Defying Gravity: Aerial Dance

One of the things that separates modern dance from traditional dance is its willingness to experiment with new ways to present the human body in motion.

Aerial dance, which is a sub-genre of modern dance that emerged in the late 1960s, is one of the most novel forms of modern dance because its gravity-defying techniques allow the dancer to experiment with the fluidity that comes from floating in the air.

Aerial dance usually utilizes some kind of apparatus attached to the ceiling by which the suspended dancer can execute a number of maneuvers in three dimensions at once. The result is a stunning combination of dance and acrobatics that is always breathtakingly unique and stunningly close to flying.

The Early Origins of Aerial Dance

Dance historian Selby Schwartz has written that what would become aerial dance began the moment when women started dancing on pointe in the 19th century. It was at this time that “the quality of lightness” became an important feature in dance, marrying dancerly ideals of artistic motion with “19th-century moral values of femininity” like “grace, purity, and a denial of the body’s messy materiality.” When modern dance emerged in the early 20th century, one of the traditional dance values it attacked was this idea that dancers must be light and airy. This is why so many early forms of modern dance focus on the necessity of touching the floor with one’s feet and body in order to be grounded in the dance.

It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that modern dancers began to experiment with lightness again, most notably Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown who “started staging dances on rooftops and rigging their dancers up in harnesses and ropes.” Since then, modern aerial dancers have been looking for new and innovative ways to use apparatuses like aerial silks, hoops, tissue wraps, hammocks, nets, trapeze equipment, and much more to experiment with different ways of presenting choreography in the air.

Aerial Dance: Vertical vs. Floor-Inclusive

Most aerial dance follows two tendencies. The vertical tendency is what is most commonly associated with aerial dance. It involves a dancer being suspended by means of a cable or harness in order to explore the different possibilities for new kinds of movement provided by weightlessness. It is often assumed that this style of aerial dance is primarily trick-based instead of dance-based, but this is a common misconception that likely has to do with how often vertical aerial dance is used in circus performances like those made famous by Cirque du Soleil.

The second tendency involves combining aerial apparatuses with more traditional contemporary dance on the ground or floor. In such floor-inclusive aerial dance, the two spatial levels come together to express the juxtaposition between both types of movement. Many dancers who use aerial dance in this floor-inclusive way believe that by combining both levels, they can distance themselves from the circus-like assumptions made about aerial dance in order to present something that better meshes with tendencies in contemporary dance. 

Aerial Dance Today

Today, aerial dance is popular not just with modern and contemporary dancers but also with circus performers, gymnasts, acrobats, and fitness buffs looking for a unique workout. Troupes like Zaccho Dance Theatre and Blue Lapis Light have even done site-specific aerial dance performances in places like the roofs of tall buildings, over the edges of bridges, and along the cliffs of deep canyons. There are also annual gatherings and workshops for aerial dancers in numerous world cities including Boulder, CO in the US, Brittany in France, Brighton in England, and County Donegal in Ireland. The San Francisco Bay Area is also known as a place where aerial dance has traditionally been popular and as a result, many aerial dance classes are offered there.