Monica Newsam grabs hold of two long black cloths attached to the ceiling. She pulls herself off the ground and wraps the cloth around her calf and then her thigh. She lets go of the cloth and lets it support her body as she gracefully points her toes out and reaches toward the sky. When she’s done, four of her students with Circus Harmony take turns imitating the move as she helps perfect their form.
Newsam, an adjunct aerial dance professor at Webster University, helps prepare these circus performers for upcoming performances. Though she teaches aerial dance for both Circus Harmony and Webster students, she said they need to be taught in different ways.
“Circus performers have different challenges (than dancers),” Newsam said. “They’re more for the purpose of entertaining and it’s a challenge to find transitions so the movements flow from one thing to the next. However, they are very strong and fearless. They’ll do pretty much anything you’ll ask them to do. In the dance world, it’s pretty much the opposite.”
Newsam has been teaching at Webster for seven years and has been working with Circus Harmony for a few years before that. She has been studying the art of aerial dance for around 10 years and said aerial dance is a fusion of dance forms and is open to interpretation.
Beckah Reed, chair of the department of dance, brought Newsam to Webster after meeting her through the St. Louis dance scene and said Newsam has a great understanding of the “connection of earth and air” as a choreographer. She said Newsam also knows how to connect the world of “circus tricks” to the world of artistic dance expression. She said she asked Newsam to join Webster’s dance department because she felt Webster needed an aerial dance class of it’s own.
“I don’t know of any other university dance programs that offer aerial,” Reed said. “It’s unusual to have but it’s usual to see it in some form or other in major dance companies, so I thought it was important for students to learn what to do.”
Newsam is a native of Panama and moved to the United States in 2002. Soon before she moved, Newsam began to learn aerial dance. She earned a bachelor’s degree in contemporary dance in Cuba, lived in India for four years to study classical Indian dance and lived in France for a year, where she performed throughout Europe. After that, she went back to Panama where she worked with a Mexican circus school with whom she began learning circus skills and aerial dance.
She started a dance company in Panama, which still exists today. Newsam said she has learned so much through all of her training and world dance experience, she will be teaching a new international dance course in addition to her aerial dance class next spring semester.
“Everything you do becomes part of your life and your journey. There’s a little bit of me and my heart in every place I’ve been,” Newsam said. “It comes in different ways in the work that you do because there are many important lessons that empower you artistically and it brings depth in everything you do in your work.”
Newsam has a full-time teaching job as a Spanish instructor at St. Louis public schools during the day. She teaches at Webster once a week and at the City Museum for Circus Harmony once a week. She’s also a choreographer and helps run a St. Louis organization called En L’Air Aerial Dance Company.
“It’s amazing she keeps up with it all,” Reed said.
Newsam said she is a teacher by nature and her main goal in life is to continue giving what she has been given — the knowledge of dance. Reed said she is a very disciplined yet loving teacher, and her students always have great respect for her.
“Just going up in the air and turning yourself upside down takes courage,” Reed said. “It’s physical strength, but also the psychological strength is very important. It’s an excellent tool in any university, but I’m particularly pleased we have Monica here to do it with us.”