Defy Gravity: Dance Conditioning for Vertical Lift and Aerial Artistry

Defy Gravity: Dance Conditioning for Vertical Lift and Aerial Artistry

Defying Gravity: My Journey as a Plus-Size Aerialist

As a plus-size aerialist, I have embarked on an extraordinary journey that challenges stereotypes and celebrates the beauty of all bodies. In this article, I will share my experiences, triumphs, and valuable lessons learned along the way, hoping to inspire and empower others who may be hesitant to explore the aerial arts.

I am a fat woman and an aerialist in training. I don’t know how much I weigh because, in the interest of body positivity, I don’t use scales. I am 5 foot 2 inches tall, a UK size 18, and I wear a J-cup bra. I certainly do not have the lithe, athletic body type traditionally seen in the aerial arts. I have been training in aerial for almost two years, starting with trapeze and recently adding aerial hoop to my schedule.

I have met some wonderful people, learned some cool tricks, performed in front of a paying audience just once, and had a lot of fun – all as a plus-size aerialist. Before I took my first lesson, I wasn’t even sure if it was realistic for a bigger person to consider the aerial arts. I did a lot of searching on the internet for articles or blog posts talking about the experiences of larger aerialists, and I didn’t find anything. I was looking for reassurance that my dream wasn’t impossible, but I struggled to find what I was looking for. Instead, I had to take a deep breath, kick up my heels, and hope for the best. I figured the worst that could happen was falling off.

In the last couple of years, I have learned a few things, so this is the article I wish I had been able to find before I took my first class. It’s amazing how different we all are, and size isn’t the only factor that determines what you’re good at. Some folks are strong, and others might be flexible. Some people might have excellent spatial awareness and always know where they are in the air, while others might be graceful and dancerly when they execute moves.

When I first started training, I made the mistake of assuming I’d naturally be poor at everything because I was the biggest. But it simply wasn’t true. I am fairly flexible, and I am proud of how close my splits are getting to the ground and how flat my back can get in a straddle stretch. On the other hand, knowing which leg to bend or which way to roll in the air will always be tricky for me. It’s heartening to know that like everyone else in the class, there are things I am good at and things that I need to work on that have nothing to do with my size.

We’ve all heard the phrase “big and strong” before, often in reference to how we might grow up if we eat all our vegetables. When I first came to aerial class, it was a little disheartening to realize that while I was big, I certainly wasn’t strong. The mental picture of the powerlifter, the World’s Strongest Man competition, or Andre the Giant might make some people assume that bigger folks are automatically going to have greater physical strength than smaller ones. Don’t be too hard on yourself if that isn’t the case.

For me, I had to accept that strength was something I would build gradually. I have very slowly seen gains in my strength and stamina on the trapeze, and even though sometimes I still envy the kids’ class who can all hop up and down on the equipment without showing any strain, I’m happy with the slow but steady progress I have made to become stronger in aerial.

Since my first class, I have tried to have the attitude that I am only competing with last week’s me. Some moves click right away with my classmates but have been a mammoth task for me, and others I have got into first time and wondered what all the fuss was about. It is tempting to want to compare yourself to the really talented girl who makes advanced tricks look as natural as walking, or to the young kid with bags of energy. Or worst of all, to the person who is at a similar level to you – will they just zoom right past and leave you in the dust?

Despite my good intentions, I always got a little excited when a new person joined the class. Finally, I wouldn’t be the beginner in the group! Finally, there’d be someone else who found things difficult too. In reality, though, everyone finds things difficult. You didn’t see your veteran classmate when they were a newcomer, and you are so busy focusing on that new move you want to nail that you don’t notice they’re working their butts off to grasp their own challenging move.

When you start comparing yourself with the others in the class, or online, or wherever, it squashes the fun out of the things you can do, the achievements you have made, and the excitement for your next goal. In a supportive group, everyone cheers when the pro-level class member triumphs in their new fancy sequence, but they shout just as loud when you finally get that beginner move that’s been confounding you.

One of the things I worried about before I joined my first aerial class was how my new classmates and even my teachers might perceive me due to my weight. I found being spotted, especially, intimidating. Sometimes I needed pushing or boosting to get into the trapeze, and I was afraid that my weight would make it hard work or even painful for my teachers. I needn’t have worried, and neither should you.

A good aerial teacher will be experienced in the right way to spot, support, and lift their learners, and will always make sure they are safe without hurting themselves. I was also a little nervous that people wouldn’t want to be friendly to the “big, dorky new girl” and that I would stick out as an outsider. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Lots of different types of people come to aerial classes, and we are all there to have fun and learn new tricks. I have never felt weird and out of place in aerial class. I have even had a go at some doubles and triple moves with my classmates. I’m not strong enough to base yet, so I usually end up as the one being lifted, and I won’t deny I still feel worried I might be too heavy. But it has never felt embarrassing when everyone’s joining in the fun on a crazy co-operative move, and I have learned to trust that if my classmates say they can take my weight, they can. I haven’t been dropped yet.

