Life lessons from aerial circus
How being up in the air keeps me grounded
Two to three times a week, I go to circus school and spend an hour wrapping myself in and out of fabric, suspended from the ceiling.
This is aerial circus, and the fabric in question is my apparatus of choice, which is aerial silks (two pieces of vertical fabric), and more recently, aerial sling (one big loop of fabric).
What’s a woman in her 30s with no gymnastic background doing in the circus? Getting strong, having fun and occasionally embracing my inner showgirl. And I’m not the only one. There are several aerial circus schools in my city alone, and classes are regularly fully booked.
I started aerial circus when I had been made redundant from my job and I needed something to occupy my mind. I had zero upper body strength, but I was able to do a few simple moves, enough to get me hooked.
When I think back to that time, aerial circus was exactly what I needed to transition to a new phase in life. It was new, different and extremely challenging. The perfect escape.
Over the past five years, it’s been my constant. It was the thing I missed the most through lockdown. I learn so much more than just circus skills.
And with that in mind, here’s what aerial circus has taught me about life.
It feels good to be challenged
In my aerial classes I’ve met scientists with PhDs, students, a couple of other marketers, people working in the arts, and people working in admin.
For many of us, it feels good to leave our desks and do something completely different. You need to be switched on to figure out how to get in and out of a move, so it’s not a mental break. But it’s a different way to use your brain, as well as your body.
Hobbies with a mental and physical element are proven to boost mental health. I’ve spoken to people who do activities such as climbing, running, dancing and gardening in their free time, who completely agree that variety is good for us and it feels good to be challenged.
Explore your options before you niche
I’ve tried aerial hoop, aerial rope and trapeze as well as aerial silks and aerial sling. I learned that I prefer the feeling of fabric, and I like to feel tied in. So I specialised in aerial silks.
Options aren’t just for new beginnings. Earlier this year, I had plateaued with my progress on silks and felt disheartened, so I asked my instructor for some advice. She suggested aerial sling — a different apparatus with transferable skills. And it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Exploring and niching is cyclical, not linear.
A big chunk of time is spent figuring stuff out
Aerial social media is full of the highlights; beautiful shapes, flowing moves and feats of flexibility. In reality, I spend a lot of my time in class getting unstuck, flopping onto the safety mat and awkwardly figuring it all out.
I might fail at a move 100 times before I finally nail it. But, I wouldn’t be able to nail it without the 100 times I failed, because data shows that failure is a pre-requisite for success.
And this is true for so much of life. A lot of work is behind the scenes, making mistakes and figuring it out. And we have to go through that process to eventually get it right.
Inspiration is healthier than competition
Every body is different. Some are naturally flexible, some are strong, some have beautiful dancer lines and some are fearless.
Circumstances are different too. Some aerialists can afford multiple classes, training time and one-to-one instruction, and for some, one class per week is enough.
What I am getting at is, we have different natural strengths and different rates of progress. Occasionally, an ex-gymnast will show up to class, who excels at absolutely everything. Their presence doesn’t make my abilities any less valid. We’re both aerialists.
The older I get, the more I focus on improving myself. This means I can admire strengths in other people without the need for comparison or competition.
Sometimes you just have to show up and do the work
When starting aerial circus from scratch, you’re usually in the safe, warm cocoon of a beginner’s class. You don’t know what to expect but it’s exciting to be in the air.
Returning to aerial post-lockdown, post-illness or post-pregnancy is a more humbling experience. Your brain knows what to do, but your body can’t follow suit….yet.
I’ve made several returns to aerial after a break. Each time, the loss of pulling strength, core strength and grip make me feel like quitting. So, for 4–6 weeks, I just show up and do the work. And after revisiting basic moves and doing conditioning exercises, my body eventually catches up.
I’m reminded of this lesson time and time again. Stripping wallpaper, doing research for work, removing weeds in the garden. There are no shortcuts, you just have to work your way through it.
Level up by working towards a big goal
Every year or so, I’m presented with the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. I love putting a routine together, and I can’t say no to the opportunity to wear a fancy costume.
Being in the air for a 2–3 minute song is hard work. You need stamina to keep going and a calm mindset to remember your moves. It takes me 8 weeks to build up to a routine and it brings together every life lesson in this article. The beginning is messy, slowly the moves look better and better. After a lot of practice, everything comes together.
And it’s so worth it. Not only does it feel great to work towards a big goal, I get months of progress in a few weeks. The process always makes me faster, stronger and more flexible.
As long as I can be up in the air, I know that aerial circus will keep me grounded.