September 5, 2012

Athens Aerial Arts

Another Way to Get High

When I first heard there was a trapeze company in Athens that taught “aerial dance,” I thought, "Yeah, that company won’t last." Well, they’re called Canopy Studio, and they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Then I heard of another trapeze group in town, Leap Trapeze, and I, assuming they were competitors, thought, "What the heck’s going on here?"

Turns out there’s a whole lotta flyin' goin’ on in Athens and three aerial groups in town, Canopy, Leap and Canopy’s separate-business-but-shared-instructors neighbor Athens Vertical Pole Dancing Academy (AVPDA). The groups offer opportunities for people from near and far to learn aerial craft, from beginners to more advanced, in fabrics, pole dancing and flying and static trapeze.

“This is an unusual situation where we have an aerial flying trapeze place and a dance trapeze place. That just doesn’t happen in a small town like Athens,” says Julie Phillips of Canopy. “We’re not competitors. The flying trapeze is leaping off of a platform and doing flips in the air and getting caught by a catcher. We don’t do that here. We’re low-to-the-ground, dance-space, single-point trapeze. We do use some circus trapezes, but they’re usually static. We don’t do a lot of swinging, not in the sense that they do at Leap. That’s all they do at Leap is swing.”

Actual circus-style flying trapeze classes in Athens? Flying through the air with the greatest of ease? Being caught mid-air by a strong trapeze artist? How cool is that?

So, when Leap invited me to take one of their classes, my first thought was a spectacular "No!" Way too terrifying. But Phillips, a seasoned Canopy aerial artist, told me she was so scared when she took her first Leap class, her legs just froze when they told her to jump from the platform. But when she did jump, it was fun, and whenever she fell, it was a slow fall because you’re on safety lines and they belay you to the net. OK. Still terrified, but I was in.

When I arrived at Leap’s outdoor net, there was already a group of students of all ages, including a mother and her young daughter, and the four Leap owner-instructors Shain and Kara Dyckman and Larissa and Kaz Stouffer. All four had worked at Club Med, which has a similar flying trapeze program for the guests where Shain and Kaz were instructors. Kaz is the senior circus artist, having begun studying at the age of 14 at Sailor Circus in Sarasota, FL. Kara’s a former Canopy instructor who, with Shain, lured Larissa and Kaz to set up shop with them in Athens. (Like the Canopy instructors, they also have non-aerial day jobs.)

Right away, Shain put on my safety belt and explained what I would do. I thought my first time would probably just be me jumping from the platform and then hanging onto the bar for dear life, back and forth, and then dropping into the net.

Shain said my first time would be me jumping from the platform, and then Kaz—who was on the ground holding my safety lines—would call out to me when to pull my feet up over the bar and I’d hang from the bar by my knees. And then he’d tell me when to let go of my hands, and while hanging from the bar by my knees, I would reach out and arch my back. And then he’d tell me when to grab the bar again and pull my feet back out. And then when to swing forward and backward and forward. And then when to let go and do a back flip onto the net. I was laughing from the first “and then.”

After Shain demonstrated what he wanted me to do, I kicked off my shoes and took the long nervous climb up the ladder. Shain hooked my safety belt on both sides, and pulled the hanging bar toward me as I stood with my left hand holding the stand and my right hand reaching to take the bar. Kaz would give the command “Ready!” for me to bend my knees and get ready, and then “Hep!” (circus talk for “Go!” because “go” sounds too much like “no”) signaling time to jump. What bothered me most was how heavy and pulling the bar felt when I grabbed it, a reminder of my weak hands and arms and that I could easily fail from the beginning.

But I didn’t fail immediately. I hung on during the swing, even though I couldn’t get my feet over the bar in time, so I wound up attempting a little wimpy kicking forward and backward and forward, and then basically falling onto the net on my knees—which you’re also supposed to avoid doing.

“No matter what they tell you to do, everyone does the opposite,” student Julianne Bierwirth assured me later as she taped my hands to avoid blisters.

I told Kaz and Shain that I just didn’t have the strength to make that knee-hang maneuver, and they both explained how it didn’t have anything to do with being an athlete or strong enough to lift your body over the bar, because at the height of the swing, you’re weightless. Like when you’re swinging high on a sitting swing, and that moment when you’re hanging in space before falling back down toward Earth. It’s that weightless moment on the trapeze when you hook your feet over the bar and lock the bar directly under your knees. On the ground, Kaz could see where I was in the arc, and he’d tell me when to make my move.

“That’s why you get so many tries,” he said, smiling. Wait—what? How many times was I expected to do this? Turned out way more than once or twice.

On my second try, I almost got my feet up over the bar but failed, and this time I could hear the other students encouraging me with “Come on! Come on! COME ON! Awwww!” and I felt the same way. Kaz pointed out that I’d started to make my move before he told me to, and in doing that, gravity was working against me. Shain added next time to just get my feet on the bar and walk it up if I couldn’t do a clean hook. So, on the third try, that’s what I did, and I successfully hung my knees over the bar, let go with my hands and reached out, arching my back. Unbelievable.

Let’s just say the rest of the swing wasn’t as successful, and believably ended with a gently belayed landing onto the net and me wanting to try again after I had time to rest and consider all the corrections I could make. The first class was really only five or six things to take in, but I had come expecting far less and wasn’t mentally prepared. They want to give you your money’s worth and get that basic knee-hang step out of the way so you’re quickly ready to build more tricks onto that—like catching, which comes at the end of the first class and is a favorite among the students.

For catching, Shain or Kaz swings from another bar and catches hands with the student while she’s reaching out from the knee-hang. (Ah, that’s what that reaching was about, I realized.) He then swings the student before letting her go. It looked fun and also gave me a taste of the tricks the students can add after the basics of the first class, like straddling the bar before the catch or making a turn before grabbing the bar. Everyone’s at a different level with their own agenda, and since it’s just you on the swing, they instruct everyone per student per leap.

“It’s a fun environment because everybody’s a little bit nervous and everybody cheers each other on. Every time you learn something new, it’s a good learning experience,” says Kara. “It’s fun to have the camaraderie of other people around you.”

Equally accommodating to the aerial student who wants to stay more grounded is AVPDA, a seperate business that shares instructors and space with Canopy. “Our goal is to let pole dance be a way for women, men or teens to express themselves and to take away the social connotations of pole dancing as being dirty or sleazy,” says instructor Ann Lily-Woodruff. “It’s another way to get up in the air.”

“Canopy has become known in the aerial world as a great studio and that’s in part because of our long-time friendship with New England Circus Arts,” says Phillips. “We have really fantastic instruction here and it made sense for the Leap people to come here because they knew they had a great teacher base and a student base that would be interested in doing their work. And then, of course, drawing from the college community.”

Sounds like the Athens and aerial communities are already in sync.