Finding the Trick

The Vaidis Sisters


It’s been two years since my last update!  The list of tricks I’ve learned is long enough that I keep a spreadsheet, and so track which ones I need to rotate back in before they gallop merrily away (I’m looking at you, Unicorn! But more on that later.).

If you don’t use it, you lose it! That goes for newly-acquired tricks, and goes double for flexibility. Now that I practice on my own, I want to make sure I’m warming up efficiently, practicing correctly, pacing myself well in the time I have available, and not getting distracted by the superhero friends surrounding me. It helps to stick to the same warmup drill I do in class, and often I listen to the same playlist so that even thinking of the opening songs gets me in the right mindset.

The trick that’s been eluding me for months is Unicorn, otherwise known as Gazelle Roll-up. I had it somewhere around December, and lost it. Despite many efforts to regain, Unicorn was nowhere to be found. I tried it on the “good” size and that other side. I tried it on floor trapeze. I tried it slow. I tried it fast. Nothing but frustration! Fast forward to a guest appearance by visiting Montreal teacher/performer Hannah Griffith who observed what was happening, and suggested I grab a foot more of rope. Unicorn was suddenly within grasp, with ease. I could do a dozen Unicorns without issue. Amazing and magical!



Tricks in the Air



An update on progress I’m making! After a few years of slow-and-steady progress, here’s a glimpse of where I’m at:

  • Flag – “very good” on right arm. Left arm slowly improving.
  • Monkey roll – looks good on both sides.
  • Ankle hang – up to 40 seconds at a time.
  • Montreal – after much struggling to remember the choreography, I’m doing this regularly and can do so on the high trapeze without issue. Still working on *which* foot to lift up at the end.
  • Gazelle
  • Angel
  • Bird’s Nest
  • In stretching news, pancake and middle splits are hitting the floor and feeling good. Backbends continue to feel good.
  • I obtained permission to practice on the trapeze on my own!

What I’m working on:

  • Ankle hang beats. Pure fear kicks in.
  • Laziness when climbing rope or silk – I start to hold back, worried I won’t make my way back down!
  • Straddle beats are uneven. Some days they’re ok, some days my legs feel too weak to do much.
  • Straightening my legs and ‘swallowing stomach’ in everything.
  • Candy cane. Pure pain kicks in from wrapping my feet around the rope and hanging upside down makes me second-guess everything about this pose. Fortunately, there’s a way to do this which isn’t as painful – now if I can remember it every time…
  • Tuck through to pike without toeing the bar. Very difficult, partly due to my shorter arm length.
  • Front pullover onto the bar. Even from a beat is impossible without splitting to use the ropes as leverage, unless my ankles are tied together!
  • Stretching goals: Front split is twisted and nowhere near the floor. Ergo, front split under the bar needs work.

While looking for circus resources I discovered Reddit, of all places, has a lively and active aerialist community. Through this I found a great discussion on aerialists who are larger than ‘very tiny’ (like me) and how the learning process is likely to go, which was helpful. In sum: we’re likely to learn more slowly  but gain more upper body strength. All true, so far.

An ongoing practice given to me by my trapeze coach: close your eyes and visualize yourself going through the movements in order to commit it to memory and help with muscle memory. I stayed after class to do this recently. It rocked!



Heal Your Ripped Grip: When the Bar Bites Back

I stepped up the frequency of aerial classes earlier this month, and quickly ran into an issue. My hands were giving out before my muscles did.

The cushions right under my fingers have the same trusty calluses I’d relied upon. A little big, but doing well. But as I’ve started focusing on pullovers and monkey rolls, the location of impact shifts. Hanging from my hands and swinging is one thing. Rips across the palm are new, and worse!

I learned a tip from friends in flying trapeze. “You always want calluses across the palm. Those are the best.” Ok. That, along with starting to get my pants tangled in the trapeze doing monkey rolls, means I’m progressing well. Grabbing the bar in the right place with my hand and my knee-crease. Excellent!

Meanwhile, my palm get skin ripped off at least once a week. If it happens in class, I use athletic tape to keep going. I use a version of boxing wraps, but there are all kinds of options, and some people buy fancy leather/foam grips. Circus Girl’s Guide to Grip Gripe has some interesting taping ideas.

Between classes, the best method I’ve found to heal (other than dialing down the frequency): Neosporin and then a bandaid. Leave it on overnight. Put a new one on during the day. Once you no longer need the bandaid, keep moisturizing with your choice of balm/salve. My current favorites alternate between Weleda Skin Food, Barista Balm and Burt’s Bees Salve. Each of these takes a few minutes to soak in, but it’ll help a great deal.

And be careful washing dishes. Or any other water sports. Because if you have an open rip and immerse in water — especially hot water — it’s going to be painful. Best option is to put a bandaid on and then a nitrile or latex glove, but (especially in the shower) water’s still going to get in there.

As for training: knee-hang beats, one-leg hang exercises, and static hanging exercises (like pull-ups instead of beats) will get you through. And in time your skin will toughen up. Then it’s on to the next painful trick!

Training Without a Trapeze

“How often should I go to class in order to make progress?” I asked a teacher some years ago.

“Three times a week is great. Two is good. Once is not enough — you will need to relearn each week.”

This is true of yoga, ballet, aerial, music… anything requiring progressive learning. To keep the movements fresh in muscle memory, more than one class a week is needed — and practice at home, if you can.

