As you start diving deeper into the world of aerial arts, you inevitably reach a point where you shift from “Wow, there’s so much to learn!” to “Wow, there’s so much to learn.” It can definitely get overwhelming. Because aerial acrobatics is such a vast and varied field, there’s not always a clear path for progression.
What skills should you focus on? Which ones will eventually allow you to do that cool trick on Instagram? At what point have you refined a skill?
There are no easy answers, but by setting your aerial goals, you can focus your energies and build upon your previous knowledge. In my experience, this is a safer and more effective way to grow as an aerialist.
Read on to learn how to set goals for your aerial training — and achieve them!
But First — Let’s Bust Some Myths
The first thing that I want to express very clearly is that when setting your goals, it’s extremely important to consider your physiological capacity, your current status for training, and what you actually hope to achieve as an aerialist. The more you practice , the faster you’ll progress — as long as you’re not overtraining or learning improper technique. But those are topics for future posts.
To plan your aerial journey, be sure you don’t fall for these myths:
You must have incredible stamina and an acrobatic/gymnastic background to train aerial.
Many people get their ideas about aerialists from big-top circuses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but aerial arts is much broader than the daredevil acts we see in those shows. It’s okay if you can’t/don’t want to perform dozens of flips for 10 minutes in the air.
Some aerialists are absolutely more of the dynamic, acrobatic performers. But some prefer a more artistic style. Their movement on their apparatus is more of characterized dance performance than a series of incredible flips and tumbles. Perhaps they have an education in ballet or modern dance, while the others come from a gymnastics background.
And you know what? One is not better than the other, and neither is crucial to learning aerial arts. As you continue your training, you’ll likely find a style that works best for your flexibility level, body type, and whichever way the Muse takes you.
You need to be super-strong / have muscle strength in certain parts of your body.
These myths largely stem from the aerialists we see in the media. Sure, professional aerialists are incredibly strong and often super-bendy. But (a) the have trained for years to get that way and (b) again, there are countless styles for aerial performance.
I’m not saying you don’t need strength to be an aerialist. The myth is that you must be strong to even start training. Some people also think they’ll never achieve a certain level of strength, so why bother trying?
Well, there’s really like aerial training itself to build that strength. In fact, brute strength is not enough to succeed in aerial. It’s all about getting your muscles to work together — and that means you can start from zero or with a background in strength training and still have a lot to learn.
To the point: Your goals should center around your strength and stability for core aerial skills, not necessarily the number of reps you do at the muggle gym.
And by the way… you can start training even if you don’t have super-strong arms. I had tiny chicken arms when I began!
You must be highly flexible.
Once again, the images we see of super-bendy acrobats and contortionists create this false assumption that all aerialists must be ultra flexible. Here’s the thing: flexibility itself is not as important as having a wide range of motion in which you can engage your muscles with stability. For aerial arts, flexibility is often only required as much as needed to maneuver within or around your apparatus safely. Sadly, many people have learned that “splits = claps” and so they prioritize flexibility in their routine.
That means that many aspiring aerialists despair when they can’t get their full split. But remember, you don’t need to achieve contortion levels of flexibility to be an incredible aerialist. Again, there are thousands of skills and countless performance styles. I have enjoyed some fantastic routines with not a split to be seen!
Now, that we’ve busted those myths, let’s talk about actually setting your aerial goals.
Mapping Out Your Aerial Journey
First, know what you want to achieve as an aerialist.
Do you want to be a professional aerialist?
Do you want to master a certain apparatus?
Do you want to be someone who is good at all apparatuses and can successfully cross translate skills?
Do you want to teach?
Do you want to do this as more of a fitness endeavor?
Or do you want to create unique performances where you are more so using the apparatus as a prop, as opposed to treating it as the basis of your routine? An example might be if you want to get into aerial bartending or aerial burlesque, or sets, where you really can’t do lots of complicated maneuvers or refined choreography, but you need to be able to safely stay on the apparatus while you pour drinks or strip off your top.
So once you’ve identified your core aspiration — and it’s okay to have multiple ones! — think about which skills would support these goals.
Most people want to do a routine in some capacity. Essentially, you want to choreograph an aerial act. This entails:
- Knowing how to pace yourself so that you can stay in the air
- Having the stamina to last for at least a three-minute song — not to mention getting on and off the apparatus
- Feeling confident with the main skills and poses you want to incorporate into the routine
- Finding the best transitions to connect those skills together
That’s already four sets of goals. Start there to assess your current capability.
Step 1: Set Your Benchmarks
Let’s say you’re really good at a particular set of skills. Perhaps on lyra, you’re already really confident with gazelle, straddle back, bird in a cage, etc. and maybe a few others. You’re ready to perform with these into a routine. From there, you’ll need to go ahead and assess your benchmark.
Execute those skills one-by-one, ideally with some video so you can track your progress. Take notes:
- Is one side easier than the other?
- Are you wiggling around to find proper placement?
- How long can you hold a particular pose?
- Can you do it spinning, if applicable?
- and so on
Don’t be hard on yourself or worry about how someone else does that skill: we’re simply establishing your baseline for future growth!
Step 2: Identify Skill Variations to Train
Most beginner’s to intermediate aerial classes do not focus on sequencing or choreography, except for some basic sequences that are endemic to the skills’ execution. Many classes focus on drilling skills. And there’s a reason for that: the more you drill, the more you learn the proper technique to be able to build muscle memory and execute the skill safely.
