Enter Aireal Silks

I am lying spreadeagle on the crash mat, staring up helplessly at the hangar ceiling above me. My forearm muscles feel as though they are going to pop out through my skin. Every bit of energy seems to have scurried away from my body, never to return again, as I try to collect myself to attempt another effort on the aerial silks.

How did I get here?

It all started with an innocent enough video, sent through by a family member about a year ago. In it, I saw her hanging by a couple of swaths of fabrics, performing some impressive splits and manoeuvres to emotional music.

I viewed it and moved on with my day, the video having barely made an impact. Looked nice, but not something I really considered for myself. For one, I can’t even split!

Then for 2018, I decided to set a theme for the year, and chose ADEVENTURE. Call it a mid-life crisis. I set out to see where adventure would take me.

I started with some water sports and took up kite-boarding, an activity I’d never considered I would ever be capable of. To my surprise, I found it exhilarating. Learning a new skill that originally seemed well beyond anything I imagined I could do, brought about a heady intoxication of power. But as the weather cooled and the summer winds abated, the kiting season came to an end, and I had caught the bug of learning to conquer a new skill. I was hooked. I needed a new outlet to tide me over the long, cold winter months in Melbourne until I could kite again.

Enter aerial silks. That seed, barely planted, suddenly re-emerged, and demanded my attention. It was telling me I could do it. It was telling me that thrill of overcoming fear, conquering a new skill, learning to fly - was all there for the taking. So I set about finding a place to help me grow my little seed.

How lucky was I to find a studio just 10 minutes away from where I lived. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect place – though initially I didn’t realize how lucky I had it.

So back to my helpless sprawling on the crash mat. I was probably 2-3 weeks into my aerial silks training. I am a fit person – I have always been extremely active, working out is as obvious to me as eating and breathing. I have often been told I’m strong. Well I didn’t feel strong now – I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me after only 20 minutes of silks training. My ever-patient instructor Kate told me when we got started, that the first month of silks is pretty rough – as assertion which I poo-poo’d inwardly. I was out for a humbling. Aerial silks demand pretty much immediately that you be able to handle your entire body weight, usually firmly anchored to the ground by your feet, on your hands, wrists and arms. There is no getting around that fact, and it is about letting your body know, that indeed, this is now what’s happening. Yes, legs are now going to be replaced by arms, limbs that are a quarter the weight, and maybe a fifth of the strength of the hamstrings, quads and glutes.

The word gruelling comes to mind, as you attempt to elevate yourself, time and time again.

And yet – together with that pure grit effort, there were a few moments of grace, where my arms would be relieved and I could relax into a lovely, stretchy pose, suspended and secured above the crash mats, feeling long and graceful. There would be a photo taken were I could see myself and get a glimpse of what aerial silks could become for me, and the person I could become, as a – dare I say it? – an aerialist.

Those moments were all I needed to get hooked, and hooked I was. A new chapter had begun.

How to prepare your first performance when you’re very much a beginner

A couple of months into my silks practice, a message from the studio popped up -registrations for a student showcase are now open.

Did I want in? Why of course I did.

Especially as a beginner, there is nothing like setting a challenge for yourself to help you progress and enhance your skills. So I asked if I could participate even as a total beginner, and was excited to discover I could.

Then reality hit. I only master very few tricks. I have yet to learn a single drop. My stamina is about 20 seconds on the silks. And I’ve got no f###ing clue how to create a routine.

So here ‘s what I’ve figured out so far:

1.  Start really early

The earlier you can get your head around what you want to be doing, the better. However, this also means that you may be setting up a routine that will not reflect your true skills by the time the performance rolls around. I aimed to have my song selected four months in advance, and the routine more or less down by three months in advance – leaving plenty of time for a lot of drilling, with an option to add some embellishments/potentially making a replacement some time along the way as I got more comfortable with the entire routine.

2. Pick a song you truly love – or not?

It stands to reason that if you want to truly connect to your routine, you would select a song you truly loved. But I quickly realized there is a catch here – as choosing a song for a routine means you may have to come to terms with not loving that song so much anymore after you’ve heard it ad nauseum while you’re practicing it. I imagined that for my current skills, an emotional, relatively slow paced song would work well – and after listening to a few favorites, I finally settled on one that was sultry, quirky and dark, with some oriental touches that appealed to me. Will a truly great song withstand the endless churn of drilling my routine over the next three months? And will my fellow studio members eventually hate me for my choice? Only time will tell

3. Don’t be like me at the beginning – ask for help

“Can I create my own routine 2 months into silks? Of course I can! This will be a challenge to my creativity and how happy and proud will I be to know that the performance is uniquely my own.”

