Aerial Silks is one of the most visually stunning and physically ambitious disciplines the world has ever seen.
In recent years, this art form has rocked both the performance and circus arts, steadily collecting countless practitioners and fans. With its grace, beauty, and astounding demonstration of strength, it’s no wonder that so many people have discovered their passion through a practice that balances exacting demands with high rewards.
This article will cover the art of aerial silks. Whether you are just getting started in the field or if you’re an old pro, we hope to offer some helpful information to enhance your career as an aerial silk artist.
What are Aerial Silks?
The term aerial silks refer to a form of gravity-defying creative movement featuring a column of fabric rigged overhead as the performer’s dance partner, on which she demonstrates acrobatic movements and poses.
Aerial silks are known by many names around the world. In some circles, it’s known as aerial contortion or aerial contortion in silk, although not all silks artists present contortion-style movements. Aerial ribbon is another romantic term to describe it. Some refer to the form as aerial fabric or simply fabric or silks. The French word tissuis also used in many places.
Fabric Types and Equipment
Contrary to their name, aerial silks are not actually made of silk. That would cost a fortune.
There are two broad categories of aerial silks: stretch and non-stretch, with some variation in between. All aerial fabrics should have at least a 2-way horizontal stretch. They are made of polyester-lycra or nylon tricot. In terms of the technical thickness of the fabric weave, 40 denier is the norm.
Beginners will quickly find that the non-stretch variety is much easier to climb, while later in their explorations, they may discover that stretchy fabric is more forgiving when it comes to absorbing the shock of a high drop. Still, many aerialists prefer non-stretch aerial silk.
You can have your silks cut to varying widths to suit your hand size and grip strength. Aerial silks come in just about any length your ceiling or portable rig height can accommodate.
A Figure 8 or Rescue 8 descender is used to affix the fabric, while carabiners (auto-lock or screw gate) connect your Figure 8 to the hardpoint overhead. When using screw gate style carabiners, ALWAYSremember to flip the carabiner over to prevent gravity from unscrewing your closure. An easy reminder is this: Don’t screw up!
To prevent unwanted twisting on your fabric, don’t forget a swivel which will allow the apparatus to spin in space.
Round slings or daisy chains can be used to add length to the apparatus. However, keep in mind that round slings will be much stronger for high, dynamic drops.
Additional options include a rainbow of colors and shades, and silks are even available with patterns like sunset ombres.
To enhance grip, most aerial silks artists use rosin on their hands, feet, other parts of the body, or even on the fabric itself to prime it for use. Rosin is made from tree sap and comes in a dry, powdered form or as a spray mixed with alcohol. The powder can be a bit messy, while the spray is very sticky, but they both give you a great power grip. Rosin can be purchased commercially. Some aerialists have been known to concoct their own custom blend of dry rosin and alcohol to find that perfect friction factor. Other aerial silks artists prefer to rely on little or no grip aid.
Safety mats and spotters are critical components for new aerial practitioners, and they are not a bad idea for experienced artists either. The topic of safety mats for performance is a controversial one, but many professionals rely exclusively on their own strength and skill to execute a successful performance.
Key Players in the Evolution of Aerial Silks
The original founder of aerial silks remains somewhat of a mystery, but there are many key players who helped establish and develop what’s now one of the most incredible forms of performance and circus arts.
André Simard joined the now world-famous Cirque du Soleil in 1987, hired on as a creative movement researcher with the aim to capture the attention of spectators. This was a mere three years after the company’s inception. Simard’s alchemy between fine arts and athleticism created a compelling storytelling element in which performers narrated with their entire bodies. The former gymnast is often credited as the inventor of aerial silks, but this claim has been disputed in some circles. Whether André Simard invented the actual apparatus or not, he was undoubtedly an early contributor to the discipline in the late 1980s and 1990s.
As a gifted teacher and artist, Fred Deb’ pioneered many aspects of the art form in the early 1990s after graduating from The National Center for Circus Arts. Her inventive collaborations impart lofty inspiration to audiences everywhere. Her highly popular aerial workshops are a treat for any aerialist and include creative inquiries into movement. Her work incorporates contemporary dance, theatre, and music, with a touch of whimsy. Fred Deb’ is also the organizer of the French Aerial Dance Festival.
Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion are identical twin sisters as well as the founders and artistic directors of the New England Center for Circus Arts, or NECCA, widely known as one of the best circus schools in the U.S. The cirque-style entrepreneurs have been instrumental in the inclusion of injury prevention training for aerial silks and all circus arts.
The legendary Dreya Weber has helped to bring aerial silks and other apparatuses to the popular world stage. As the aerial instructor to the stars, her work as a gifted aerialist, an actor, and a filmmaker reaches a wide audience and continues to inspire a new generation of aerial artists. Check out her film The Aerialist, along with pop star Pink’s amazing and beautiful aerial productions.
Tricks, Sequences, and Choreography
Always include a thorough warm-up and stretch in your aerial sessions. Start with something aerobic like running around in circles or jumping jacks to increase heart rate. Then, mobilize your joints, and stretch your muscles. Since aerial arts are a full-body workout, go ahead and warm up all the muscles you plan to use (your entire body!) ;)
Beginners will need a spotter, someone experienced in aerial silks who can watch and physically assist if needed.
One of the first moves you’re likely to learn on the aerial silk is a climb. The simple wrap climb and the Russian climb are popular methods for ascending the fabric. Later, you might master the elegant bicycle climb, the double knee climb, the straddle climb, and more. Foot locks are helpful for anchoring on to the apparatus and giving your arms a welcome break, as is the hip lock or hip key, which keeps you in a horizontal orientation in the air with the fabric wrapped around your pelvis.
These moves can be achieved on their own or woven into flowing sequences. Once you have a few skills under your belt you might learn drops like the rotating star drops or the slack drops.
These require a dose of daring. Names for all of these moves may be arbitrary and vary by region.
At any stage of an aerialist’s career, it’s important to practice conditioning exercises both on and off the apparatus. Perform sets of shoulder shrugs, clams or clamshells, straddle drills, and assorted movements on the floor. This is a crucial part of injury prevention and can save you a lot of trouble down the line.
Photo from @lanithecarni
There are worlds of creative sequences waiting to be explored on the aerial silks, and depending on your skill level, it’s a wonderful idea to practice putting things together to increase endurance and stamina, along with fostering creative expression.
A typical aerial silks act or routine begins with a climb, followed by poses and demonstrations of flexibility, and then crescendos with a death-defying drop, returning the performer back to Earth. Of course, each act is as unique as the artist who created it, but this formula may be useful for logistical purposes. At every stage of her training, and aerial silks artist is likely to be at work on mastering the illusion of effortless that audiences everywhere simply adore.
Like most aerial apparatuses, you can play on aerial silks solo or explore the fun and camaraderie of working with another person with doubles work.
Photo from @lanithecarni
The Benefits of Owning Your Own Aerial Silks
Having a set of aerial silks or two, or even an entire collection, offers the greatest freedom as an aerial artist -- along with great responsibility.
Owning your own aerial equipment saves you a ton of money. Whether you are a student, a performer, an instructor, or some combination of those three, you’ll find a cost-effective advantage to purchasing your own gear.
The fabric and hardware you need will pay for itself quickly by way of your performance fees, or even just the cumulative costs of class or open gym fees that you’ll save. As a studio owner, your students will need several apparatuses to use during classes and lessons.
With your own set of silks, there is limitless potential in terms of aesthetics. You can customize your performance with your costuming, building an entire aerial wardrobe. You can decorate your aerial yoga studio with the perfect calming colors, or bring the studio home with you as you complement your living room’s decor. The possibilities are endless. No matter how you climb it, your aerial silks are a lucrative part of your aerial dance toolbox. They’ll share the stage with you and showcase your unique skill, talent, and beauty.
Also, since the fabric is yours, you are free to use it whenever you want. You control its wear and tear and who climbs it, and when. No more surprise bloodstains or anonymous tears in the fabric leaving the mysterious perpetrator to walk free!
Rigging Safety and Education: Understanding the Basics
Safety should be your number one motivation when you will be hanging headfirst towards the floor. Make sure you source your aerial silk from a reputable company that has weight tested their fabrics.
Consider where you plan to hang your silks. The equipment required may vary from space to space. If you have access to or own an aerial rig, the setup could be different than that at a professional or home studio, or even a performance venue.
For additional reading material and safety training resources, check out ETCP rigging educators
The Best Aerial Silks for Sale
At Uplift Active, our aim is to present you with the highest quality aerial equipment, making aerial arts accessible to anyone who wants to explore the art form. We have aerial silks for sale along with all the equipment you need to fly them, even if your dream is to do aerial silks at home.
