An Aerial Adventure!

I began my degree in Anthropology at Durham University in 2012 which I enjoyed very much, but by my third year, among the dissertation and finals preparations my thoughts and aspirations began to wander. I’ve been a musician all my life and had intended to head off to London to pursue a career playing piano and singing in whatever realm of the music world I could. However, over the previous few years I’d found myself somewhat falling into the colourful circus and cabaret scene of which London’s is particularly vibrant. 

University for me had always been a time to work towards a degree I could have alongside my musical career in case it were to struggle and though I was enjoying my studies, I was beginning to get itchy feet. However, coming from a family who have built their lives around their artistic careers, I was more than aware that skill, experience and time were essential to get even close to the level at which others were able to make a livelihood out of. Therefore, my dreams of becoming a respected member of the circus/cabaret/musical/aerial world were feeling a fair few light years away. Yes, I had been playing classical piano for most of my life and I had made one or two friends in the London cabaret scene, but aerial arts I had no experience of and my very short gymnastic career that ended aged 10 made feel like doing the splits suspended in silks was ‘unrealistic’.
While taking a short break from my stand for the Band Society at the Fresher’s Fair of my last year at Durham, I came across the Durham University Aerial Arts Society. Thank. God.
As much as I was loving the prospect of my final year of university and the Band Society I had run for the previous two, a huge feeling of relief came over me, so I signed up there and then, probably with slightly unnerving enthusiasm.
On my way to my first aerial hoop class at Tempest Dance Studio, I was inevitably panicking that my lack of dance experience would plant me straight at the bottom of the pile and that my dreams of being an aerialist would be shattered right there. Instead, I had a pretty successful lesson; I wasn’t the most physically fit I’d ever been but I managed to do my very first inverted straddle, man in the moon and hocks hang.
A term later, I found myself performing in the student union as part of the DUAAS group and absolutely loved it. Only 8 weeks later I had found myself some wonderful friends, fantastically inspiring teachers at Tempest Dance Studio and confidence in aerial arts that I never thought I’d have.
Coming back after the Christmas holidays, I had gotten myself into some brilliantly deep water. By this point, I was doing both the DUAAS classes and the open classes Tempest Dance Studio was running. I’d also shimmied myself into something else; burlesque, another aspect of performance I’d always had an eye on but never thought I’d come across, but yet again, the Tempest family had introduced me into the most wonderfully inclusive, encouraging place.
moonlight minxes
Fast-forward to my final term at university, I was stressed, labouring at my dissertation, boring myself with revision and spending most of my time mentally (and probably physically) at Tempest, working towards my first big public show at the Gala Theatre, doing both burlesque and aerial. Incredibly nervous as I was surprised and a little honoured that I’d been included into the aerial performance as I’d only done two terms worth of aerial arts in my life. Unfortunately, the show was unable to take place but although it would have been a good performing experience, it was almost irrelevant as the work and commitment Gillian and the Tempest family had put in was experience enough into what was required for a show that I’d never even considered myself to be involved in just a year before.
Towards the final few weeks of my life at Durham and therefore at Tempest Dance Studio, I was beginning to panic; a life without aerial and burlesque was unimaginable and upsetting at best. As a result, I began to search around the Internet at what seemed to be the most terrifying, unapproachable aerial scene London had to offer. Gillian had already talked me through the fantastic circus schools around the UK but as I’d already accept a place at a music school in Hackney, London, I knew London had to be the place. Scrolling through the intimidating websites of the National Circus Centre and several other London based circus training schools, I felt a little disheartened at what was becoming a theme of “three-day long audition, previous gymnastic or dance qualification required”. Wonderful.
Aerial Silks
Unfortunately a degree in Anthropology wasn’t good enough and although I was confident in the skill and experience Tempest had given me, I knew that when it would come down to it, my habitual lack of self confidence, inability to do a backflip and completely blank list of personal contacts in the London circus world would put me in the “don’t bother” pile. Then I came across Gravity Circus Centre.
Comparatively small but certainly equal in quality, Gravity had a window of opportunity in their ‘Preparation Course’: a six week intensive program consisting of 72 hours of aerial silks, rope and hoop, stretches and conditioning. No audition was required and only 8 places were available, so naturally I signed up immediately. The next day I had an aerial class at Tempest and vividly remember telling Gillian about it and how incredibly nervous and intimidated I was; something along the lines of “what have I done?!”. My decision made my final class at Tempest even more important than it would have done – I was so sad to leave my Tempest family and the unending encouragement and support from Gillian that I assumed was probably incredibly rare in the aerial/dance world, and was nervous that I was essentially throwing myself into the lions den of aerial circus and burlesque that could potentially crush my dreams of a career as a ‘respected circus/cabaret/burlesque/musical performer’.
