can result in burns on your
skin. (They’ll heal and peel just like a sunburn.) Pressure
from the trapeze bar or lyra can give you bruises.
Wearing clothes that cover your skin helps prevent this,
but it can be a little jarring, especially if you start
taking aerial classes when the weather’s nice and you’re
walking around in shorts and a tank top.

Oh, and your hands might get pretty callused from gripping
the apparatus, especially if you get really excited about
aerial and sign up for as many classes as you possibly can.
(Not that I’ve done that or anything.)

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17. Don’t
stress out if you don’t look like a pro at first.

People come to aerial classes from a wide range of
backgrounds. One of the women I train with is a former
competitive gymnast. Others have taken ballet since they were
tiny and have gorgeous lines and beautifully pointed toes I’d
kill for.

When I started doing aerial, I hadn’t taken a dance class
since I was a little kid and was, shall we say, ~challenged~
in the grace department. I felt like a total klutz, but I
tried to stay focused on having fun and getting better at my
own pace.

Some people get bitten by the aerial bug and decide to work
toward the goal of eventually performing in public. Others
just want to come to class every week and get a fun workout.
Both of these approaches — and anywhere in between — are
fine! Look for a teacher who can create the environment
you need, whether that’s super-relaxed or a serious
ass-kicking.

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18. Be
ready for some mental challenges along with the physical
ones.

Be ready for some mental challenges along with the physical ones.

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Even if you are not painfully afraid of heights, this
picture probably scares you a little. Or a lot. (I’m
looking at it right now, thinking of all the ways a person
could fall out of this position, while also knowing I
probably have the strength to do it myself if I can work up
the nerve.)

You shouldn’t be asked to do anything like this in an intro
class, but if you continue with aerial, you’ll eventually
get to something that feels ~scary~ to you. And you’ll have
to decide whether or not you think you can do it.

You should feel comfortable asking your teacher to explain
what’s keeping you safe in each move, what to look out for,
and what could go wrong. Your body’s instinct may be to
protect itself, to scream, “DON’T DO THAT!” But if you’re
being taught by a knowledgable, safety-first instructor,
the moments where you feel like you might actually die are
controlled, fairly minimal risks.

Pushing the limits of what’s “scary” has been a huge,
valuable part of
my own personal growth over the last few years. For
many people I know, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of
choosing aerial as your main workout.

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