However, it’s often up to you to actually put the skills together. Many people will find that they can do their star splits or tuck-ups or whatever it may be all day long: it’s just a matter of hopping on the apparatus, doing it, and then getting back down.
But when you start training sequences, you may do a skill without realizing how exhausting that trick would be. And suddenly you have to maneuver your body into a different position to execute the next skill, but you’re tired and you mess up your placement. Or you grab a little too high or too low and suddenly your pose looks a little wonky. Perhaps you even get stuck.
That’s why** your first goal should be to practice your confident skills with variations**. Once you’ve identified your core tricks, try them out with:
- multiple grab points
- different orientations (e.g. amazon vs. front amazon aka dragonfly, inverted gazelle vs. basic gazelle)
- both sides (e.g. splits away with both the right and left toes holding)
- various entry points
While setting your goals, you might also consider basing your goals on other skills in the same family as those once you feel confident in. So if you feel super confident with Bird in a Cage and you want to try a variation, you could take one leg off the top bar and bring it toward your head in a a scorpion pose. Or you could extend it behind you for a split. Either way, it’s technically a different pose that’s structurally similar to Bird in a Cage.
Step 3: Practice with Transitions
Once you feel confident enough that you can execute the skills in the first two way and you know you can do them in multiple ways, it’s time to start planning your transitions.
Now, 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.
Let’s say your routine is something like: get on the lyra, do your gazelle split, come back to seated, do your man in the moon, come back to seated, do your mermaid, come back to seated. It’s a waste of time and energy to come back to that reset position each time. You’re missing out on being able to use your bodyweight and leverage to seamlessly get to the next skill.
By training different variations of your skills, you can identify the best orientation, grab points, etc. to flow into another pose. There is a whole school of aerial theory that maps the connections among skills and how they work with the apparatus. You can read my Introduction to Aerial Theory here.
Step 4: Build Endurance
No matter the skill, it benefits from endurance. You must be able to hold any pose long enough for (a) the audience to see it and (b) to safely exit or transition in to the next pose.
In my experience, the best way to build endurance is to train in sequences. Find ways to link your favorite skills together. Ideally, you have a mix of skills you could do in your sleep and those that challenge you a bit.
Training in sequences has several benefits:
- You’ll learn to pace your energy expenditure to avoid getting tired too soon.
- You’ll figure out to maneuver between poses in various ways — which can be a lifesaver if something goes amiss and you can’t exit a skill the way you planned.
- You encourage your body to recruit more muscle fibers as your primary groups run out of energy. This helps you grow stronger sooner!
Your Aerial Training Mindset
I cannot overstate this: when setting and pursuing your aerial goals, compare yourself only to previous versions of yourself. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing, how many reps they can do, how flexible they are, etc.
There are so many types of aerialists, performing the same skills in countless different styles. Each one brings their unique personality to their skill execution — and so can you!
It’s tempting to admire people performing in a skill and say to yourself, Wow, I wish I could look like that. Wow, they’re so bendy. Wow, look how they can dislocate your shoulder.
You can absolutely draw inspiration from other people, especially in aerial, where there are so many skills and styles emerging in the circus renaissance. But no one single circus performer is the epitome of the art form. Therefore, don’t fret if you can’t do something the way they do!
For example, I have a high pain tolerance. I’m not particularly flexible. But I do have a background in dance. I like making interesting shapes and finding unique transitions. I struggle with dynamic skills, especially as I’m recovering from an injury, where excessive force or quick movements can exacerbate my injury.
So, my style emphasizes skills that require a lot of pain tolerance with transitions to funky shapes and pretty poses. I perform mainly endurance-based maneuvers rather than lots or flips or super-bendy shapes. Certain skills just don’t appeal to me, and that is totally fine. My goals revolve around those that affirm my physique and artistic style.
So, you need to find your unique flavor of a skill and how it works best with your physiology. Setting your goals is ultimately an affirmation of your skills and what you want to achieve as an aerialist. Don’t think about how many pullovers your classmate just did, or the aerialist on YouTube who did a skill this way or that way. It’s totally fine to draw inspiration, especially if you never considered that a certain skill could be done that way. But don’t set your goals as, “I need to get as bendy as so-and-so.”
Check out my aerial goals tracker, where I’ve given spaces for you to identify your core skills and progressions. You can choose different ones each month; you’re certainly not beholden to work on the same core skills forever and ever and ever. But you can identify variations of each skill and make those part of your goals. And you can also map out some of those transitions.
There’s also a space for you to track new skills you learn each month. And let’s face it, your instructor will sometimes each you a skill that you just are not feeling and would never put in a routine. But I encourage you to go ahead and make it a goal — at least in the scope of class. Don’t disrespect your instructor and say “No, I’m not working on that.”
And remember, a skill may grow on you. That’s happened to me, where I learned something and thought “meh” only to realize months later that it was the perfect addition to my routine.
Bottom line: Work within your wheelhouse and build upon what you’ve learned. Don’t assume you have to do a skill the way someone else does, but feel free to push yourself beyond your comfort zone! Be open to progress, whatever that looks like for you.
Train safe, and stay awesome!