Aerial dance or acrobatics is rarely a random collection of tricks. It is an intricate chain of skills, each with their own mechanics. When planning transitions and building sequences, the first step is to understand the basics of aerial theory. Knowing how skills interconnect and function is crucial to the safe and seamless performance of an aerial routine.
While the entire school of aerial theory is far beyond the scope of one webpage, I’ve covered the core concepts below. Once you know the key principles, you can build your aerial theory knowledge as you train.
What is Aerial Theory?
Aerial theory describes the patterns, prerequisites, physics, and maneuvers of each skill on a particular apparatus and how it links to other skills. It is essentially a framework for how aerial skills “work,” which can help aerialists:
- perform and modify skills with confidence
- find the best transition to another skill
- safely enter and exit a skill
- better teach students how to execute the skill
Many aerialists don’t absorb the theory behind a skill when they learn it in class. They are shown a series of steps, and they duplicate that until they refine the skill. Unfortunately, that means they’re nervous to deviate from that pathway. Some students may not consider that a skill can be separated from the entry or transition that’s taught with it.
Aerial theory provides guiding principles for building safer, more efficient aerial sequences that individuals can modify to their unique style, flexibility, competency level, and physique.
Let’s talk about some of the basic elements of any aerial skill.
Aerial Theory: Skill Elements
Each aerial skill has a distinctive combination of elements — the objective characteristics that describe how the skill is performed. (This list is not exhaustive.)
- Upright vs Inverted vs Lateral
- Supine vs Prone vs. Sideways
- Parallel to the apparatus vs. Perpendicular to the apparatus
- One-hand grab
- Two-hand grab
- Foot block
- Toe hang
- Leg block
- Single-knee press
- Single-knee hang
- Double-knee press
- Double-knee hang
- Thigh squeeze
- Hip hold
- Back hold/balance
- Neck hang
- Shoulder balance
- Elbow hook/hang
- Compact vs. Expanded
- Straddle vs. Split
- Plank vs Pike vs. Backbend
Understanding the key physiological and orientational elements is essential to knowing which skills go in to each other and how to get from point A to point B.
Interaction with the Apparatus
As the saying goes, some aerialists like to wrap themselves around the apparatus, and some like to wrap the apparatus around themselves. Either way, it’s essential to know how your body interacts with the apparatus in a given skill.
Here are some foundational skills for several common apparatuses:
- Front balance
- Rope lean
- Ankle hang
- Barrel rolls
- Crochet lock
- Back balance
- Hip key
- Split rollup
- Waist belay
Based on these, we can combine skills into families.
So for example, on silks, there is a whole family of crossback skills. This is any skill in which the silks are crossed across your back, providing you support that you would not otherwise have. Skills includes our classic crossback straddle up and waterfall drop, as well as certain variations of iron cross, butterfly, crossback stag hang, and so on.
On lyra, a common family is the variety of scarab skills The basic pose is when your knees are on the top bar and your arms are pressing away the bottom bar. Variations include the backbend Bird in a Cage (scarab), extending one leg downward into a split, bringing one leg toward your head for a scorpion, etc. That whole family comes from the same basic position, which is an inverted position based on either a knee hook or a foot block with either your hands or your shoulders bracing against the bar. These shapes can all look very different. But it’s important to recognize that any of these skills can transition into others.
Transitions can be tricky. Many aerialists struggle with aerial sequencing because they approach their skills the way they learned them in class: do the skill, come back to seated. And not only does it look choppy, but also there’s a very real reason you should not take that approach to your choreography. And that’s because all of those awkward transitions where you’re having to reset between each skill is sucking up all your valuable energy — even if you have good endurance.
Aerial theory explains how one skill can transition into another. It almost always involves changing the hold (grab or block) element to shift orientation and/or shape. One hold must be replaced by another.
For example, one of my favorite transitions on lyra is dragonfly to martini, roll to hip hang. From there, I can do a jade split, pike compression, outside bird’s nest, etc.
Let’s break this down.
So first of all is the dragonfly pose. This is a hand grab with your lower back (your sacrum) supporting you. It is an upright orientation in a plank position, i.e. your body is straight and pointing downward.
To get to the martini pose, you would raise the leg that’s closer to your hand, bringing it through the middle of the lyra and setting it in place on the opposite bar. Now, you’re still in an upright position, but you’re in a split, and you’ve switched from the hand grab to a leg block. So your lower back and your leg are now supporting the pose, and you can release your hand.
To roll to a hip hang from there, you would change that leg block to a knee hook.
Then you can shift your orientation: you’re going from upright to sideways as you grab the lyra overhand, bring your upper body to the other side of the lyra, then briefly resume a plank position as you bring your downward leg over to meet the other. This is the inside mermaid pose.
Finally, you continue rolling into a prone position and form your hip hold pike. So, you’ve gone from upright to sideways to inverted in a folded (compact) position.
You’ve transitioning from a hand grab with lower back hold, to a leg block with a lower back hold, to a knee hook with a lower back hold, to a one-hand grab and side plank, to a compact inverted position with a hip hold.
This transition could take 20 seconds or a full minute, depending on your stylization and the pace of your song. But what’s important is that you cut out all the middle ground. Rather than going from dragonfly to sit to martini to sit to hip hang, you skipped all the “sits” simply by shifting your body’s placement and orientation.
On silks, a common sequence is “The Pegasus.” This begins with a double leg wrap from an upright position, following by an inversion to a floating split. From there, hook the front leg. Because you’ve replaced one of your hand grabs, you can release that hand. You then climb up, place the pole over the bottom of your other foot, and rotate your hips to face the bent leg. Now, you are in an upright position, supported by a wrapped knee hook and a foot lock.
Wrapping Up (Pun Intended!)
Aerial theory is essentially the science behind why skills work and how they flow into each other. They also include guidelines for how your body should be positioned. Once you start breaking down skills by their elements, you’ll realize how the apparatus is supporting you and when it’s okay to switch your hold or orientation. In short, a robust understanding of aerial theory is crucial to safe training, as well as your creativity in the air!