Aerial Artists Build on Enthusiasm for the Circus
By Faria Akram
Chris Humphrey twists the rich, purple nylon into a loop and places her foot inside. Her arms and legs tighten as she pulls herself into position.
In a previous class, Humphrey finally mastered the “short-arm hang,” in which she holds the fabric in her hands, elbows by her chest and feet up in the air, and supports her entire body weight.
“The teacher looked at me like, ‘Did you just do that?’” Humphrey said. “And I looked at her like, ‘I don’t know what happened, I just did it.’ ”
She recalls the thrill with good reason: Humphrey is 65.
Humphrey takes classes at Sky Candy, one of five aerial and circus arts studios in Austin. The apparatuses students can learn include silks, trapeze, hammock, rope, pole and lyra (a suspended steel hoop).
Studios such as Sky Candy gained popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, when a new generation of enthusiasts decided to share their love of the circus, says Amy Cohen, executive director of the American Youth Circus Organization.
“This was a new and different thing for circus, which had previously been for families or people who ‘ran away to join,’” Cohen said in an email. “It’s all about the generations and a firm belief in circus and the importance of sharing it.”
Cohen, who identifies herself as part of the second generation of people starting studios and circus schools, also attributes the growing popularity of aerials to a consumer interest in fitness.
“Aerial studios who align more with fitness are growing at a rapid rate – and many of them are now looking back to circus to want to identify as such, while others are firmly ‘aerial fitness,’” Cohen said.
A musician and actress from Austin, Humphrey landed a part last year in a theater production, Cosmicomics, directed by Rudy Ramirez. Only after bagging the role did she realize it was a Sky Candy production.
“I ran into Rudy and was like, ‘Rudy, Sky Candy huh? You expect me to get off the ground?’” Humphrey said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry, we’ll have a couple workshops.’ And then I thought, I better start taking classes.”
New students generally take an introductory aerials course and then either vertical or horizontal aerials before taking a six-week course specializing in an apparatus. Classes are available in specific techniques such as alignment and flexibility and handstands. Each class costs $25, on average, with private lessons being more expensive. Standard four-week courses cost $100, while six-week courses cost $150.
Studios such as Sky Candy have popped up over the last 15 to 20 years, yet the origin of the phenomenon is unknown. Sky Candy marketing director Joanna Wright says some credit is due to Cirque du Soleil, the famous Canadian performance troupe.
“Cirque du Soleil has these shows that aren’t only the three-ring circus, but a lot more artistic, so they’re accessible to millions and millions of people, and I think that started an interest in people learning to do it themselves.” Wright, 29, said.
Wright began her aerial and circus arts journey by attending circus camp at 14. She went to college for dance and theater, and obtained a masters degree before returning to the aerial and circus arts full time.
“The whole idea behind a circus of doing things that should be impossible, I love that, just as a physical challenge, and just the discipline that you have to put your body through in order to do all these things,” Wright said.
Graduate student Amy Urban, 36, agrees the practice is challenging. A brown-haired, medium-height ballet dancer from Florida, Urban became involved in the aerial arts four years ago when she took a class with a traveling instructor. Her background in dance wasn’t an asset to her aerial arts experience.
“I was terrible at it, and I loved it,” Urban said.
Urban continued training on her own in Florida, teaming up with a friend at times. After moving to Texas, she joined Sky Candy to learn more. The possibilities in the aerial arts are endless, she says.
“You can start creating your own moves. You do your own choreography,” Urban said. “There’s so much to explore, it’s like a sandbox,”
Urban and Humphrey say people of any body type or age can participate in the aerial arts.
When Humphrey began Sky Candy, she trained for seven months on multiple apparatuses, including lyra, aerial silks, trapeze, rope and hammock. She had no intention of continuing the practice until she went in for a physical.
“We did a bone density scan, and my doctor said, ‘For the first time in six years, your bone density is in the normal range. What are you doing different?’” Humphrey said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m over at Sky Candy four or five times a week.'”
Humphrey is preparing for the studio’s next production, in fall 2016.
“I will never, ever, ever in my life, be one of the young, skinny, bendy aerialists,” Humphrey said. “But I can do something on nearly every apparatus now. I don’t do them beautifully, or I don’t look like I’m 20 years old, but I can do them.”
The combination of physical benefits and artistic freedom fuels her love for aerial and circus arts.
“Instead of lifting 10 pounds for 50 reps, I’d rather lift all my pounds and have some fun,” Humphrey said. “This, it’s pretty.”
Wright finds the practice beautiful and loves seeing what brings people to the aerial and circus arts.
“There are some people who do it just as a physical discipline and are not interested in performing,” Wright said. “Then there’s people who are definitely more interested in the artistic aspect, who want to perform and hone that side a bit, and then there’s people who just want to try it out. All those things are fantastic and valid.”