Check out our aerial boutique, where you can choose your rigging equipment, colors, and style of fabric to accentuate your aerial work.
What You’ll Get When You Order from Uplift Active
We offer fabric sets that come with all the hardware you need, as well as aerial fabric on its own by the yard. In addition to a rainbow of enticing solid colors to choose from, we provide gorgeous ombre style designs that will truly catch the eye and the imagination.
Aerial silks sets include your fabric, span sets, a rescue 8, swivel, and two screw-lock carabiners to rig in most aerial-worthy environments.
From time to time you may find that you’d like to wash your fabric. Tricot can be spot cleaned in cold water by hand or in the washing machine on the delicate cycle. Never put your aerial silk in the dryer! Hang it up to dry somewhere it will not be disturbed. Draping it from your ceiling or rigging point is a good option, draped loosely through your figure 8. It shouldn’t take long to dry.
Many aerialists prefer to keep their aerial silk out of direct sunlight to preserve its color.
What to Wear
For work on aerial silks, both the fabric and your body need to be protected.
DO: Wear comfy, stretchy workout clothes, like leggings and a fitted t-shirt. It’s best to keep most of your skin covered, especially your midriff area. Fabric burns are painful and unsightly.
DON’T: Wear jewelry, zippers, or any metal on the fabric. Anything that could potentially catch or snag the silk is a BIG no-no. Even the smallest tears can weaken the fabric and force it into early retirement. This is true for you and your students or friends. Costumes with sharp-edged crystals can also be hazardous. Baggy clothes will get caught in your fabric wraps, which is just awkward.
Keeping Your Fabric Safe at a Performance
Many aerialists these days are performing at venues, clubs, and other events that are not designed for such a show, and don’t have adequate security in place. This combination can be very dangerous for you and anyone who attends the event. No one should be anywhere near you while you are performing, for obvious reasons. Don’t be afraid to require event personnel to have someone protect this from happening as part of your entertainment contract.
While you are not on stage, be sure to have your fabric breasted well out of the way so that no one can get on it and damage it or injure themselves.
How to Store Your Aerial Silk
Daisy-chaining the entire length of your apparatus for storage is the most efficient way to handle the fabric for storage. If you’re not going to use it for a while, take it off its figure 8 and leave it in a waterproof bag or bin.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes! You can order tricot fabric swatches to get a sense of the weight, texture, and color shades that we offer before you buy.
Check the interwebs! Aerial studios have proliferated in the last decade. Here are a few resources to get you started:
Yes, you can. Be sure you have done your research on safety and rigging protocols, use a mat, and never train alone.
Embarking on an aerial journey is not imperative. The practice is definitely not for everyone. But if you do choose to take it on, you’ll find that it brings a multitude of gifts and rewards. Whatever your abilities are, you can experience the joyful challenge of aerial arts. As you face fears and grow stronger, fitter, and more confident, you’ll reveal more of the beautiful badass that you truly are.
For 2-pole aerial silks, double the height available and add several extra yards for your rigging and your tail on the floor. Silks artists with more experience may prefer a shorter tail or puddle of fabric on the floor.
Yes, without a doubt. The practice is a fierce anaerobic workout that will facilitate overall fitness from body and mind to soul.
Aerial arts demand that you work your entire being, with a strong emphasis on the upper body and core Good flexibility is helpful and can be cultivated with dedicated practice. You will develop muscles you didn’t know existed.
It can be. Is driving a car dangerous? Use common sense and put every safety feature in places that you possibly can, such as a good crash mat, a spotter, and solid, hands-on training. Get in the habit of using proper technique early. As with all the best things in life, the reward is worth the risk.
The art of aerial silk is a magical, dramatic spectacle that makes people truly smile just as it takes their breath away. With the right training, rigging, and equipment, you can help your dreams to soar. At Uplift Active, we believe aerial arts should be accessible to everyone who wants to try. When you are ready to make the leap, we are here to help your journey.
Are you ready for your aerial silks? Shop our extensive collection of Aerial Silks Sets, fabric, and hardware here.
Whether times are good or extremely challenging, many of us need a community to embrace -- even if our only way to connect has been virtual for much of 2020. Now that some aerial studios are allowed to start to open up again, many aerialists and aerial yogis will be breathing a sigh of relief as they anticipate getting back to the practice.