Scrap that. It’s ok to ask your instructors to help you. I procrastinated for a month before realizing I had better ask for help, or I would not have enough time to drill. There is enough bewildering stuff to take in, and learning how to match your limited repertoire of moves to a song is challenging enough as it is. Let go of your hubris and get someone to help you so you can also see how the process is done. There will be time enough for challenges and creativity later on, I’m sure.

I booked a few private sessions with my instructor Kate, but I came prepared – I already knew my song very well, and I had a few ideas about the how I wanted to start and finish the routine, and what kinds of hand movements I wanted to embellish the routine with. I also had some cues I wanted to do specific things on – but it quickly became apparent that that may not work.

4. Don’t expect it to work for you - yet

So I now have a routine I really like. Can I do it yet on time to the song? No, I can’t. That’s something I will have to build up to. But this is where having an experienced instructor to help you is invaluable. I could see what my routine would look like thanks to Kate’s performing it to the music – so now I know it works, and I know I love it and can work towards it.

My next steps – drill, drill drill, till I can do the whole thing while breathing evenly and not have to stop and rest, or get stuck and choke. I am not even going to do it to the music yet, as I will not make it on time, and it will only stress me.

The things they don’t tell you before starting aerial…

I came to aerial with hardly any preconceptions. And yet these were some of the things that caught me by surprise when I entered the world of aerial arts:

1.  It hurts, but you will get used to it

Doing aesthetically pleasing things 2 meters off the ground means that the hoop or silk is going to dig in and chafe somewhere. It sucks, but you really do learn to accept and tolerate it. Also our minds and bodies are amazing, and eventually we learn to position ourselves around the offending apparatus in a way that decreases the pain. Which leads to:

2.  You will be constantly discovering new bumps and bruises on your body

There will be a ton of bruising, and a lot of “oh, that hurts, what did I do there?”. Treat it as a fun game and wear your battle bruises with pride.

3.  You will develop a new awareness to your forearms

These are killer in the first weeks and months. It seems like your whole body weight is on your forearms – which is pretty much the case. Again the body adapts. Also, a massive massager (like this one for example https://www.drgraeme.com/GP_mass.php) can really help.

4.  Your hands will puff up in your sleep

This may only happen to me. All that holding seems to trigger some kind of fluid pooling reaction in my hands which occurs when I’m sleeping. My hands feel like they’re incarnating the Pillsbury dough boy

5.  It may sometimes be painful to breathe

A lot of pulling through the lats and an occasional slip or failure can mean your lats become very tender and may pull on your intercostal muscles (the muscles in between the ribs, that help form and move the chest wall). That feeling may persist for a while – days and even weeks - and can be be noticeable with deep inhaling. I found it helps to ease off a bit and make sure you are always controlling your descent with your arms.

6.  You will develop a zealous interest in flexibility

Every pose looks nicer with long straight limbs and beautifully curved arches. That comes from flexibility and means a whole new realm of torture as you try to contort your body to submission. No quick or easy fix here – grit your teeth and get stretching!

(PS if there is an easy fix and you found it, please let me know)

7.  You will be reminded of pointy toes from primary school ballet

If, like me, you gave up ever pointing your toes (also because those foot arches can cramp!), well get ready to pointe, pointe, pointe. It’s indispensable for achieving those beautiful long lines.

8.  Your arms and abs will get so strong

I have always had strong abs and arms, but aerial silks catapulted my strength in both regions. Before silks I could barely eek out one solid unassisted pull up. After a few months of silks, and despite having done no pull ups in a while, I discovered I could quite comfortably do 5 in a row. I noticed a similar step up in my abs strength.

9.  You will start to notice any high spaces

Me in a trendy warehouse restaurant – this space would be perfect for silks
Me in the garden – I wonder how long till the trees to grow large enough to be able to put silks on them?
Me in a hotel – excuse me, is there anywhere I can rig up my portable silks?
(just kidding on the last one unfortunately. I wish).

10.  You may be compelled…

…. to colour coordinate your outfit with the silks in the studio. Which is why it’s great that our studio has silks in 6 different colours.