My first day at Gravity Circus Centre was both just as I imagined and completely the polar opposite. I walked into the high ceilinged warehouse, saw a couple of my new fellow Prep Course students doing ridiculous splits on the floor and laid eyes on my insanely strong and flexible teacher. Five minutes later once I’d procrastinated by taking off my shoes and socks one-by-one, putting my Oyster card back in my purse as slowly as accurately as possible in order to put off the realisation of the rest of the room that I was clearly new and unfit to work here and indeed in any kind of place such as this, I reached the floor and realised I was wrong.
Next to me sat 6 girls all thinking the same: “who are these girls, how good are they and are they better than me?”. I soon found out one girl was a professional aerialist wanting to increase her strength and aerial vocabulary, one was using the course as a part of a project in her dance degree at uni, another was just realising her ability and love for aerial arts and the rest were there for various other reasons but an hour later, we were all struggling through our first long-arm straddle ups, shocked at our lack of strength and absolutely loving it. Our teacher, Tyrone Herlihy was pushing us in a way that was new to me; painful, unbelievable and so incredibly encouraging. It was clear that he had immediately gauged our individual abilities and experience and taken us all back to the essential foundations of strength and small steps that were needed in the beginning of an aerial career. An hour and a half later, I’d done about 20 straight-arm pull ups on a hoop, made it up to sitting in the hoop about three times and was completely exhausted. We had a short break and was straight back into another hour and a half long session of probably the most intense stretch sessions I’d ever experienced. However, even in the most excruciating moments of one of the five minute deep stretch poses while Tyrone, (who felt like the Angel of Death as he walked around pushing us one-by-one further into the stretch to the point where we felt sick), I knew that everything was in place; I was improving, pushing myself way further than I thought I ever could, making lovely friends and having the most hilarious and wonderful time.
Every single session after that was fantastic. I would find myself watching my teacher doing the most complicated-looking, intimidating move which I would, minutes later with a lot of calm encouragement and wonderful tutoring, succeed in doing, all the while with tears in my eyes from laughing so much. It became clear that my teachers were some of the worlds top performers in their field (I’ve put a link to some of their work at the bottom – I seriously recommend checking them out!) yet they were so humble and lovely, so I always felt incredibly safe, regardless of my own superficial fears. The transition of intensity in the physical work though was challenging to say the least; from being someone who did relatively very little focused exercised, especially in the region of pull-ups and core work, doing 8 hours of silks, rope and hoop skills, technique and choreography, 5 hours intense stretching, 4 hours aerial conditioning, 800+ crunches, 2 hours of handstands and an hour of Pilates a week, I was certainly thrown into the deep end. It wasn’t just the physical effort though; any aerialist or physical artist knows that the brain work involved is harder than it seems just in terms of movement and coordination, so when you add the element of fear and trying to battle the instinct of not throwing yourself down from ten feet up a rope, it’s no surprise your mental stamina is pushed.
Towards the end of the six weeks, my circus friends and I were devastated it was coming to an end; so much so that when we were overheard by one of the lovely Gravity admin girls, another six weeks was added! By this time, I had begun my diploma in piano and started getting involved with the fabulous burlesque ladies at ‘The Cheek of It!’ in Camden, which was turning out to be equally as successful and just as fun, so I was running around London like an exhausted headless chicken, but again, absolutely loving it.
A week off circus and I certainly felt it – condition and flexibility, like it or not are things that need to be sustained on the regular. However, the following six weeks were equally as useful, twice as tough and  just as amazing.
I can’t glamourise my journey though; there were many times I wouldn’t get some of the most simple of moves and frustratingly some of the most important – but aerial arts are very personal in terms of what each person finds easy or difficult. Often it felt like I was hitting a wall in my progress and I’d start thinking “am I just not cut out for this?”, or “I’ll never get there because I didn’t start when I was 3”.  Where other girls would be picking up the pace in flexibility, or suddenly be able to do a long sequence of challenging moves, I would be struggling to get past one particular bit. On the other hand, there would be times where I would nail several ‘skin the cat’ conditioning repetitions and others couldn’t. Those thoughts still continue, but one thing I’ve learned here is that regardless of your journey, ability, experience or level, you will continue to have those thoughts, but it’s whether you choose to listen and give up or just ignore them and carry on training anyway, that is of real importance.
Circus time
It’s now nearly Christmas and my three months of Prep Courses at Gravity are over. In January I’ll be doing a creative movement course with Tyrone and regular stretch classes with Ben which is exciting but a scary thought as I know from experience, it takes very little time to begin to lose condition and flexibility and for the fear to start creeping back in. Luckily I’ve kept a notebook full of conditioning and stretch workouts to hand and aim to continue skipping for 10 minutes a day over Christmas, but there’s nothing that can compare to using aerial equipment or at least a pull up bar. A present for myself for the New Year?!
So intimidating as it is to start my circus career, I feel that with the skills, encouragement, confidence and friends I’ve made at Tempest Dance Studio, Gravity Circus Centre, music school and all my burlesque ladies, there is a chance that just maybe, I will be a sparkly, competent, respected aerial-burlesque-pianist-cabaret-circus performer after all.
Gravity Circus Centre:
The Cheek of It:
Ben Brown in action:
Tyrone Herlihy in action:
Will Davis in action: