Let's Join The Circus

Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.

Through seemingly impossible twists and tricks, aerial troupes are able to exhibit a form of self-expression that demands high degrees of both mental and physical strength. Artists climb, twist, spin, drop, and contort themselves in complex sequences to produce iridescent and suspenseful shows. As a result, aerial arts have become popular fitness programs, while simultaneously enticing audiences with the glamour and thrill of each performance.

Acrobats defy gravity using sheer strength and availing suspended equipment known as aerial apparatus; most commonly employed are trapeze, rope, hammock, cradle, pole, silk, sling, or lyra/hoop. However, many performers also integrate an assortment of other colorful props to add a new level of excitement to their characters.

BTRtoday speaks with international flow and performance artist Ali Luminescent, about her involvement in this challenging movement. Currently Luminescent performs with lyra and hammocks, but also works on stilts with fire and LED props.

Luminescent grew up in theatre and always loved performing. Even if she wasn’t part of the cast she involved herself in other ways–usually running the costume and makeup department. It might explain why she is always in character, identifying as a “Faerie-Mermaid-Unicorn.”

“Delving into the arts can be a healthy escapism for some people and allow them to live in a world where anything is possible and forget about their day-to-day for a moment,” says Luminescent. “Its like being in a waking dream.”

While in-air performances are seeing a resurgence as new and thrilling styles develop, classes have become more accessible. A new mainstream form of fitness has emerged as aerial dance, yoga, and suspension classes are offered to the public of all skill levels, ranging from beginner to intermediate performers.

Luminescent admits that she was initially very clumsy.

“Growing up, my mom even called me giraffe legs because I was always bumbling into everything and getting bruised,” she says.

She started hula hooping for fun and says it ended up changing her life and opening her up to try other new things.

“Hula hooping was very hard for me and took weeks of dedication from a dear friend just to help me learn how to keep it on my waist. Once I got that far I was totally hooked and kept at it. It was the first thing to ever teach me that through the power of practice we can achieve anything,” she says.

Summer Davies, Vertical Dancer and Founder of Vertical Art Dance, tells BTRtoday that she was always involved in dance, but had also been very challenged by aerial arts when she began in fitness studios.

“I could not hold my own body weight, I could not do a single pull up or push up,” she admits. “I did have flexibility but I realized I did not have the right strength to support my flexibility.”

After showing up to class one to three times a week, she started to get the hang of things and quickly began to see improvements in strength.

Darla Davis, director of Aeris Aerial in Utah, speaks to BTRtoday about the dedication needed to achieve greatness in aerial performances.

Davis began as a showgirl in Vegas and was inspired by dancers from Cirque Du Soleil. She found their trainer and persisted that he train her. Although at first he refused because she was not circus blood, she still showed up to his practice–refusing to leave and pushing through no matter how hard he made it. After perceiving her determination, he agreed to continue coaching her, and six months later she was performing in different acts, including contortion, tight rope, aerial silks, and lyra.

After moving to Salt Lake City she bought a place to train but fellow enthusiasts started showing up asking her to teach them, similar to how she got started. Almost inevitably, she says that her teaching style mimics the intensity of how she was taught.

“When people come here, I break them, mentally, emotionally, and physically, so I can make them into what they need to be,” Davis explains. “This is a really emotional thing. This isn’t just an exercise, you’re an extreme athlete.”

Davis notices changes in discipline, mannerisms, and overall character in those who come to her for six months of training. Students leave much more confident and in control of their emotions and their actions.

“The main thing we teach here is discipline of the brain and the body,” she says.

Though it can be extremely challenging, Davis encourages newcomers to try it, as it will push them out of their comfort zones and allow them to grow through both mental and physical challenges. People often doubt themselves because they are unaware of the limits they can reach until they actually try. By forcing oneself into something so vulnerable and uncomfortable, participants realize their insecurities and weakness and can work towards improving them.

“I think it’s super important because we can keep growing if we can see things we need to work on,” Davis says. “It’s cool to see how far you can push your body because you really can push it pretty far.”

Davies adds, “Aerial arts practice and performance have tremendous benefits on health, wellness and fitness, for both men and women. Taking classes or workshops in the aerial arts makes the student feel strong, beautiful, sexy and empowered. They can do things they never thought they could!”

To succeed in this rigorous movement, it is essential for participants to dedicate a substantial amount of time to practicing. Luminescent, for example, rehearses three to five times a week, while also training individually as many days as possible. For her, practice typically consists of warm up/conditioning, flow time followed by choreography building and/or drilling, and ending with a cool down.

Davies has found cross training to be very effective. In a typical week, she may train in the air about three times a week for one to two hours each session, including a ground warm up, apparatus warm up, movement practice, strength and conditioning, and stretching. In cross training, she includes cardio (running or cardio circuit training), stretch and flexibility, pole dancing, hot yoga and pilates.

Photo courtesy of Ali Luminescent.

Luminescent admits that stilts used to make her really nervous. For about the first year or so, it would take 30 to 45 minutes of being on them before feeling solid, but now it is just like walking to her. Aerial sometimes still makes her nervous, and she will only perform it when she feels most confident with both the act and the apparatus.

“Once I got stuck in the silk at the top of a 30 foot space during a show and the most important thing you can do is stay calm, breathe, and work your way backwards,” she maintains. “In general, not freaking out can go a long way.”

She generally overcomes her fears, such as general stage fright, through breathing and concentration exercises.

Davis advises newcomers to simply listen and keep an open mind. Both her and Davies agree that you should let yourself be a kid again. Davies particularly advises not to become intimidated and to feel comfortable asking questions regarding safety. She recommends not overdoing it, which can lead to potential injury.

However, it may not necessarily be for everybody, as there are some conditions that would not allow people to participate–such as pressure related issues, recent surgeries, and pregnancy. It is also strongly recommended to learn and practice in the presence of experienced aerialists, rather than from YouTube or other unqualified sources, as it is a very complex and dangerous sport.

Dedication to this rigorous training can lead to endless opportunities and fascinating new heights. Davis mentions one student who persevered to be Britney Spears’ personal flexibility training coach, and later performed on her Circus Tour.

“Our students have gone on to do awesome things,” she says. “It’s cool because it started as just me having a place to myself, and my whole entire life shifted to making other people good and making their dreams happen.”

After Luminescent became more involved in the NYC hoop community, she was invited to perform at birthday parties and events, and eventually Anya Sapoznakova asked her to join Lady Circus.

“I was thrilled and honored and of course said yes,” Luminescent raves. “New York City is the most motivating place I have ever been. People come here with a dream and they are ready to make it happen, hell or high water.”

Luminescent also works independently, as well as with the group Enchanted and in the duet Prismatik.

These arts can be watched and performed all over the word. Luminescent, for example, instructs hula hooping workshops in Thailand, Costa Rica, and India. Her troupe Enchanted also just went on tour with the show “The Spirits of Fire and Smoke” through El Salvador and then to Envision Festival in Costa Rica.

Likewise, Vertical Art Dance also travel to beautiful and remote locations around the country to teach aerial yoga, mixed apparatus workshops and safety rigging classes.

The magic and beauty does not stop there, as captivating performances can also be used to help and bring awareness to global causes.

Mermaid Lagoon, coming up at House of Yes on May 15, is one of the many projects in which Luminescent channels her ethereal mermaid persona to help save the ocean.

“I love the ocean and have teamed up with my fellow mermaids Kai Altair and Dr. Mermaid (Debra Tillinger) to raise money for the ocean and all of her creatures,” Luminescent explains.

Over the last six years, Mermaid Lagoon has raised over $10,000 in donations for different organizations that support the ocean. She has also donated to her local watershed and raised awareness about current issues and how to reform them.

To view performances by the mermaid-faerie-unicorn Ali Luminescent, check out her website or fan page.

For questions about classes and workshops offered by Vertical Art Dance or Aeris Aerial, check out their website or follow @aerisaerial on Instagram.