September 21, 2019

Up in the air

Webster aerial dancers perform their art above ground, without fear

Joselyn Simms pulls herself onto a trapeze hanging above a tile floor in Satori Gallery. She bites her lip in concentration, making a concerted effort to breathe as she begins to spin, flip and dive, striking graceful poses.

She is a ballerina and an acrobat, making strategic choreographed moves in the air. Her instructor, Monica Newsam, watches from below and asks with a concerned voice if Simms would like a mat underneath her.

“No,” Simms said. “I’m not scared.”

The Allure of Aerial

Simms said she climbed the tallest trees and stood on top of the monkey bars when she was a child. As a student studying dance at Webster University, Simms has turned her risk-taking into an art form by taking aerial dance, which combines choreographed dance moves with suspended equipment such as a trapeze, a hammock or a cube.

“I’ve always kind of been a daredevil,” Simms said. “For me, this is like climbing a tree for grown-ups.”

Newsam, who has been an aerial instructor, choreographer and performer for 12 years, said she loves the freedom the air gives her. The dancer from Panama said aerial is a way to explore.

“It’s a more inventive way to express yourself,” Newsam said. “I wanted to explore spaces, open up the space. I’m not just on the floor.”

Newsam compared the rush of performing an aerial routine to bungee jumping or parachuting. But unlike other thrill-seekers, aerial dancers like Newsam want to explore art and their own bodies, not just get an adrenaline boost.

Aerial involves serious rigging equipment, which must be properly anchored and balanced to make sure no accidents occur. Most times, performers don’t have any sort of net or mat underneath them, so every move must be precise. It requires tremendous strength and focus.

“I was one of the only people (in my class) who was strong enough,” Simms said. “When I auditioned for WUDE (Webster University Dance Ensemble) last year, we had to climb silk. I climbed all the way to the top, no problem. It was natural to me.”

But no amount of strength can keep an aerial performer from sore muscles and joints. Simms has popped her shoulder out of place while practicing, but said the six pack she has from constantly using her stomach muscles is worth the pain.

“You can’t be wimpy to do this,” Simms said. “It’s one of those things that I have to literally open my mouth and say, ‘Joselyn, suck it up.’ It hurts. It’s not a comfortable art form at all.”

Not Your Average Circus

Aerial dance evolved from circus performing, but Newsam and Simms both said the two arts are not the same. Aerial dance involves traditional ballet and contemporary dance done in suspension.  Newsam said aerial puts an artistic concept behind the athletic component of circus skills. Simms said there is a fine line between the two art forms.

“When you say aerial, people think show and circus and glitter,” Simms said. “We’re here as artists. But there’s a definite line that is easy to cross.”

The most recognizable form of aerial dance comes from Cirque du Soleil, which is why aerialists are often considered circus performers. Cirque du Soleil performer and Webster alum Stacey Carlson said audiences really respond to performances in the air, which present new challenges but impressive results.

Carlson has worked in several aerial shows, doing both circus and dance routines. She said aerial is an invigorating art form because it requires using every part of your body. She said the risks must be taken seriously, particularly when a partner is involved.

“A solo can be boring because you don’t have anyone else to play off of,” Carlson said. “You are in control of you and your partner, which is your apparatus. The duet is even better because you have a chance to have the person give energy and take energy, not only with the audience but your partner. When you’re alone you’re in more control, but (the duet) feels more complete.”

At Satori, Simms performs a routine on a hanging cube with three other dancers. The routine was performed at WUDE in the Loretto-Hilton Theatre last year. She said it’s important to be where you’re supposed to be and pay attention. She is constantly looking forward to make sure she doesn’t let another dancer fall, since her instructor Newsam points out that other people are depending on her performance.

Aerial has helped Carlson overcome her fear of heights, and taken her to Las Vegas to perform. While aerial dance is her passion, Carlson said it requires serious dedication.

“It’s not as easy as it looks, and it’s not for everybody,” Carlson said. “You can’t take for granted what you’re doing. It is a difficulty and a skill that shouldn’t be taken casually. It can be fun but you have to take the rigging seriously, understand the apparatus and maintain strength so you don’t get injured.”

The Pay-Off

All three dancers said they are often frightened when they are performing an aerial routine. It is strenuous work, and Newsam said it is often hard to translate a floor routine to the air.

After practice, Simms often has rope burns and scrapes all over her body. She said it’s exhausting, and she’s not sure how long she could physically perform aerial.

But there are also rewards to aerial. For Newsam, it’s a feeling of accomplishment. She said dancing in the air makes her feel like she’s conquered something.

“It’s like being in another world, discovering another planet,” Newsam said.

Other than improving her muscle tone and balance, Simms said she loves aerial because it sets her apart from other dancers.

“After I’m done with a really tough rehearsal, I get to sit back and think, ‘Wow, not a lot of people can do that,’ ” Simms said. “I’m pretty proud of what I’m able to do because it’s not something ‘Joe Schmo’ on the street can do. I complain about it a lot, but I kind of secretly love it.”

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