Soaring on silk

Class teaches art of aerials

The name of the class, “Aerial Silks,” conveys a light, lofty sound. And that’s the idea.

Human beings aloft in the air, strike dancer-like poses or hang serenely upside down, supported by nothing more than fabric used as a kind of scaffolding.

Elise Duran, a professional aerialist who has performed with Cole Brothers Circus, teaches all levels of aerial dance through LSU’s Leisure Learning program.

“It’s a challenge,” Duran said of the dance form that calls on a lot of core and upper-body strength and “uses muscles you would not use in everyday life.”

“You can do beautiful things” in aerial dance, she said.

Lori Talbot and her 18-year-old twin daughters, Maggie and Annie, were the first students to arrive at one of Duran’s recent classes for advanced students.

The girls, seniors at St. Joseph’s Academy, were looking for a fun, after-school activity that their mom would do with them, Lori Talbot said.

One of her daughters suggested an LSU Leisure Class and her mom said, “Sure! Pick a leisure class, and I’ll do it.”

“I pictured myself behind a pottery wheel,” Lori Talbot said.

Instead, she’s becoming an aerial artist.

“We thought it looked like the circus and thought it would be fun,” Maggie Talbot said.

The Talbot trio has taken a series of Duran’s classes.

“At the first couple of classes, we thought, ‘There’s no way we’re doing these things!’” Lori Talbot, 52, said.

They are now.

“I don’t think we’ll be auditioning any time soon,” she joked. “But we’re having fun.”

Duran and her students depend, for their art, on a 60-foot length of fabric folded in half and knotted, at its middle point, around and through heavy-duty hardware mounted on the high ceiling of a room in the Music and Dramatic Arts Building at LSU.

The fabric was hung up and knotted with the help of a cherry picker, Duran said.

The hardware on the ceiling includes a swivel, so the fabric and the dancers clinging to it can turn in the air.

The fabric isn’t actually silk, but is, instead, a polyinterlock synthetic blend that has the advantage of being stretchy, Duran said.

To the touch, the cloth feels luxuriously soft and thick, like long hair with amazing body.

Before class begins, Duran covers the floor beneath the six lengths of hanging white fabric with cushiony, gymnastics pads.

A different, thicker pad, about 16 inches deep and called the “crash pad,” is also used sometimes. The students hover over it when they’re learning something new, Duran said.

There’s an element of risk to aerial dance, and students sign a release form before beginning the course, she said.

At a class in mid-February, the Talbot mother and daughters were joined by two other classmates, LSU students Alaina Dugas and Katie LaPlace.

Duran started some music and began the class with a thorough set of warm-up exercises, before starting the aerial dance.

She led the class mostly by demonstration, then observed and quietly coached the students as they made their own attempts.

They weren’t always successful, but they tried — and tried again.

The students use their arms, hand over hand, to climb the fabric like a rope, while at the same time making “foot knots,” dexterously wrapping and unwrapping fabric around one foot, as they move upward.

By pressing their free foot against the foot wrapped in fabric, the dancers have a kind of brace in mid-air, the fabric taut between feet and hands, until they reach where they want to be.

Sometimes the students are anchored up high with both feet wrapped in fabric.

The possibilities multiply when the dancers are aloft.

With one end of the fabric used for support, the other, free end called the “tail” can be crossed behind the back, around the waist or between the legs to provide new support for what aerial artists call “tricks” — poses or gymnastic-like flips in the air.

It does, indeed, look impossible. But there they are doing it.

When the dancers are ready to descend, they change the patterns of the fabric wrappings, to allow them to gradually make their way back down to the floor.

At some point toward the end of the class, Duran asked them to go after one pose, called an “angel” that ends with them hanging upside down in an elegant kind of arabesque in the air, and she asked them to do it with their eyes closed.

“I want them to know exactly where they are. It gets in their muscle memory,” Duran said.

“They don’t need to be looking anyway; they’re holding onto (the fabric) the whole time,” she said.

After more conditioning exercises, with the dancers back on the ground, the class is over; the students look exhausted but happy.

How does Maggie Talbot feel?

“Like spaghetti!” she said.

The students said it takes a few days for their fingers to feel normal, because they’ve been gripping the fabric very, very tightly.

Before class started, Lori Talbot told Duran that she and her daughters will soon have some “silk” to practice with at their house.

They’ve ordered the fabric and will be reinforcing a ceiling beam at home for the hardware it will need, she said.

“Oh, that’s cool!” Duran said.

A new “Aerial Silks” Leisure Class session, one for beginners, will begin on Wednesday and continue on Wednesdays through March 13. An intermediate one will be offered after that.

For more information, call (225) 578-5119 or visit http://www.lsu.edu/leisureclasses.

Nick Erickson, an associate professor with the LSU Department of Theatre, also teaches two college-level courses, Aerial Practice 1 and 2, for LSU students.