Local studios offer aerial arts lessons for all skill levels

AIRBORNE: Waverly Jones, pictured, took her first aerial lesson in 2010. She went on to perform with members of LCD Soundsystem and judged Ecuador’s national aerial and pole competition before opening Empyrean Arts with fellow aerialist Heather Poole. Photo by Jack Sorokin

Asheville’s Aerial Space studio overflows with hanging circus apparatuses: Aerial silks, suspended hoops and trapezes, and a 25-foot rope are secured to the ceiling’s beams. In her nearly two-hour-long classes for kids, teacher and Aerial Space owner Blue de Leeuw has an unconventional approach to making exercise fun. She encourages children to improve their flexibility by imagining their bodies as paper fans, and teaches them to tie different types of knots while they hold their splits. As the class comes to a close, de Leeuw guides 9-year-old Sky Young and 7-year-old Ava Walicky into aerial silk poses over thick safety mats. The girls hang upside down with the fabrics pinched between their knees, giggling as their legs fly through the air. Ava’s mother, Nicole Walicky, looks on with a wide smile as she records a video of Ava on her phone. “Ava’s proud at the end of class that she’s accomplished something,” her mother says. “Plus, she gets to play.”

Performing aerial arts — aka aerials — such as silks, trapeze and hoop may seem to require an almost superhuman amount of strength. But as new circus-arts studios and collectives have opened throughout Asheville in the past decade, opportunities for both serious performers and beginners have grown. Classes begin at basic levels, and instructors build students up gradually in terms of both height and skill. “If you can’t do a pullup, that’s OK,” de Leeuw says. “If you can sit on a chair, you can sit on a sling.”

First in flight

Aerials were largely unheard of in Asheville until 2007, when professional aerialist Christine Aiken retired here after 20 years of performing in circuses across the globe. Aiken had a mission: to expose what she now calls “teeny tiny Asheville” to the joy of aerials. Aiken gathered a large group of beginners who were eager to learn and began to teach trapeze in her backyard. Over time, the group narrowed to eight serious performers. They made their official debut as the Asheville Aerial Arts troupe with a show at the Haywood Park Hotel in June, 2007.

De Leeuw was one of those pioneers. She opened Aerial Space in 2009 and now has eight instructors offering classes in silks, hoop, static trapeze, acrobatic yoga and hand balancing. She also has a transportable rig to offer free aerial yoga classes for events like LEAF festival. Now, de Leeuw says, some of her former students have even opened their own studios. “I’m really not worried about the competition, because as long as people are teaching in a safe and ethical way, I think there should be more of it.”

One such student is Waverly Jones, who was a 21-year-old bartender when she took her first Aerial Space class in 2010. Jones was hooked immediately, and after only six months of rigorous training, she was invited to join the Asheville Aerial Arts company. Since then, Jones has catapulted into worldwide fame. She has performed with members of LCD Soundsystem, judged Vertígo, Ecuador’s national aerial and pole competition, and boasts more than 27,000 Instagram followers. Aerialists now travel to Asheville from all over the U.S. to take private classes with her. Perhaps surprisingly, “I like to be more in the back of the room, as opposed to front and center nowadays,” Jones says. “Teaching is extremely rewarding. I’ve seen a lot of bodies that are not your typical athletic build do some really amazing things.”

With professional aerialist Heather Poole, Jones co-opened Empyrean Arts in the South Slope. The aerial and pole fitness studio recently celebrated its first anniversary with a showcase called “Celebrity Circus.” Supporters crowded around to watch 11 students perform routines while dressed as Charlie Chaplin, Lady Gaga and even the pope. While many of the performances were flirtatious, Empyrean teacher Amber Victoria closed the show by stating, “This is not just about sensuality. It’s about strength from all different angles, and sensuality can come out of that.”

Inclusive art form

Asheville’s Toy Boat Community Arts Space has more of a do-it-yourself approach to the circus arts. The venue opened four years ago with a mission of providing “an affordable, inclusive space where anyone can learn, teach, practice, meet and perform their skills,” as long as they are cleared for safety. Toy Boat’s direction has moved away from aerials and toward theater, but co-owner Nina Ruffini would love to see more trained aerialists make use of the space. Toy Boat has mats and rigs available at a rate of $100 for 16 hours per month, and weekly open hours on Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. for a suggested $3-5 donation.

Reflecting on her original mission of bringing aerials into Asheville’s public eye, Aiken feels successful. Her latest pursuit, Dare to Fly, opened flying trapeze rigs on Swannanoa River Road and Broadway in 2015 to accommodate anyone “willing, able and ready.” While tied into safety lines and guided by trained callers, 90 percent of students successfully execute a trick in their first class. The rigs were recently shut down due to theft and vandalism, but Aiken plans to re-open next spring.

Asheville’s studios take strides to make aerials accessible to people from all walks of life. Empyrean Arts teaches workshops for recovering addicts from a nearby rehab clinic. Dare to Fly offers flying trapeze classes for deaf and blind students, and Aerial Space has discounts for students on food stamps. Aerials can be especially empowering for students with self-esteem issues — de Leeuw says she watches confidence levels soar in preteens. “I see girls who are barely even talking, and they come into the studio and light up. They start trusting their bodies and me and the fabric.” When a man in his 60s was turned away from gymnastics, de Leeuw accepted him as a student and watched him excel at aerial silks and trapeze.

But are aerials actually safe for everyone? Physical therapist Brian Lawler of Asheville Physical Therapy says most people can generally practice aerials safely under the guidance of instructors, but expresses concern for those with unstable shoulders, back problems or a history of joint dislocations. “If they have lower back pain or disc injuries,” he says, “they probably want to be cleared by a physician.” Lawler emphasizes that the most important precaution is for students to work with trained teachers who will teach them moves that are appropriate for their skill levels.

Asheville Aerial Arts will hold its yearly ticketed show, Becoming, at Asheville Community Theatre Friday to Sunday, Sep. 2 to 4. The family-friendly show uses aerials to interpret an array of metamorphoses, including caterpillar to butterfly, male to female and child to adult. The show costs $25 for adults and $10 for kids and students. Viewers who are inspired to attempt their own transformations can find lessons at local aerial studios.

Learn more at Asheville Aerial Arts, 301-5615, ashevilleaerialarts.com; Aerial Space, 46 New Leicester Highway, aerialspace.org; Dare to Fly Trapeze, 301-5615, daretoflytrapeze.com; Empyrean Arts, 32 Banks Ave., empyreanarts.org; and Toy Boat Community Art Space, 101 Fairview Road, toyboatcommunityartspace.com.

Editor’s note: Writer Eliza Stokes is an aerialist herself and a former student of Waverly Jones.

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About Eliza Stokes
Eliza Stokes holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and Global Studies from Warren Wilson College. She received the 2016 Larry Levis Award for outstanding manuscript on behalf of the Warren Wilson MFA Program and has read for the Juniper Bends Reading Series. Eliza is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville.

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