I grew up watching Cirque du Soleil on PBS. To me, every performance centered around the aerialists as they soared through the air on pastel silks accompanied by semi-industrial power ballads. I watched these performances from my couch, as I typically try to stay as close to the ground as possible. If I were cast in Cirque du Soleil, it would likely be as a clown. Maybe a cotton candy vendor.
That’s why, when I got assigned to take an aerial silks class with Springfield Aerial Fitness, I was nervous but excited about my chance at aerial glory. I pictured myself gliding through the air in something tight and glittery. I don’t know how I was expecting to launch myself into the air, but I was confident I’d end up that way. I did not end up that way, but I did have a really good time.
I arrived at Phenomenon Studios downtown a few minutes before class started. Phenomenon is primarily a belly dance studio, equipped with a wall of mirrors that allowed me to fully witness my own flailing during the class. Instructor Daniela Torres met me at the door. She’s the sole instructor with Springfield Aerial Fitness and hosts silks classes three times a week: Mondays are at Phenomenon, and Wednesdays and Fridays are at Zenith Climbing Center.
I had arrived for the first session of Silks 1, an eight-week introductory course. To my surprise, there was only one other beginner in the class. The four other students in the room had taken classes before and had earned the right to pop into lower-level classes to practice their skills.
We began with warm-ups, which included jumping jacks and high knees. It was my first hint that the class involved a lot more athleticism than I was expecting. After warm-ups, we lined up at the silks—which, it turns out, aren’t actually made of silk. “That would hurt really, really bad,” Torres says with a laugh. They’re a billowy, slightly stretchy nylon tricot. The silks are tied to hooks on the ceiling, providing two tails for climbing. Then, we began what Torres calls “Laffy Taffys.” We started with “relaxed Laffy Taffys,” during which we wound our arms in the silks, leaned back and allowed our weight to carry us in circles. This got our arms and shoulders stretched out and ready for action.
We moved on to “engaged Laffy Taffys,” which involve the same motion as the relaxed kind, but with perfect aerial posture: feet planted, legs and upper bodies engaged and middles laced up. Next came climbs. The class covered two climbs: the standard climb and the Russian climb, also known as the monkey climb. The standard climb took me a few tries. It involves raising one knee high, wrapping that leg around the silk, flexing your foot to lock the silk into place, then holding yourself up with your arms while you lift your other leg and “smash” the fabric on top of the first foot to hold it in place. You then pull yourself up, stand up straight on the silk and continue climbing that way. Sounds easy, right?
I eventually needed a boost from Torres to figure out the proper movement for the standard climb. I did, however, make it to the top of the silk by the end of the class. The Russian climb was another story. It’s all in the feet, which takes some serious finesse. I wasn’t able to make it to the top. After climbs, we did some knot work. Torres tied large knots in each silk, and we lifted ourselves up and over for a nice, stretchy inversion. We ended the class with conditioning, including pikes, straddles and other core moves.
Needless to say, I was sore the next day. The physical benefits of silks include increased grip, forearm, shoulder and core strength, Torres says. The mental benefits are also a plus. “As you develop your strength, you also peel back your fears,” she says.
I didn’t end up sailing through the air as I had envisioned, but that’s okay. “You’re not expected to nail everything,” she explains. “A lot of people take Silks 1 several times before they feel comfortable enough to advance to Silks 2.” Ultimately, silks offers a great full-body workout and can serve as a major confidence booster. Just try not to take yourself too seriously. As Torres says, “It’s just circus, man.”