Local aerial artists take dance, fitness and empowerment to new heights
For Allie Cooper, hanging upside down from a rope 20 feet in the air is therapeutic. Relying solely on her ability to carry her own weight, she can twist, flip, and pose in ways that for many people seem unfathomable. But for an aerial artist, it’s just another day on the job.
“I enjoy the puzzle that’s involved with it,” explains Cooper, an eight-year veteran in the local aerial arts scene. “Once you have a foundation of moves, it’s really a logic game where the object is to find patterns and pathways, and it’s incredibly rewarding when you do.”
At its core, aerial art is dancing or acrobatics done in the air while suspended from an apparatus. That apparatus can be rope, fabric, hoops, a vertical pole, or any invented object that can be hung and support a person’s weight. It is also viewed in many circles as the intersection between dancing, acrobatics, and theater.
“Aerial has so many different origins: in circus, with ancient Chinese acrobats, in vaudeville, and more recently it has become very mainstream because of companies like Cirque du Soleil,” explains Jeanette Bent, a local pole aerialist who competes at the national level. “It has always been such a pretty thing to watch, it had to become its own art form.”
Santa Cruz has had a sizeable aerialist community since the early ’90s. Miranda Janeschild, a local aerialist often credited with bringing aerial to Santa Cruz, says it was an art that “just fit” with locals who she saw as self-directed and innovative. However, in 2010, the local scene was hit hard by the closure of the Veterans Memorial Building, once a prime aerial training venue.
“A lot of us used that hall because the guy who ran it created such a great space for us,” remembers Janeschild. “He rigged that hall for me and he gave me a dirt-cheap rate to make that my rehearsal and class space. When it closed, it was a big blow to the community because we didn’t have that tall ceiling, and we had to go looking for a new space.”
That new space became the Aerial Playground, a training studio opened by four aerialists: Lisa Christensen, Paige Wyatt, Kara Snider and Sydney Lovelle. This October, it became Aerial Arts Santa Cruz, under Bent’s sole ownership, and hosts regular aerial and pole classes.
“Any chance I get, I’m reaching into the community and showing people what we do,” says Bent, who has participated in a number of local events, even bringing her pole out to West Cliff last year to perform in the Santa Cruz Open Streets Festival. “It comes down to getting a close-knit group of aerialists and people that are tapping into the different markets of fitness and intrigue with the art form.”
Anyone can tap in, notes Cooper, who was the aerial Artist-in-Residence at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History over the summer. Starting in her early twenties, Cooper found aerial arts to be very accessible even though she had no formal dance training or a background in gymnastics.
“I think that any limitation people may feel about this art form, they are imposing upon themselves,” says Cooper. “There are a lot of different ways to approach it. If you’re not flexible, you can find your own way without making use of your flexibility, if you’re not strong, there are certain apparatuses that rely less on strength. It’s just a matter of being motivated enough to find what works for you.”
Cooper notes that a popular mantra in the fitness world today is “strong is sexy.” With the brute strength, concentrated body awareness, and flexibility required to do aerial, she sees the medium as a natural place to seek strength training and empowerment.
“It’s the best workout you can possibly do,” Cooper says. “Even after eight years, my body will still hurt. It’s nice though, you’ll feel super connected to your body all the time because it’s always a little bit sore.”
Their bodies might be sore, but local aerialists these days are finding more and more opportunities to train and perform in a scene that is teeming with new activity. When asked about the health of the aerial arts scene, Janeschild laughs. In her eyes, the flexibility of the medium, the variety of styles, and the creative minds are what has kept local aerial fresh every year.
“I probably knew everyone in the community in 2010, but now there are all these new faces that I don’t know, and it’s a kick,” says Janeschild. “To be honest, I have only seen it grow. It’s alive and well and thriving.”
For those who aren’t quite ready for mid-air suspension, Bent assures that there are plenty of opportunities to play spectator.
“There are many ceilings in Santa Cruz that are capable of hosting aerial rigging,” says Bent. “You never know where we’ll pop up, so keep your eye to the sky!”
Aerial Arts Santa Cruz is located at 2801 Mission Street Extension, Santa Cruz. For more info, call 246-1513 or visit aerialartssantacruz.com. Youth and teen aerial classes can be found at Motion Pacific, 131 Front St., Ste. E, Santa Cruz. For more info, call 457-1616 or visit motionpacific.com. Bungee Moon Dance classes are available at The 418 Project, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. For more info, call 466-9770 or visit the418project.com. For more info about Allie Cooper visit alliecooper.com. Photos: Davis Banta
Tips for the Aspiring Aerialist
“You will be really thankful you did, you can get cool tips from your instructors, and build your own vocabulary from their strengths and nuances.” —Jeanette Bent
Have realistic expectations:
“You will be in class with people of all levels and abilities. Don’t get frustrated with yourself and remember that everyone starts from a different place” —Allie Cooper
Hang upside down:
“Hang backward over a couch, or spin on an office chair. Find ways to use your day-to-day environment and relate to it in ways that you’re not used to. Aerial is all about training your body to be upside down and float through space in new ways.” —Miranda Janeschild