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Sensi Magazine

Aerial Dance

Jul 01, 2019 12:58PM ● By Leland Rucker
When it comes to modern aerial dance, Nancy Smith is in a class all her own. The Boulder artist started Frequent Flyers Aerial Productions in 1988, and today the nonprofit organization performs around the world, including for Cirque du Soleil and at the Kennedy Center. The company hosted the world’s first aerial dance event, the Boulder Aerial Dance Festival, in 1999, and this year’s 21st edition brings dozens of artists, gymnasts, and students from all over the world for performances and workshops.

Frequent Flyers is deeply entwined in the local community, hosting a student company and summer camps, and offering year-round classes for all ages as well as programs for adults, teens, and at-risk youth. Smith teaches classes in local grade schools and at the University of Colorado. She is co-author, with Jayne Bernasconi, of Aerial Dance, a book about the art form’s history.

All of this is based around the concept of modern dance in a distinctive setting: suspended from the ceiling on a rope and harness and using those advantages and limitations to express yourself using your body and strength. “There are a lot of constraints around doing it, so I’m always trying to figure out how you work with all of those,” Smith says. “You have to have rigging. It’s a fixed point in the ceiling, so you’ve got a restriction of this ‘thing,’ but then you get all this freedom of vertical space that nobody in dance fills.”

At first glance, the assumption might be that this all comes from the circus you know, the flying trapeze and all. In truth, it’s much more nuanced, Smith explains. Aerial dance, a relatively new form of expression, is an outgrowth of the modern dance movement that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“The book details that aerial dance came out of the postmodern dance movement,” Smith explains. “Long story short, I wanted to have a history of the art form that shows that it came out of dance, not circus. We’re talking 1967 onward. It’s a uniquely American art form. With that said, however, as soon as we started doing the aerial dance festival in 1999, we started bringing in circus artists who were working in that genre and doing cross pollination.”

The distinction between dance and circus has narrowed over the years as a result. When Smith started Frequent Flyers, only a handful of people were doing aerial dance, and the 1999 festival was the first to bring together individuals from around the world. Today there are festivals across Europe and elsewhere. “There’s been so much cross pollination in part because of 21 years of the festival of people seeing what each other are doing.”

It didn’t hurt to have Cirque de Solei, which has become enormously successful by ending animal tricks in a circus setting in favor of real human skills. “So all of that happened kind of at the same time,” she adds. “And that’s what the festival in a nutshell is all about bringing together people who have different points of view. It’s like any art form; there are different expressions of it.”

This year’s event features classes, lectures, demonstrations, informal discussions, networking, and performances from July 28 through August 9. Everybody is welcome, no matter your skill set, with classes and demonstrations for all ages and abilities.

All in all, this seems like the perfect job for a woman who spent her childhood hanging from swing sets and tree branches and climbing anything she could find for what she calls a “natural high.” Little did she know that the most important element of Frequent Flyers would be the educational component. Yes, hanging from the ceiling has health benefits beyond just being fit.

A good example is Kids Who Fly, the company’s you that risk program, based around the concept of replacing self-injurious behaviors with safe risk-taking. Taking a cue from adventure-based therapies, Smith and others came up with a similar program based around the arts.

“A lot of what kids are about is they just think they’re invincible, and some of them are pushing the envelope in ways that are unhealthy,” she says. “There’s cutting, suicidal ideation, wanting to drop out of school. There’s drugs and alcohol, there’s obsessive compulsive video gaming whatever it is that takes them out of being able to interact in the world and feel healthy.”

The program emphasizes setting goals in a safe space, hanging from the ceiling. “We get a lot of kids who just can’t find a place to fit in, but they are physical kids or expressive kids or creative kids,” she says. “The school system doesn’t really generate programming for the creative kids in that way.”

The first big thing students learn is to trust themselves, the equipment, and the teachers. “It’s this tremendous breakthrough when they do something they were afraid to do, right? And they get a new skill. I’d have students who had some childhood thing that happened they fell off of a playground thing and hadn’t been upside down since they were a kid. And their whole goal was just to hang upside down. Well, they went way beyond that.”

There’s a scientific term for it. “It’s called eustress. And that’s healthy stress,” she says. “It triggers your fear centers, but not at the level that it’s dangerous. And things start to happen.” Kids Who Fly is now in its 19th year. More than 6,000 students have gone through the program.

Frequent Flyers operates the only certified professional training program in the country, and FF has a relationship with the University of Colorado Dance Department that allows MFA students to get an aerial emphasis for their degrees.

“Part of the goal is to perpetuate and grow the art form through training people and teaching people a love for the art forms so that they take a class or see shows, become donors, volunteers, board members, whatever,” she says. “But education has been there since the beginning. I didn’t mean for it to be, I never meant to teach personally. I wanted to choreograph and perform, which I have done and still do.”

The organization’s Vampire Masquerade Ball always an anticipated community event will take place November 2 and 3, with a costume contest, raffle, photo opps with a coffin, and a performance of excerpts from Theatre of the Vampires. The company puts on two shows a year. A 2017 performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with Smith performing with a symphony orchestra to the accompaniment of American classical composer Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” got standing ovations and rave notices.

“Yeah, I’m still teaching and performing, which is interesting,” Smith says. “I have things I personally want to dance about, and I have things I want to choreograph on the company. It’s been an interesting journey.”

She says she is still inspired by the other teachers and her students. “I’m learning. They’re learning. I think it’s why I’m not bored, because I am constantly being pushed to question my own perceptions,” she says. “And we often say that the thing about aerial is it changes your perception. You are literally not looking at the world right-side up. It’s often spinning or swinging. So you are having a complete brain change every time you do this activity.”

I remind her that that she has become a part of the history of aerial dance as much as a participant. “I forget about it ’cause I’m always thinking about where we’re going and what’s next,” she says. “What envelope do I want to push and what are people in the world doing and how you stay competitive.”