Back when I started, I was constantly on the lookout for advice online from more experienced aerialists, but what I found was more often geared to advanced or professional-level performers, and I never really saw anyone like me. I really found my aerial role models when I started posting my pictures on Instagram. I found that there was a whole community of plus-size aerialists, size aerialists of every skill level, regularly posting pictures and videos of their progress, sharing their triumphs, and celebrating each other.

I now follow heaps of aerialists on Instagram, but my favorites are always my plus-size comrades. Seeing other bigger folks owning it on the trapeze, hoop, silks, or rope – not to mention plus-size polers – really did wonders for my morale and made me feel like I was part of a bigger movement, if you’ll excuse the pun. If you want to start feeling some plus-size aerial love, check out tags such as #plussizeaerialist and #curvyaerialist, a hashtag that showcases fuller-figured flyers from all around the world.

It’s a great idea to get your classmates to take pictures of your successes when you master a new move, whether you choose to share them online or not. One of the things that was an unexpected joy for me was seeing the beautiful shapes and poses that bring out the best in bigger bodies. Because we’re all used to seeing aerial moves performed by slim or athletic folks, it can be a real revelation to see how gorgeous some of your favorite moves look on your own body, and it’s exciting to get inspired seeing how the next move you plan to learn looks on a person with a figure more like yours.

Trapeze and aerial hoop have been an awesome adventure for me. Coming to class helps me to blow away the stress of the week in a breeze of endorphins, flow, and wonderful people. So what happens when you have a week where nothing’s going your way, you can’t seem to hit even your usual go-to moves, and you feel like a big aerial flop? It’s okay. It happens to everyone.

Plus-size folks, and especially fat women, can sometimes feel pressure to always be upbeat, ugh, jolly, positive, and not make a fuss when things go wrong. I feel this pressure is pretty unfair. I’m not advocating for you to pitch an epic tantrum if you have a bad aerial day, but it’s totally fine to not always be sunshine and unicorns. If you’re frustrated, say so. If you need to take a break and come back feeling refreshed, do it.

Remember that everyone has periods where they suddenly seem to master fifty things at once and periods where it seems like progress is very slow. Regardless of size or experience, all of your classmates will have been through this, and they will all have had days where it just won’t come together for them. Sometimes it’s good to talk about how you feel with others; sometimes you just need a night off. Own your down days, do what you have to do to feel better, but don’t let the aerial blues put you off getting back up again.

When I started trapeze lessons, it had been a dream of mine for several years. I admired the beauty and creativity of the movements. I didn’t choose the aerial arts as a means to lose weight. That having been said, lots of people hinted that it might happen, and I can’t deny that in my less body-positive moments, I sort of hoped that I might shed a few inches as a by-product of regular training. In reality, that never happened in the almost two years I have been going to classes, but other things about my body did begin to change.

Gradually, I got stronger, more flexible, and less clumsy. Moves that were totally out of my reach gradually became favorites. I enjoyed every week I inched slowly towards my gains, but I made them. Before aerial, I used to spend a lot of time looking critically in the mirror and wishing that my belly was smaller and my boobs were perkier. I’m not saying I never have days like this now, but I spend a lot more time plotting how soon it might be before I can get that long-awaited inverted straddle or musing on how much closer I am to beating into hocks on the high bar.

I may not have any less “junk in my trunk,” but now my trunk can do some amazing things, and I want more. I find I am much more excited these days by what my body can or might be able to do than by the possibility of losing a couple of inches from my waist. You may find that aerial helps you with weight loss, or you may not, but what you will definitely find is that aerial helps you to do amazing things with your fantastic body, and that’s something to be really excited about.

There’s a prevalent narrative in Western culture that says we should wait until we’re “worthy” to do something amazing, and weight is often something that is considered a marker of that worthiness. People are taught to think, “One day, when I’m slim enough, I will wear that dress, start dating, go for that job,” or whatever it is. Why wait? Aerial might be easier in six months if you lost some weight, but it might also be easier in six months if you’d spent that time starting to train. You might feel more confident coming to class after dropping a few pounds, but imagine how confident you’ll be if you feel the fear and go for it anyway.

We are so often encouraged to wait, to put off happiness, enjoyment, and fun, but why should you? Get out there and enjoy an aerial class today. Embrace the aerialist within you, regardless of your size or shape. The aerial arts are for everyone, and the joy of flying knows no boundaries. So let go of your doubts and fears, join the vibrant aerialist community, and discover the incredible possibilities that await you in the air.

The Musical Theater Center is dedicated to empowering performers of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. We believe the joy of aerial artistry should be accessible to everyone, and we’re here to help you defy gravity and soar.

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