Hanging in the balance

Trapeze and aerial silk require more than strength, focus and dedication

Students at Twisted can learn skills on aerial silks, building up their strength over weeks of classes.
Students at Twisted can learn skills on aerial silks, building up their strength over weeks of classes.
Photo: 
A student attempts the splits balance, a sequence Ball created. For a full photo gallery visit queensjournal.ca/photos
A student attempts the splits balance, a sequence Ball created. For a full photo gallery visit queensjournal.ca/photos
Photo: 
Erin Ball watches on as I attempt a move on the aerial silk (described in factbox).
Erin Ball watches on as I attempt a move on the aerial silk (described in factbox).
Photo: 

According to Erin Ball, the biggest challenge of starting an aerial acrobatics course is finding a space with high enough ceilings.

Ball, who’s been practicing aerial acrobatics for the past five years, owns Twisted, a year-and-a-half old company that teaches aerial arts like trapeze and silks.

Trapeze, the famous performing art invented in 1859 by Frenchman Jules Leotard, involves a wooden rod, suspended using a rope or cord on either side. A performer can swing from one trapeze bar to another, but Ball teaches static trapeze. Here, the bar stays still.

Meanwhile, the aerial silk is a piece of fabric that hangs hooked to the 20-foot-high ceiling. Contrary to popular belief, the fabric is usually chiffon, polyester or synthetic nylon.

Since the sport requires so much twisting and turning, there are no safety lines used. The performer has to rely on their willpower and strength. “You’re constantly having to hold your body weight,” Ball said.

But Twisted is a small venture compared to aerial silk performers at places like Cirque du Soleil, where they perform much more complex sequences at even greater heights.

Cirque du Soleil was the birthplace of the art of aerial silks. It was first invented in 1995 by André Simard, an acrobatic research and development specialist for the Canadian entertainment company.

Ball first got inspired to try aerial acrobatics after the Kingston Buskers Festival.

“I saw a girl doing a handstand on a guy’s arm and I thought, wow, that’s the coolest thing ever,” she said.

After that, Ball said she looked into getting started with aerial acrobatics through classes in Toronto.

“I started training and fell in love with it,” she said.

Throughout the hour-long lesson, Ball works with each of the four students to teach them new move sequences on the silks or the trapeze bar.

The students seem apprehensive but excited. Some of them have been coming here for years, steadily building their endurance, strength and flexibility.

But, with the growing popularity of aerial acrobatics, students continue signing up for one of five of Ball’s classes.

“Almost all of my classes are full right now,” she said.

She’s happy to teach them, although each class can only take up to six students.

Today’s lesson involves a splits balance, a sequence Ball created herself.

The students must take each foot into a foot lock, moving their body down into the splits. After this, they do what’s called a splits roll-up for each leg — a move that involves a quick maneuver that rolls the student around horizontally. It leaves a student upside down for a split-second.

When Ball shows the class this move, she’s confident and swift with the silks, ending the move with what looks like the splits in mid-air, a silk wrapped around each foot.

It all seems so easy.

The students all look nervous, their shoulders trembling while they try to find the right moment to let go.

After some attempts, they seem confident. And for a second, the split is hands-free. Each student raises her arms above her head, in a “voila!” motion.

Wobbling, they quickly return their hands to the silk and slide smoothly down. You can see how proud Ball is of her students, even as they nurse the growing calluses on their palms.

Seeing students’ progress through classes is the most rewarding part of teaching, she said.

“[It’s] seeing people fall in love with it the way that I did,” she said.

This article has been updated to reflect the following corrections: The students in Erin Ball's class have been practicing their skills for years, not weeks. Additionally, Ball created the splits balance sequence, not the moves. Incorrect information appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal. The Journal regrets the error.

A day on the silks

When I first met Erin Ball, she was doing the splits upside down using a piece of fabric hung from the ceiling.

Ball, owner and instructor at Twisted, said each beginner has their own difficulties with aerial silks.

I just didn’t expect my biggest challenge to be getting on the silk at all.

Ball wants to teach me some basic moves, pointing me to one of three silks in her area of Loyalist Gymnastics.

It’s a silver one which, I later learn, has more tension to help a performer along with their sequences.

From a standing position, I wrap my right foot around the silk, bending my knee and making sure that the fabric was lying over my leg.

With the sticky rosin fresh on my palms and foot, I reach both arms up to grip the fabric. It doesn’t seem so bad.

I try to straighten my leg, pulling my body up with my feeble arms, but it’s no use.

“You have to flex your foot,” Ball told me, as I struggle to even stay on the silk.

I try this a few more times. I finally climb the silk, feeling every muscle in my arms, legs and core screaming because I haven’t worked out in months.

After pushing myself up three times, I’m way taller than the rest of the people in the room. Did I mention that I’m slightly afraid of heights?

At this point, Ball decides that I should try something a bit more difficult.

After placing myself in a foot lock — where my right foot is wrapped by one half of the silk, locking it in — I take the left segment and maneuver it to hold my waist.

Bringing my knee over the silk, my body tips back. It’s a precarious balance, and I’m suddenly aware of the few feet between myself and the mat.

Ball tells me I can let go. I have to trust myself to keep my leg straight and my knee bent, or I fall to the mat.

Surprisingly, the silk holds as I free my hands. Stretching them out, I’m told to relax my shoulders. Slowly, my back arches and I’m left hanging but secure while the students watching on congratulate me on my efforts.

It’s an exhilarating performing art, I can see now. Lowering myself slowly to the ground, my back aches and my hands are red and raw. Despite all that, I can’t wait to try again.

Janina Enrile

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