Air-traffic control

“As an aerialist, you’re under the assumption that you will fall,” says Christine Aiken, artistic director of Asheville Aerial Arts. “You’ll get burns and rips. I’ve seen a lot of broken bones.” Not to mention that a tumble from higher than 10 feet is considered a mortal fall: Asheville’s aerialists spin, hang, contort and seemingly float at heights up to 32 feet.

Free-falling: Candice Caldwell defies gravity while maintaining graceful form and a happy smile. Photos By Jason Sandford

Luckily, I learn these chilling facts after I’m safely back on terra firma, my brief-but-exhilarating tutorial with aerial artist and instructor Candice Caldwell a happy memory. My “flying” lesson (held in Aiken’s backyard, where the troupe rehearses since they lost their home base with the collapse of Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym) is just a taste of what the Asheville aerialists will teach at this weekend’s Lake Eden Arts Festival. As well as performing at the festival, the aerialists offer adventurous and curious onlookers of all ages and abilities the chance to defy gravity.

Lesson one: Beginners start in the sling, a thick and stretchy loop of fabric that is easy to grip and provides the ability to rest between tricks. Advanced artists perform on silks—long swaths of slick fabric hung in verticals. To keep from plummeting from the slippery silks, an aerialist must be certain to always have a hand or foot tightly wrapped in the fabric.

Even though the cocoon-like sling is easy to hold onto, just getting started challenges my arm and abdominal strength. I turn an unattractive shade of red. Flying through the air with the greatest of ease? Not so much.

“Always point your feet,” Caldwell says as I struggle to appear vaguely graceful.

Aerialist apprentice and spotter Katelyn Deaton adds, “That’s all you need.” If only.

I’ll fly away: Xpress reporter Alli Marshall takes a flying lesson from Asheville Aerial Arts.

Lesson two: No matter how strong you think you are, this workout is a killer. Even in the sling, aerialists are constantly supporting themselves with upper-body exertions, all while trying not to grimace. Artist Dari Layne tells me that if I keep practicing (the Asheville group rehearses up to five times a week), I’ll build strength. “You keep learning new ways to twist and turn,” she says. “On the flip side, if you take a week off, you lose a month.”

In 10 or 15 short minutes, I can see why Aiken describes the art form as addictive. Despite the ache in my biceps, I want to learn just one more trick. A supported forward tumble sends my stomach into my throat, but I want another chance to get it right.

“All the best tricks hurt,” Caldwell tells me, but at fewer than 5 feet off the ground, I’m not even close to the dangerous stunts. Airborne splits, tandem routines where aerialist partners spin through breathtaking pas de deux and heart-racing drops from three stories aloft: I’ll stick to the training wheels-equivalent sling, thanks.

“At a teaching level, you won’t see many injuries,” Aiken promises. “The workshop aspect is safe.” When the group rigs out of a tree, as they’ll do for LEAF, they go so far as to have an arborist inspect the health of the tree. And there are also spotters so if a student lets go, “we’re right there to catch you,” Aiken asserts.

For beginners, the gravity-defying benefits are immediate. “The sense of accomplishment and self-esteem is incredible,” Aiken insists. “Some people have that penchant for it and they can’t stop.” It’s these future aerialists Aiken has in mind when she mentions bringing in guest instructors to lead masters-level workshops.

LEAF performance highlights

For a complete schedule of performers, see www.theleaf.com. Here are the weekend’s headliners, performing at the Lakeside Stage:

@listtext:Friday
• Spiritual Rez (reggae and funk), 4:30-5:30 p.m.
• Vieux Farka Touré (blues from Mali), 6-7:30 p.m.
• Pistolera (Latin), 8-9:30 p.m.
• Donna the Buffalo (roots rock), 10:15-11:45 p.m.

Saturday
• High Windy (bluegrass), noon-1 p.m.
• Dende & Hahahaes (Brazilian), 1:30-2:30 p.m.
• Scythian (Celtic-Gypsy fusion), 3-4 p.m.
• Vieux Farka Touré (blues from Mali), 6-7:30 p.m.
• Bettye LaVette (R&B and soul), 6:30-8 p.m.
• Robert Earl Keen (roots), 8:30-10 p.m.
• Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (funk and jazz), 10:30 p.m.-midnight

Sunday
• The Legendary JC’s (R&B and soul), 12:30-1:30 p.m.
• Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (funk and jazz), 2-3 p.m.
• Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, featuring Béla Fleck, Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee (folk fusion), 4:15-5:45 p.m.

“We’re in negotiations to bring in an education director and open a full-time school for aerial arts and aerial dancing,” she reveals.

Aiken, who created the Asheville Aerial Arts group initially as a one-time act for the patron’s party at the 2007 Asheville Area Arts Council’s White Ball, is one of those people with a penchant for flying. After studying dance, gymnastics and high diving, she was recruited during a Bahamas vacation to learn the circus-centric flying trapeze.

Layne also comes from a background of trapeze and gymnastics. She points out that training “makes a big difference: Dancers and gymnasts automatically point their toes.” But would-be artists with no applicable experience are also able to learn quickly if they’re willing to put in the effort. Only three of Aiken’s original cast had aerialist history prior to debuting at the White Ball.

These days—25 performances in—Layne says, “We’re starting to feel like a performance troupe. We’re not just a few people who do this once in a while.”

The Asheville aerialists have studied with Cirque du Soleil artists and, since Cirque has made the aerial arts widely recognizable, Aiken insists, “There’s a big need for aerialists.” The future school will train not only a touring performance group available for private and public functions, but also professional dancers who want to round out their resumes and adventurous types looking for new athletic challenges.

“The more you practice, the more you grow,” Layne says. “It’s like yoga in the air.”

To learn more about Asheville Aerial Arts, visit www.ashevilleaerialarts.com. Lessons are offered Friday, Oct. 24, through Sunday, Nov. 2, for ages 4 and up. Classes are 10 a.m.-noon, 2-4 p.m., 4-6 p.m., and 6-8 p.m. $30 per person. To register: christine@ashevilleaerialarts.com or 301-5615.

Watch a video and view a photo gallery of Alli Marshall’s aerialist lesson at www.mountainx.com.

[A&E reporter Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.]

what:  Lake Eden Arts Festival, a biannual weekend-long music, dancing, food, visual arts and camping gathering
where: Camp Rockmount in Black Mountain
when: Friday-Sunday, Oct. 17-19 (Gates open at 9 a.m. Friday; festival ends at 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are sold out. Be prepared to pay $2 for parking per vehicle. www.theleaf.com or 686-8742.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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