Swinging on silk

July 7, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Swinging on silk
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Tucked away in a back room of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, the rock climbing wall exists, unbeknownst to many students. But for students in the aerial fabrics class, this rock wall is their home base, a place where they twist, twirl, pull, stretch and hang upside down multiple times a week.

Aerial fabrics, described as “equal parts grace, strength and adrenaline, and 100 percent Cirque Du Soleil,” on the Stanford Athletics Physical Education, Recreation and Wellness website, is neither an official Stanford varsity nor a club team. Rather, the troupe holds office hours, hosts aerial fabrics classes at a variety of skill levels and performs in shows–the group’s most recent exposition, the Aerial Fabrics Showcase 2011, took place in early June at the rock climbing wall.

Also called aerial tissue or aerial skills, aerial fabrics is a more recent phenomenon in the aerial arts and has steadily grown in exposure and popularity in mainstream culture–performance artist, Pink, featured these aerial silk skills in her 2010 Grammy performance. Rooted in the circus arts, aerial fabrics has been adapted from a highly specialized skill to one that complete beginners can attempt with relative ease. The once extremely stretchy materials–the type that the Stanford group still uses–have become more rigid and less stretchy, making the fabric much more accessible to beginners and more easily adapted for yoga and conditional training.

Professionals usually know the basics of static trapeze, aerial hoop and rope in addition to aerial fabrics but chooses to specialize in one of the disciplines. Artists usually have at least some previous dance training or gymnastics on their resume, however, the group at Stanford hosts classes that assume no background whatsoever.

For Sommer Panage ’08 M.S. ‘09, an instructor for both the aerial fabrics class at Stanford and at the San Francisco Circus Center, a class she took at Stanford as an undergraduate sparked her interest in the art. Currently working at Apple as a programmer, she still trains and teaches almost every day.

“Aerial arts has gotten me into the best shape of my life,” Panage said, noting that “there’s nothing I love doing more than hanging upside down 30 feet in the air getting ready for a big drop or dancing my way up and down a rope to my favorite song.”

Though she doubts that she’ll ever pursue the circus arts professionally, Panage plans to continue training, practicing and performing in the foreseeable future.

Although safety is a concern for many–Panage does acknowledge that there isn’t much in terms of harnesses and lines because they get tangled in the silk–careful habits and training, such as practicing low to the ground and the use of mats, can make the art of aerial fabrics a relatively secure hobby.

The various aerial fabrics classes at Stanford, particularly the introductory class, are designed for a two-fold purpose, according to Panage. The first goal is to introduce students to the circus arts, the most famous example being Cirque du Soleil. The second is to encourage students to pursue aerial fabrics as a way to improve strength and flexibility–a typical aerialist can whip out 10 to 20 pull-ups, 50 v-ups and 50 to 100 pushups in addition to performing the splits and a backbend–and to engage the muscles in the body in a dynamic manner.

The beginning class teaches students how to climb and perform tricks on the silk, but couples those more awe-inspiring features with the importance of stretching, ground conditioning and safety. In the intermediate level, students are taught the basics of routine choreographing with music. For the more advanced students, students who have trained outside of Stanford, the silks at Arrillaga offer an avenue to practice their skills on campus. All of the classes have grown in popularity and interest.

And according to Erica Lieberman ‘14, one of the teaching assistants for the beginning aerial fabrics class, the training comes with an additional bonus.

“You’re pretty much guaranteed a six-pack,” she said.

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