Fitness takes flight at Aerial Arts of Rochester
A soaring workout at a gym inspired by Cirque de Soleil
I’m hanging upside down, suspended from a fifteen-foot ceiling by shining, silky fabric. My head is two feet above the ground, and I can see a bobby pin springing from my piled hair. There’s a large wall of mirrors in front of me, allowing me to watch my slowly-reddening face.
Chilling out jungle-style isn’t a regular activity for me; I like heights about as much as I like paying taxes. But at Aerial Arts of Rochester, this is how you get in shape. I signed up for a private, forty-five-minute sampler lesson to experience firsthand how average, ground-bound people become amazing, acrobatic aerial artists à la Cirque du Soleil.
Aerial Arts of Rochester was established in 2010 by husband and wife team William and Jennifer D’Ovidio. He’s a black belt martial artist; she’s a dancer, pole competition champion and circus professional. They merged their interests to create an unusual studio that offers aerial acrobatics, yoga, circus training and pole dancing—with an emphasis on fitness rather than erotic choreography.
Located inside a Blossom Road warehouse complex next to Artisan Works, Aerial Arts is split into pole dancing and aerial arts studios. The pole dancing studio offers an intimate feel with feminine wall decals and pink accents, while the aerial arts studio has fluorescent lighting and a soaring ceiling that anchors various neon silks and black hoops. The floor is covered with padded mats like those you’d see at a gymnastics training facility.
William, my instructor for the day, looks to be pure muscle from the top of his spiky red faux hawk to the tip of his black-socked toes. I appear soft and doughy in comparison; it’s been years since I did anything that resembles a dance class or gym visit. When he asks if I warmed up that morning, I assume he means warmed up my coffee.
Aerial arts require a lot of muscles most people don’t use often. William explains that it’s important to stretch since it avoids any injuries for which I’d already signed a waiver. In my case, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t help avoid humiliation.
- We extend each arm, one at a time, and bend at the elbow to make an “L” shape. Then we use one hand to push the palm of the other hand so the wrist rotates away from our body and toward the ceiling. It feels less like an exercise and more like a good way to ruin my writing career, but William assures me it’s safe.
- Next, I lay flat on my back and envision my spine as three sections: lower, middle, upper. By rolling my hips forward and digging my heels, I flatten my lower back to the floor. The same step is repeated with my middle and upper back. To finish the exercise, I roll through my back the opposite way. It activates the back muscles to avoid injury and creates blood flow. It’s not easy, but actually relaxes me.
- For our last floor exercise, we grab our feet while moving back and forth, rocking horse-style, on the lower back.
The tools of the trade range from large hoops to what’s known in the industry as “silks”—made of stretchy, polyester-lycra blend fabric that splits into two parts, one for each arm. I choose a fuchsia silk facing William’s silver, and we begin.
We remain in warm-up mode with a gentle exercise William called “Laffy Taffy.” Since my grip strength isn’t terribly impressive, William had me wrap the silks around each arm twice. With my hands and feet together, my posture straight and my toes forming a pivot on the floor, I rotate my entire body around an imaginary circle.
That’s the first clue that I might be in pain the next day: my twig-like arms aren’t prepared to support my full body weight. Fortunately, they stayed in the sockets.
In my inaugural attempt to stand on the silks, I wrap one leg, rond de jambe-style, as I grip the silk and pull myself up, pushing my belly button forward. Unfortunately, this also pushes William forward. He tries to give me a boost and I nearly knock him down as I swing wildly around.
We work through a mid-air split (rather, my version of a split) and sitting techniques. I decipher which leg is the strongest: not surprisingly, it was my dominant right hand side, but William said that’s not the case for everyone. I point my toes a lot in a manic effort to keep positions, but doing so is the fastest way to slide off the silks.
I was very, very sore the next day.
The day after
For a week after the lesson, it was hard to lift, pull, and push. My upper back muscles have never had such a good workout. William says most people experience pain throughout the first six-week session as their muscles adjust, but see immediate physical improvements like weight loss and tone.
The session ended with the “Butterfly.” William criss-crosses and wraps the silks around my shoulders, back, and underarms, then instructs me to back up and lift my feet while holding onto the loosened end of the silks. The result is an awkward, flying pose that had a lot of potential (beautifully realized once William demonstrates), though it made my arms burn and my back ache.
It isn’t graceful. I look like a tired butterfly with bright, broken wings.
But I’m flying.
Leah Stacy is a freelance writer and videographer who specializes in the arts.