By now, most people will probably have seen aerial silks, also known as tissu, being performed by any number of circus groups such as Cirque du Soleil or even in Pink’s stage show. It is literally a dance in the air, performed on two pieces of fabric hanging from a single point in the ceiling usually at least seven metres high. It is both athletic and stunning to watch. Under the umbrella of aerial fitness, aerial silks is one of many skills becoming increasingly available to the public as a popular alternative to the gym and a fun way to improve one’s fitness.
Aerial silks (or any climbing sport for that matter) is a very ‘organic’ form of movement with very obvious benefits. Without the requirement for any fancy or expensive equipment, aerial silks can provide a full body workout. Even if you have been going to the gym for years or come from a sporting background, be prepared to use muscles you don’t normally use. It will improve your back, shoulders and grip strength. Your abdominals will get a workout from lifting your legs up and overhead and your legs will become stronger from trying to keep them straight. Gravity is a great tool for helping increase flexibility whilst hanging up-side-down is a great way to decompress the spine.
You will never find an aerialist that is overly concerned about their figure, working all those muscles will give you a great shape and definition for both males and females. Inevitably, you will be so distracted with having fun, building strength and learning new moves that the conventional reasons for going to the gym, to “get the perfect bikini body”, fall by the way side.
There are psychological benefits to aerial fitness too. Often, people think “I’ll never be strong enough”, “that’s way too scary” or “I’m too old to start that sort of thing”. Undoubtedly, every aerialist finds it challenging especially in the beginning. When I first started silks, I was exhausted after about 15 minutes and my forearms were sore for days. Strength will come the more often you do it. Every time you struggle up to the top, you are building muscle and you will learn a lot about your body as you train. When your abdominals, back and shoulders get stronger, your posture will improve too.
Being up-side-down can also take some getting used to and people sometimes end up facing their fear of heights. Even after years of practicing I still feel that little bit of apprehension when I’m learning a move, but nothing beats the rush you get when you achieve something you didn’t think possible. Learning to trust yourself in the air will give you a boost in confidence that will carry over into other areas of life.
As far as age goes, the important question is, “when I’m 50, 60 or 75, am I going to want to smack my 30 or 40 year old self for not giving it a go?” Don’t wait. Give it a go.
How do you do it?
You no longer have to run away with the circus to learn some of their tricks. To begin aerial silks you will always start with the basics such as learning to climb. There are many ways to climb the silks. In addition to the normal foot lock climb, you can climb silks up-side-down, do a knee climb, spiral climb, scissor-lock climb, climb without using your legs or any other number of ways! Practicing all of these is an excellent way to build up strength of the scapular, back, arms, hands (for grip) and confidence being in the air. From there, you can start doing inversions (going up-side-down), drops, holds and poses. There are endless combinations and the more you practice, the longer you can stay on the silks and start blending moves together.
Where do I learn?
There will be a difference in the way you train depending on whether your goal is to perform or as a form of fitness. Know what you are willing to take. I once spent two weeks getting private tuition from a renowned Russian Cirque du Soleil aerialist and although I learnt a lot, that sort of intensity (and yelling) sure did suck a lot of the fun out of it for me personally. It is possible the most talented aerial performer in the world may not be the best or most compassionate instructor if they are unable to effectively communicate what you need to be doing. Choose an instructor that knows what your goals are. Let them know if you if you are there for fun and fitness. Conversely, if you have ambitions to perform, choose a coach that knows what it takes to be a performing aerial artist.
We are lucky in New Zealand to have an impressive network of circus performers who welcome people from all walks of life into their training facilities. The Dust Palace, Wellington Circus Trust and Christchurch Circus Centre are all excellent places to learn (see below for details). The circus crowd is by far one of the most fun groups of people you will ever train with – and man are they FIT! Some crossfit owners are also seeing the benefits of training off the ground, which has lead them to allow silks training in their gym. I teach aerial silks at MaD Crossfit in Wellington and it certainly complements their other hanging movements such as rope climbs, pull ups and toes to bar.
Aerial silks is a low impact exercise, so injury to the joints are less likely than high impact sports. There are however, a few cautions for people who have injuries to the back, neck, shoulders or wrists. As always, let your instructor know about your injuries.
Places/people I recommend:
The Dust Palace, Auckland: firstname.lastname@example.org, 021 026 262 91
The Wellington Circus Trust: email@example.com, 04 380 0051
The Christchurch Circus Trust: firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Twisty Twins, Able Tasman area: http://www.twistytwinz.com