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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The One About Simplicity

Recently I have enrolled in an aerial variations class which has lead me to think about exploring the known and what benefits it might hold for your practice.

Jennifer Cody's students showing 6 variations on a single move
I have found it takes a lot of guts to spend time developing around moves or skills your might have learned in the first few months of practice. For me there is fear of not including enough fancy moves in my own routines. Conversely, many people who I look up to in the hoop and aerial community have an emphasis on mastering and expanding on what are often thought of as basics. Some of my favorite performances don't involve lots of tricks but about the quality of core skills and inventiveness around known moves. It is legitimately more exiting for me to not know what will happen next rather than just see a difficult trick.

I have decide to try and be more mindful of whether I am filling my work with flash or innovation. To that end I have been working on a standing challenge we have in the variants class to develop a whole routine around a single base move. It's significantly slower for me than just stringing together tricks but I think the final product will have a more organic feeling in the movements. 

A Simple Manta To Remember
  When first joining a skilled community there is a desire to be included. Like any good student you practice the basics to become accepted by your peers. 

You spend time building a vocabulary. 
Photo By Nikki Arnold

You discuss technique
Hoop Path Point Technique
Photo by Hannah Havok
But don't forget your first words.

Remember simple can be beautiful

Photo by Hannah Havok

Simple is complex
HoopPath style Balance
Photo by Hannah Havok
This is what I have been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. What has been your inner mantra during practice?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The One About Planning Choreography

Much of my first foray into circus was spent primarily with what is considered flow arts. Hooping, poi, juggling, fans and devil sticks all fall into this category. They are called flow because innovation through free manipulation of the tools is encouraged. I enjoy this area of practice because you are encourage to try new things even if you are not sure of the outcome because the penalty for failure is low. I find the surprises that were unplanned to be some of the most rewarding during any flow session.
Deep Ellum play time
Photo by Hannah Havok
When I decided to take up aerial arts there was a completely different mind set because you must carefully consider each move before execution to ensure your own safety. Even if you are not sure if you can accomplish a trick you still need an exit strategy. In order to perform publicly you need to be able to plan at least some rudimentary choreography you can call on in the air.

At first I was completely overwhelmed at the idea of needing routines and structuring them from scratch. Here are some steps I have found that help me organize my thoughts when planning choreography.
MTPS 2013
Photo by Don Curry
This is probably one of the first things I consider when planning any routine. You want to consider how much stamina you have to perform the routine. Do not plan a routine that is so long your exhaust yourself and then leave your audience with an overwhelming feeling of “meh” because you can not finish strong. 

Once you have determined the duration of your performance you can now select some accompaniment. This is probably the most fun part of the process but also tricky. Remember to consider each song as a whole. It might have a catchy hook that’s fun to sing along with in the car but will be  repetitive to the audience after the first refrain. What I usually look for in a song for performance is one that has several distinct moods within the song. Changes in instrumentation or tempo are usually good candidates that give you options for striking poses or switching between actions and styles. 

Consider where you want to put your tricks. If you have some really tough inversions you might want to put them earlier in the performance when you have the most amount of stamina. Alternatively if you have a really large drop or something where you are going to lose height it might make sense to do those later in the routine. My suggestion is to pick a few key moves you think will compliment each other during the routine fill in the rest of the performance around them

MTPS 2013
Photo By Don Curry
Less is more
When you start to design your routine don’t get caught up in trying to add too many tricks. Often tricks take longer to execute than you would anticipate and adding content to a routine is far easier than trying to take out material later. Your movements from one pose to the next are as much a part of the routine as the tricks.  You never want to look like you are rushing to make it to your next position in time so give yourself some breathing room. Do not be afraid to hold poses or move slowly so the audience can see what you are doing and enjoy your actions. 

It is not only important to be flexible body but also in mind so be open to changes in your choreography. All of my routines have experienced a major change at some point during the rehearsal process and have been better for it. Once you have your first round of choreography take a look at the routine for anything that does not work. If something look awkward or wrong try experimenting with different tricks or order to your routine. Don’t ever get so attached to a trick that you are afraid to move it or lose it. 

Rehearsal at Lone Star Circus
Choreography is not something I previously had a lot of experience with but when you are going to perform it quickly become a necessity. There are probably more formal ways to approach this process but I thought I would share some techniques that have worked for me thus far. What techniques do you use when planning to put on a show?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The One About Practice Vs Performance

In the last several months I spent a significant amount of time preparing for my first aerial performance. While I faced the normal challenges you might expect like picking choreography and music I found it was some seemingly simple tasks that I struggled with the most. Most notable of those simple tasks was moving with what I would consider performance worthy poise. 

What do I mean exactly?
Well, what makes people want to watch you?

Miss Texas Pole Star 2013 Performance
Photo by Don Curry
I would see my instructor glide up the silk and be completely enthralled with how elegant they looked. When it was finally my turn to try I would scrabbling on the fabric for a bit and then eventually accomplish the thing. Not having any background in professional performance it seemed that getting ready for the stage should be as simple as acquiring the knowledge and strength to do tricks. However, I gamely attend class every week and ran through the same poses and exercises as my teachers and continued to notice something distinctly different between how they looked and how I looked. 
 Luckily, with the help of some mentors during my preparations I started learning other equally important skills to making a polished aerial performer that are not necessarily taught in the classroom. Most of these things were fairly basic and not directly linked to overall ability or skill but make a huge difference to how you practice and most importantly how you appear to an observer. 

If I only had to remember 3 words to make a routine performance worthy it would be
Intention, Extension & Tension.

One week our aerial hoop class was observed by a retired ballerina who now contracts with dance troupes to refine their routines. She had volunteered to give our class some pointers on performance. She sat quietly for the hour as we gave the lesson our best efforts. At the end of class we nervously clustered around to hear what she thought at which time she told us something that changed my practice from that day forward.

While she thought the discipline was amazing she found our efforts ultimately boring. It didn’t really have anything to do with our ability or skill but about our intention. We only worked with the end goal in mind when we should be considering every move we made. We should approach the apparatus like a partner with whom we coordinate all our actions. We should never rush through a mount or re-position just to get to a trick in practice. The audience is seeing everything leading up to your trick so just as much effort and concentration should be spent on getting there as perfecting your final position. 

Treat each moment like a performance in your mind. 


This goes hand in hand with intention. If you are thinking through all of your movements you should be thinking of what you are doing with your whole body from the tips of your fingers to the ends of your toes. So often we fail to celebrate movement and instead concentrate on points of strength or articulation and let the rest of our body be dragged along in its wake. We have learned to be prey amongst predators with eyes averted and limiting nonessential motion in our hands and feet. While this is a great strategy for avoiding predation by a T-rex it’s not very engaging for the audience. By allowing every movement to flow from the starting point out to your extremities you bring fluidity and grace to your performance.
One visualization that a lot of my instructors use time and again is imagining an extension of some sort that continuous beyond where you end.  There are different examples like strings or lights…you can even think of laser beams if it makes you happy. What is important is that you imagine traveling out along those lines as you preform because it brings animation to every part of your body from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet and out through your hands. You should even extend your laser like focus to your eyes and use it to bring your awareness to the audience and let them know you are watching them. BECOME THE PREDATOR! (okay that got weird but hopefully it helped)
Where your gaze falls or the angle of your fingers can change the audience's preception
If you have done the first two steps you should be well on your way to achieving and maintaining tension but it is something worthy of its own consideration. One of my aerial trainers paid me the compliment that I was progressing well in my knowledge of aerials but I needed to remember to engage my whole body while on the silk if I ever wanted to perform. At first I was confused about what she meant because I felt like I was working my butt off every class.
Fortunately for me she had an exercise that immediately connects you with the feeling of engaging your entire body.  If you lay on the floor and bring yourself into a boat position where you are balanced on your bottom and someone poked your shoulders you should rock back and forth like a ship on the water. You are connecting your body so now you can move as a single unit.
If you ever feel like you are not working part of your body to stay in the air it is probably noticeable to the audience. When you are supporting yourself with your feet and you release tension from your arms it looks like you are just dangling instead of dramatically climbing.
Engaging your body has a huge immediately visible change but requires constant focus.
If you imagine the three words during every practice something as simple as raising your leg can go from a utilitarian action to a captivating performance. I am still working on this myself so I cannot claim to be an expert but I do know they have made a difference in preparing to share what I have learned with an audience.

These are just my suggestions so feel free to share your tips on getting ready for the stage.

What makes the biggest difference in your training?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The One With The Triumphant Return

I know I have been remiss in my blogging duties over the last several months and I hope to remedy that soon. While this does not excuse my absence I can offer you an explanation for my disappearance. In May I was approached about an aerial competition being held in Texas and encouraged to apply. Since I am the type of person who is driven by tangible goals I decided to enter the amateur silks division and general lyra division (since there is no amateur division for lyra). With 5 months of silks and 3 months of lyra under my belt I knew I was going to have to buckle down to create an application. I dedicated most of my energies to choreographing and refining a routines on both apparatus for submission in July.

Training is mostly unglamorous views from the apparatus
The process was a very private affair aside from the people who I trained with. I remember reading once that the best way to not accomplish something is to tell people about it. Telling people about what you are going to do triggers the same reward centers in your brain as doing. If I started talking to people about my new goals that might feel good enough and I would never accomplish the task. An equally compelling reason to keep my aspirations to myself was the very real possibility that I might apply and not be selected as a finalist despite my best efforts. Either way I was afraid to tell anyone about what I was working on other than in passing mentions as to where I was spending my time or why I was unavailable.
To my surprise I did make it into the 8 finalists in the amateur silks division which became a whole new focus starting in July. A fresh routine had to be choreographed and I needed to be stage ready by October. Being able to stay in the air and perform a three minute routine with some degree of control was my baseline for the application piece but for the competition I needed not only control but some degree of grace and musicality. I learned a lot in only a few months about moving with intent and the difference between DOING and PERFORMING a routine. While the competition aspect of this whole experience was not compelling for me the notion of performance and the difference between a student of an art form and a performer has changed how I approach the silks or any apparatus.

Photos from Miss Texas Pole Star 2013 performance
Without making one monstrous post about everything that has happened along the way I was thinking about breaking this into a series of blogs about the experience and what might have been nice to know along the way as a fledgling aerialist. This time though I promise not to leave you hanging as long between posts *pun intended*

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The One Where We Compare Lyra Vs Silks

This year I wanted to take my current set of skills and boldly go where I never had before.  Expanding my horizon for hooping meant investigating the lyra. Naturally I assumed if I liked that hoop on the ground then it should be even better in the air.
I set out to find an instructor and settled on a gym for my first class. They offered lots of classes in aerial arts and I was faced with a choice between lyra or aerial silks. As it turned out I wanted to start right away and silks was the only class with room for me to enroll. I initially planned to try both disciplines but as it became woefully self-evident that I had a lot of work to do on silks I was more intimidated by the idea of trying the aerial hoop. I saw silks as a series of knots and slings that helped me stay in the air and the lyra as a cold steal hoop that would require me to do more artistic versions of pull ups the whole time.

That is when I started scouring the internet for comparisons of the two art forms. Unfortunately, while many people do practice both skills I could find surprisingly little written about it for the inquisitive. Finally, I just decided to screw my courage to the sticking place and try a lyra class  and write a blog for those who might be curious about either disciplineI am now about 4 months into my aerial silks study and 2 months on the lyra and let me say I am so glad I chose to try both. They are a vastly rewarding and beautiful art forms but aside from being in the air they have very little in common. If you are considering trying to decide between starting on either of these apparatuses I hope this will be a helpful post.
One thing I hear over and over about the lyra is that people feel like it is easier than silks. This is true to the extent that if you have the basic core strength to support yourself learning the pathways to tricks is much easier on lyra. Fundamentally it is just a large steal ring and as long as you can hang on all the tricks are just different orientations of the body in relation to the hoop. Silks tricks are often a long series of precise wraps that can be difficult to remember when you are beginning. Forgetting something as simple as putting the silk under an arm can leave you a tangled aerial marionette.
Where I disagree with the opinion of the lyra being easier is if you have not built up your core strength yet. I am not talking about being able to do a billion reps of pull ups but if you cannot support your body weight in a hanging position then it is going to be difficult to even get into the hoop. In the beginning aerial silks will give you a slight advantaged because you can essentially tie into the silks from ground level and start working on trick pathways. In my opinion you will probably feel like you have accomplished showier tricks in the first few weeks of silks as you are working on your core strength.  I started aerial hoop after several months of silks so I spent most of my time developing pathways to tricks but I see many beginners struggle to get into a seated position. There are some things you can do to squirm your way into hoop but your progress on lyra is going to be mostly conditioning until you have the ability to maintain your body weight in the air.
Since there is not much to the lyra aside from you and the hoop it is usually considered more dangerous than silks. Let me very clear here when I say “more dangerous”. Both disciplines are inherently dangerous and should be treated with respect and caution but lyra does not have any supporting fabric that can be used to create locks. Now locks can fail and you can perform a wrap improperly with silks but the support provided is far more than in a lyra where you either have some kind of grip on the hoop or you do not and pure balance is the key for a number of tricks. There is definitely instruction that goes into learning where the sweet spot of a trick is but if you screw up then there are a lot fewer opportunities to stop yourself from taking a tumble.

 That brings us to probably the biggest difference between the two disciplines and that is the pain factor. Both silks and lyra will tweak, pinch and squeeze you in uncomfortable places but I never bruised myself on silks as frequently as I do on lyra. The first weeks on lyra left the backs of my knees a mess of unattractive colors ranging from yellow to deep purple. As my skills have progressed and I found that the bruising can be less but it never seems to completely go away. It is safe to assume that while you may acclimate and find better ways to approach the hoop it will not change the fact that you are resting all of weight on a 1 inch diameter steal hoop. Any place where you are supporting yourself is going to be subject to bruising and is going to be a bit uncomfortable. You will just have to keep in mind the old adage…
Please keep in mind both lyra and aerial silks require vast amounts of skill, flexibility and strength at the higher levels of performance. This comparison is meant for those interested in what these disciplines might be like for someone starting at a beginner level. Hopefully, this will encourage you to expand your own horizons. If you have any additional questions about either apparatus I would be happy to answer them or feel free to leave your own opinion on why you chose lyra, silks or both.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The One Where I Got To Hoop With Baxter

The view at Hoop Path EarthQuaker Tour 2013 in Dallas
Last weekend I spent my second session studying with a Hoop Path instructor. My first class was with Ann Humphreys and this time I spent 3 days working with her teacher, Jonathan Baxter. For those not already familiar with Baxter he is the originator of the Hoop Path method of teaching and hooping. Hoop Path focuses less of teaching specific tricks and more on developing fundamentals and a style that can be translated to how you hoop and execute tricks. Hoop Path also emphasizes a sense of wellbeing and self we can cultivate through movement and uses a hoop to facilitate this exploration.
As part of Baxter’s lessons we spent time each day moving blindfolded without the hoop. Since all of the other students are blindfolded during these sessions it removes any stigma of being observed in our movements as well are removes judgment we may pass on ourselves. The first time I was introduced to this exercise I felt ridiculous and for the most part refused to allow myself to move more than the bare minimum. Being my second set of classes that used this exersice I was much more open to the idea and used the time to stretch and warm up. I now firmly believe that allowing yourself to move freely under the blindfold is very beneficial. Often during hooping I may look at my hoop or a point of reference but very rarely do I have the luxury of really observing the space outside my hoop while in motion. I found that during the warm up I could recalibrate my movements to be more grounded and less based on visual cues.
What I really love about a master hooping workshops is the approach the instructors seem to have towards movement. The difference I see between the leaders in the hooping community and average hooping instruction is an emphasis on movement. I am not saying there is no room for basic trick and hooping instruction because it is absolutely essential as well. We all spend time working on learning how to move a hoop from the waist to our shoulders or do a basic lift. Where a hoop workshop differs from basic instruction is learning the economy of movement and how to help your hoop become more of an extension of your own movement rather than trying to drag the hoop through space. Baxter uses mythology, drills and open practice to help impart and then solidify some of the techniques he uses when hooping. Learning anything from small changes in my stance to where in the rotation I was making connection with my hoop made worlds or quickly identifiable differences in my hooping. We spent a fair amount of time on the second day working on angles and instead of muscling my way through the angles I have found I can now casually incorporate them into my dance. For me the movement portion of the workshops are crucial. Since I already know many tricks learning to smooth my movements and understand the dynamics of where my hoop is being propelled from helps to add both reliability and style to my flow.
Baxter is a master of the smooth flow
One of the portions I was most excited for during the weekend was folding. Folding is quickly becoming one of the more popular terms being passed around the hooping community and I went into the class with only a vague understanding of the concept. Most commonly I see folding described as moving the hoop through a 3 dimensional space rather than maintaining on the vertical or horizontal plane. In the most basic sense of the term I suppose this is true but Baxter has taken the action of singular fold and expanded it to an entire technique and style. As Baxter teaches it folding it is no longer just a transitional trick between vertical and horizontal planes but rather a gripless connection of hoop and dancer. The hoop becomes an extension of the dancer and moves off a series of connections and hinges with the body to endlessly fold in new and unexpected ways.  Learning to continuously fold in the Hoop Path style is very much like learning to hoop again and if you are feeling rutted in your hooping this can definitely help change tracks.
Baxter demonstrates gripless continuous folding

I always leave these workshops with lots of newly polished techniques under my belt and ready to tackle the unknown. I am grateful for the hoopers in the community who make it a point to share their discoveries and push the limits of our beloved toy. Finding some much versatility in such a simple object really speaks to the potential diversity in all of our endeavors simple or complex if we take the time to push the limits.

Are any of you planning to attend a hooping workshop soon? Do you have a favorite instructor?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The One About The Dreaded Plank

Pretty sure Phillip Light's illustration is a accurate depiction my inner silks spirit guide 
I loath plank and yet this is one of my favorite exercises when I do not have a lot of time. It will help you quickly develop some arm and core strength so you can climb and hang from the different apparatuses like the beautiful aerial sloth princess you were meant to be.

I highly recommend doing planks with a mirror or someplace you can see your reflection. Personally I use my arcadia door because I don't have large mirrors in the living room. Seeing your position will ensure that you are holding your body flat and not giving into the temptation to slouch or pike. I have been doing these for a while now and I still have to remain vigilant about form.

Planks are really tough so do not get discouraged. When I first started I had to really force myself to complete the plank sets and simply refuse to give up even when my arms felt like noodles. Distraction is a great ally so try to think of a mantra that you can concentrate on while doing these. I would like to pretend that my mantras are all motivational and inspired but sometimes they were nothing but a string of swear words. As long as you make it through the exercise let your heart be your guide even if your heart is a salty sailor.

All the planks and variations are intended to be completed as a set and then reversed and done on the other side.  If you reach a point where you can hold comfortably for 10 counts try increasing your duration to 20.

Basic Plank
  1. Position your hands about shoulder width apart directly under your chest.
  2. Spread your legs slightly and come up on the balls of your feet.
  3. Make your body as flat as possible and you should be making a triangle is everything is correct. You will be tempted to raise your hip or let your back slouch but if you do then the benefit recieved from the exercise will be greatly reduced. 
  4. Hold for 10 counts. If you cannot hold the correct position for the full 10 counts hold it as long as you can and then move on the next plank variation. It is better to hold the correct position for fewer seconds than a sloppy plank for the full time. 
Plank with arm extended to side
  1. From the basic plank reposition your anchor hand to be more squarely under your chest.
  2. Lift your other hand up and out to your side.
  3. Make sure your hips are still facing down
  4. Your extend arm should be a flat extension from your shoulders.
  5. Hold for 10 counts
Plank with arm extended overhead 
  1. From the side extension bring your elevated arm over your head
  2. Your arm should create an extension of your plank slope
  3. Hold for 10 counts
Side Plank 

  1. From the position with your arm over your head turn to your side
  2. Your arms should form a straight line with your body as an intersecting slope
  3. Feel free to widen your feet to add stability. The closer your feet are together the harder this position is to maintain 
  4. In this position it is easy to let you mid portion sag to keep an eye on you form
  5. Hold for 10 counts
Plank Push Ups
Bonus round
  1. From the basic plank position come down to your elbows one at a time.
  2. Extend your arms one at a time back into basic plank
  3. Remember to maintain your flat back when transitioning from elbows to straight arms
  4. Repeat until you are fussing and cussing and then one more time
 And of course my favorite...

 Plank on easy mode
No joke, give yourself a break after you complete a series of planks. Come back to child's pose and take a few deep breaths and let your muscles relax before moving on.