For aerial, though (in my case, static trapeze) it’s hard to do. I went to a supervised practice time yesterday and something interesting happened. I was the only one there, and so had unlimited access to the static trapeze and didn’t bother with rope or tissue. It was great practice – I structured much as a class would be – but: my hands wore out before my muscles did. Today, my calluses hurt and I have stripes of near-blisters across my palms, but the typical and welcomed muscle soreness in trapezius muscles isn’t there. I’ll need to do more conditioning to keep muscles in shape without grinding away at my hands.

I’ve found the following complimentary to aerial:

  1. Boxing. Provides badly needed cardio, stamina and muscle for the arms, and a posture that’s the reverse of aerial. “Training to be in condition for the flying trapeze is exactly the same as training for a boxing match…You have to run at least two or three miles a day, and spring hard at the end.” — Tito Gaona, Trapeze – The Quest for the ‘Impossible’ Quadruple Somersault. New York Times, 1978
  2. Gymnastics conditioning. Roman rings, cartwheels, handstands, headstands — all invaluable both for building upper and lower body strength and for a good line even when learning. Students who are new to aerial and have a gymnastics background go far, fast.
  3. Keep a pull-up bar at home. Pull-ups are probably the most important exercise, as you’ll be constantly holding yourself in the air while learning.
  4. Conditioning I’ve seen others do well in, but haven’t done yet: Kettle bell swings. Acrobatics and tumbling. Rock climbing. All useful.
  5.  Stretching/contortion class. Invaluable for achieving straddle-ups.
  6. Yoga, both for stretching and for focus on the breath, incredibly important.

Finally, I listed a few online resources for conditioning on my Circus Resources page. I recommend starting with XOSarah’s Exercises for Aerial Arms and Straddle-Ups against the wall, and taking it from there. Go forth and train!

Where’s Your Coach on the Kindness/Toughness Scale?

Queen of the Air, Miss  Lillian Leitzel

I’m currently ramping up after a short lull. July and August meant strengthening and stretching to get ready for round two of Static Trapeze.  I’m carving out room for any Stretching or Intro to Contortion class – once I relax and breathe, it feels magnificent.  My favorite strength exercise is a tiny bit of doubles trapeze work: Partner Pull-ups. On a static trapeze, I wrap my legs around the ropes, hang upside down, wrap my wrists around theirs and lift classmates until they hover above the ground. At that moment, I feel like the strongest, toughest Lady Gymnast in the world.

On the flying trapeze, 1966 – by Tony Karp –

Of course, I love flying too (that is, being lifted) – it’s like being in a bouncy castle.

The teacher who leads this class is abundant in her encouragement. I keep coming back for good reason. What to Look For in a Good Personal Trainer was a lightning bolt moment for me. As the article says, while still learning and getting stronger, an encouraging teacher (kind!) is often the best choice. Once the groundwork is there, it’s time to level up and fine-tune which requires specific, critical details (tough!) – what I think of as Director’s Commentary. Hard to take? Yes. Extremely useful? Absolutely.

Sometimes it’s a visual demonstration which will click, or a different cue. Once multiple teachers notice the same tendencies, there’s your #1 focus.

I sympathize with teachers. As students, we walk in there and they contend with everything we bring to the mat: food, sleep, tension and breath, what we’ve “practiced” that week (another topic) and what kind of a general state we’re in.

That said, right now, I’m still somewhere on the beginner spectrum. I like to pack my schedule with 75% Encouraging and 25% Tough. That way I have the fortitude to take my lumps, learn from them and keep working it out the rest of the week. Next post: How to Practice (when you have no freestanding rig.)

Weight Training, Aerial and Acro Style

My favorite history/memoir of circus, The Ordinary Acrobat by circus historian Duncan Wall, startswith his Fulbright to National School for the Circus Arts in Rosny-sous-Bois. I’m on my second read, and enjoy it every time. The struggle to get an elegant tuck-through-to-pike is real.  Dabbling in Acrobatic Conditioning and learning the cartwheel and handstand as an adult, lifting your own bodyweight this way and that, over and over… I start to think that maybe the problem isn’t coordination, or practice, or background; maybe it just comes down to a few extra pounds.  Working out multiple times a week means it’s hard not to continually compare my level of fitness and learning curve with others.

I am sure it contributes, but not necessarily in a bad way. One instructor referred to it as weight training. “I gain a little weight? Excellent! Makes my training better. I tell everyone I’m doing weight training.” My triceps are growing due to all of the handstand practice, and I’m a regular of Laura Witmer’s blog where she’s quite clear that you can’t be too old or too big for aerial.

That said, there’s a self-selection process that can happen in classes. How we line up in order of skill level. How skill level can correspond to conditioning, so that the thinnest students go first. I found myself watching the thinnest students excel, and… went into a deep spiral. The kind where I think, “I must be the largest, most uncoordinated aerial student that ever existed!” Even though I am an average sized short person (good for aerial, which is full of the short of stature) and suspect that since strength is coming along, it’s technique that’s next on the list.

I haven’t had a single teacher mention weight, not even when students audibly berate themselves, usually they correct them: “Don’t think about that. Just try to get the right movements.”

Right as I was wondering how they did it, one student tells me, “Oh, I’ve been going to Stretching class 5-6 times a week in the summer, and I still don’t feel like I’m there.” That’s the part I haven’t seen — their preparation.

Another who picks things up the fastest says: “It’s so much work to visualize what it will feel like during each demo!” To this I did a triple-take. Not only visualize, but imagine how it will feel? That makes a lot of sense. I shall do it!

Here’s hoping this technique can help. Focus, get the right movements and feeling…

…and in the case of hoop/trapeze, kill the right nerve endings.