Bring Back Aerial Fabrics

Oct. 1, 2013, 10:42 a.m.

I left Stanford last year to join a circus in Brazil. For ten hours a day I trained in a professional program and taught aerial fabrics to low-income youth in Rio’s favelas. I owe that year, in large part, to the Stanford aerial arts program, where my flare for fabrics was born and bred.

Aerial fabrics is a circus art– it involves doing acrobatics while suspended from a thick strand of silk. Last spring, Stanford counted itself among the tiny handful of universities with an aerial program. No single campus program, including my major, has shaped my life so significantly. But aerial fabrics classes won’t be offered this fall. The program, formerly underneath the Stanford Outdoors umbrella, will no longer be supported by Stanford Outdoor Education (SOE).

Since its conception in 2008, the student-run aerial fabrics program has taught hundreds of faculty, students, and staff. Students taught the classes, baked brownies for showcases, determined curriculum and safety protocols, and turned a profit. If the Stanford administration is dedicated to supporting student-driven initiatives with broad reach and impact, they should reinstate the Stanford Aerial Fabrics Program.

Aerial classes were held at the rock-climbing wall, where twenty-five foot silks were rigged from the cross beams. Aerial fabrics is an outrageously hard workout. Even simple poses oblige you to climb the silk, requiring myriad muscles most people have never used. Making the poses beautiful requires grace and flexibility. And all this precedes the creative expression and brute endurance that routine building demands.

Honing it all in simultaneity feels like wielding a superpower, and once offered entry into this guild of beautiful badassery, I never looked back. The circus people became my people. The Stanford aerial community was encouraging, non-hierarchical, and physically impressive in the extreme.

Circus training is usually prohibitively expensive, but Stanford was able to re-purpose existing infrastructure and take advantage of students’ skills instead of hiring expensive coaches. Experienced student instructors taught classes during hours when the wall wasn’t booked for climbing.

In terms of resources, the program asked for very little. We hoped— that after five years of demonstrating that it could generate enthusiastic demand, remain financially self-sufficient, and keep students safe– that aerial fabrics would get more support from the University this year. It’s frustrating, as a student, to see Stanford invest in more expensive and less popular programs while ignoring student-driven endeavors with low overhead and high impact.

This neglect is particularly bitter because these are exactly the type of initiatives that Stanford is famous for. The administration should not underestimate the power of extracurricular activities—especially those that combine novelty and rigor– in attracting to this campus hardworking high school students who think outside the box.

It’s uncommon to be able to dabble in circus– the training is intense and expensive. But circus has a mystical allure that lots of people want to try.

The program was popular among students, growing steadily each quarter. When I came to Stanford three years ago, there were two teachers and maybe fifteen students. Last spring, there were 100 students registered and 50 waitlisted. Again, many of us hoped that with demand outstripping resources, and with SOE moving into their new digs, the fabrics program would inherit the old space (or be given the opportunity to expand as well). Instead, it was canceled, and we were told to find a new “organizational home.”

We don’t care what our organizational home is. We just need the University’s support to be able to take and teach classes. Yes, this change dampens the vibrancy of the campus extracurricular community. And yes, stopping the beginner classes– where I routinely watch students gain otherwise-never-discovered muscles and friends– is very sad. But it’s a much stiffer tonic for those already committed to fabrics. This program has defined and will– I hope– continue to shape the Stanford experience of many students and staff on campus. Let’s bring it back.

Clementine Jacoby ’14

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