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Carolyn Harper was suspended sideways six feet off the ground on a recent morning, her body held in place by a draped piece of red nylon. With one leg wrapped tightly in the fabric to support her weight, she stretched her other leg to form an arabesque.
“Are you in?” her partner, Alissa Rickborn (GRS’16), asked. Harper (SAR’15) nodded and gave the OK for Rickborn to take hold of her back leg and gracefully run around in a circle. Harper spun elegantly through the air.
The women are among the students enrolled in Aerial Dance Silks Skills, a noncredit FitRec class that teaches dancers from BU and the public how to climb, swing, drop, flip, spin, and perform using material suspended from the rafters of the FitRec gym. When done correctly, dancers give the illusion that they are dancing in midair.
Aerial dance developed from traditional circus arts like the trapeze and corde lisse. The art form is fairly new, says class instructor Marin Orlosky-Randow, who trained in classical ballet. The aerial silks material, first developed in the 1980s, is not actually silk, she says, but more akin to an industrial-strength spandex.
Orlosky-Randow credits Cirque du Soleil with demonstrating that circus arts can be transformed into a fully choreographed show with characters and an emotional arc. In addition to silks, the aerial dancers use trapezes, aerial ropes, and aerial hoops.
Students take the classes for a variety of reasons: a desire to experiment, a chance to develop choreography, the opportunity to master the daring skills that circus arts demand.
Many of the more complicated and graceful moves require a dancer to first perform a foot lock, a stabilizing move where one foot is “tied” to the silks in a figure-eight knot. This knot gives dancers peace of mind as they dangle as much as 30 feet in the air (the large cushioned mats below offer some reassurance, too). With that skill mastered, dancers move on to more complicated climbs, inversions, and rotations.
While Rickborn acknowledges that flipping in the air can be scary, she says the class has quickly become the highlight of her week. The triathlon athlete also says it’s her best workout. “It takes a lot of abs and upper arm strength to hold yourself up there,” she says, something many people don’t realize when they first sign up for the class. “I love how aerial dance combines strength with stretching and movement. I feel like a monkey when I hang upside down and spin around.”