Aerial Dance - Creativity meets functional fitness

Words: Michelle Hutchinson | Photos: Emil Wessels Photography - Snowflake

All the fitness buffs will tell you that the old-school weight training days, where you isolate specific muscle groups, are long gone.

No one is interested in being the bench-pressing beefcake of his or her local gym. Fitness trends, like CrossFit, Zumba, and Bootcamp, are about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently. Form follows function: people want to build a body capable of doing real-life activities, in real-life positions. And having an exercise regime in an exciting format doesn’t hurt either.

So what if I told you that there is a new and exciting exercise form that combines bodyweight exercises, core conditioning, upper-body conditioning, fitness, and is an outlet for creativity and dance, with an opportunity to fly? What I would be referring to is aerial dance.

Aerial dance is a style of modern dance that incorporates the use of various hanging equipment, or aerial apparatuses. It is an incredibly demanding art form that requires a high degree of strength, fitness, flexibility, and grace, as well as a good dose of courage.

Aerial dance shares similar fundamental movements with circus arts, where high-flying acrobatic feats are used to amaze audiences. If you look at these circus aerialists, you will find performers of different shapes and sizes. But what they do have in common is excellent core strength, well-proportioned bodies, and well-developed upper bodies.

Previously limited to Olympic level gymnasts and circus performers, aerial dance is now gaining worldwide recognition as a fitness programme. If aerial dance is something you would like to consider, then here are some tips to start you off.

Aerial classes

Locally, you can find aerial classes in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban (and possibly in more towns than I’m aware of). Circus performers, who have recognised a new business opportunity, as well as teachers, who are trained in other disciplines, are teaching aerial dance to individuals that are not professional athletes.

Choosing a studio

When choosing a studio, it is important to identify the following three things:
•Safety: Check your teacher’s safety history and never feel pressurised into doing something that you aren’t comfortable with. The studio must have crash mats, hands-on spotting, an accident-free history, and so on.
• Progression: The studio must be capable of taking you through appropriate progressions to performing movements that are more difficult, whilst moving higher off the ground.
• Objective: Do the objectives of the class suit yours? Is the class merely about conditioning or are they teaching a vocabulary that can be used to create dance?

Sky Dance Studio was formed in 2013 by Mari Theron and myself, and we have extensive experience in teaching aerial dance. With the right venue (7-metre high mount points and crash mats) and the right programme of progression-based learning, they are of the firm belief that anyone, from any background, can do aerial dance and progress safely through increasingly difficult moves on the aerial silks and aerial hoop (lyra) apparatus, two of our favourite apparatus.
Aerial silks

Aerial silks, also known as aerial fabrics, aerial tissue, aerial ribbons, or aerial curtains, is one of the newest and most challenging, yet awe inspiring and versatile aerial art forms. Aerial silk artists climb, twist, spin, drop, and contort themselves on fabric curtain sheets that hang from the ceiling.

The beauty of the silky material wrapped around the aerialist’s body is matched only by the courage it takes to be suspended high above the ground. The suspense builds as an aerialist wraps complex, multi-dimensional sequences, then drops into a free-fall until the last second, when they catch themselves mere feet from the ground.

Poses and sequences are often borrow from older aerial arts forms like trapeze or rope, but new ones are constantly being discovered, including dynamic movements like drops, slides, and rolls.

The fabric used is supple and pliable, and is wrapped and unwrapped around various parts of the body. Aerial silk artists don’t wear safety harnesses because it would get tangled in the fabric. Normally aerial silk artists work between six and ten metres, but there is really no limit to how high it can be done. Debbie Parks, an aerial innovator, does a silk performance from a hot air balloon!

How to

Key to learning aerial silks is the ability to master climbing (similar to those old climbing ropes you may have been exposed to as a child) combined with various wraps and locks, where the fabric is wrapped around different body parts, such as wrists and ankles to form a knot that can support your body weight.

The first level teaches the basics of climbing and descending safely, and a variety of poses from a range of foot locks. Taught from standing on the floor, this level is sufficiently basic so that anyone can start here and progress. As the student’s strength improves, new wraps and locks are taught as a fundamental step to unlock more movements and poses. This vocabulary can then be choreographed to the beats of a song, linking the purely physical knowledge of how to move, to a more classical dance approach of moving in time to the beat. This is an important step towards understanding the emotion behind a song.

Aerial silks are fluid; you can fling the free ends into the air, you can wrap your body in the fabric, and you can tumble dramatically towards the ground. Once you have a vocabulary of movement, an understanding of how to move to a beat, and the freedom to move creatively to express emotion, aerial silks can provide a backdrop to some of the most awe-inspiring interpretations of dance humanly possible.


In comparison, aerial hoop or lyra is a fixed, unbending apparatus. It is a metal hoop just big enough to sit in and its fixed shape makes it less tiring to work with. However, it is uncomfortable to learn new poses on as your body is pressed into unusual positions against the steel frame.

How to

Beginners are taught methods of how to mount the hoop when it is at chin height, as well as poses that are started from sitting in the hoop at the same height as a park swing set. In this way, those who don’t yet have the strength to pull their bodies up into the hoop can still progress until their strength increases.

In the same way that aerial silks students build a vocabulary and progress to moving in time with music and learning to express emotion through movement, lyra students will also learn a vocabulary of increasingly difficult moves, starting low to the ground and then moving higher. Moves are linked together in different ways, and students are encouraged to find new ways to move between different poses. Using the relationship between movement and static pose, facial expressions, body positions, and hand positioning, students will strike out on their own to tell a story with just music and movement.

Give it a try

So, if you are looking for a new and exciting way to get fit and toned, while combining your love of dance, then you have got to give aerial dance a try.

For more information, email or visit If you are based in Cape Town, contact The Silk Workshop on or visit