Advanced Swing Dance Aerials

Many would say that if you're going to spend time in a studio, you should focus on dancing. Many would also say if you spend time in a studio practicing aerials, you should focus on the proven crowd pleasers like the Lindy Flip or the Pancake. I agree with both statements but that does not negate the fact there are some aerialists who practice, work and teach at levels considerably more advanced than that.  And among those, there are some who have gone way farther -- almost to a place that cannot be described.

Because so few have been exposed to training at that top level, and because much traffic and email comes through this site asking about advanced content, it seems like that's the perfect sort of topic to talk about in a blog record.

So let's start talking!

First, respect history. Then respect how far we have come.

It's important to mention that most traditional dancers refer to all aerials as  air steps - a term coined by Franky and used all the way up until swing lost popularity the the first time. Air steps translates into dancing through the air, or extending dance off the ground. Eventually Frankie Manning (the first aerialist) [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="e00F7OimG6U&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="also used the world aerials (1:48)"] to describe his contribution to the dance, but I doubt modern traditionalists will ever do the same.

The term air step is an important term, perhaps more so to me than to others. I think we must show respect to that term and the dancers that lived through it much the same way we show respect to the terms Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. Imagine the levels of insanity (or calculated risk depending on how you look at) of dancers during the golden era. They didn't have spotter training courses. They didn't have video tapes or a bunch of coaches to turn to. Health care for sports injuries didn't exist. Yet, our dancing forefathers had a vision, let if fly, and hoped for the best anyway. And when all was said and done, they left us with what is perhaps the most significant advancement in crowd pleasing  movements ever created for dance. In modern times, all that we can ever do is contribute relatively insignificant fractions compared to what they left us.

Still though, in the past 20 years those fractions have added up to something massive. No doubt much of what has been added involves some chunk of traditional, perhaps a prep, use of a proven technique or shape, and of course some pieces are nothing but variations of traditionals. Nonetheless, there is a lot of new stuff out there. I believe we've advanced aerials so far from the golden era that we've long since been operating in a world where "air steps" are a tiny spot of a concentric circle inside another that is that is massive.

Because this pool of content is so large now, I prefer to break apart pieces and segments of pieces by base motion or aerial family of origin.Using back flips as an example, Spinning, Walk-In, Blind, Standing, and Knickerbocker are back flip variations, while platforming and axis lifting are some specific back flip techniques. Other groupings include throws (Shoulder throw, Over The Back, Judo Throw), shoulder rotation aerials (Kflip, Kip, Blind Kip, Backwards Kip, Chicago, Twiss, Lindy Flip, Barrel Frankie), pancakes (Backpack, Flying, Traditional, Pancake to Waterfall), lifts, slides, waterfalls, drops, tosses, etc.  Perhaps classification deserves a separate blog article, but not today.

Of course not everything fits nicely into a single category. Some pieces, like the Fly for example, start with technique from one category and end with technique from another. Some pieces like the Flying Lotus combine a traditional lift off with something totally modern at the end. And of course many pieces like the Lasso that are just flat unique.  Regardless of classification, thinking and speaking this way during instruction or practice does enable people to better communicate step by step details. 

As an instructor, I find it considerably more effective to teach by grouping instead of by aerial. For example, when I [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="crjlY-H186g&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="teach back flips"] I prefer to teach six back flips in a 90 minute block, as opposed to the standard one aerial per 30 minute.  The logic is simple. Once  a student knows the principles behind all back flips, they are better equipped to practice the one they are most interested in. 

Air Steps or Aerials? As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing to focus on during advanced  practice is communication. If you want to break down techniques in the dewy decimal system and that works for you, then go for it. But never forget how we got to where we are today. 

Defining "advanced" aerials (or tricks, or lifts, etc.)

It seems like a straightforward question, and I think it has two straightforward answers.

I believe pieces of content can be considered (more) advanced when:

  1. pieces are complex enough in movement or technique such that a skilled dancer with moderate experience in aerials (or tricks, or lifts, etc.) will master the piece slower than they can master similar pieces. In this first definition, it is useful to use two lines of comparison. The first is comparing the piece to something either from the same family, or something much more commonly taught at a similar skill level. The second is comparing the length of time time it would take an experienced aerialist to learn and master the same piece of content. For both comparisons, regardless of any other factor, the longer it takes the more advanced it is.
  2. the assumption of risk for a piece is greater than the assumption of other pieces. In this second definition, classifying something as advanced draws upon all elements of advanced practice, like a  group's experience working together, group member experience in their respective role (lead spotter, secondary spotter, coach, flier, base) trust among the group for each member within their individual role, strengths and weaknesses of each individual, partnering experience, apparelconfidence, difficulty of the content, existing injuries, etc. 

Most only consider (1) to define something as advanced. In my opinion, the longer you study aerials (1) eventually goes away because (2) swallows it and it entirely.

What level of swing dance aerialist do you really want to be?

I think there are three basic levels of people who do aerials, and a fourth semi-swing group who operates altogether differently than these three levels.

The first level, maybe 90+% of all swing dancers, is those that have learned a several and possibly perfected a few of them. They go out on the social floor or in a jam, nail it, and then bask in the glory of knowing they've pleased the crowd with death defying feats of swing dancing. They're happy, the crowd's happy, everybody parties, and we all love them for getting out there and kicking ass. They may the hottest dancers the show, but they are clearly not pro aerialists nor do they aspire to be, and that's perfectly fine. I say to them, thanks for doing what you DO do, which is pleasing the crowd and drawing people further into the dance.

The second level is the group that focuses somewhat on advancement, but perhaps without assuming the as much risk.  There are many out there that are like this for many reasons. For example, I know one professional theater dancer lady who dances on Broadway. She works some stuff and looks great, but she draws the line at anything that has potential for causing massive injury and will prevent her from working. Of course she would draw that line right?

I believe to an extent, a lot of the traditional aerials have shifted to this category because they have become much less dangerous over time -- and this should make a lot of sense. There is a lot of technique and experience around traditionals. We've all developed a good eye for them. We've all seen them done badly and know what to watch out for. Teachers have long since perfected teaching strategies for them safely. I'm not saying traditionals are easy , but I will say many of them have become easier to attain safely because they are so widespread, making them possible to teach at either at the first or second level.

The third level is pretty much a state of mind around that involves assumption of risk. I like to think of it like skydiving. If you're crazy enough to get in a plane and jump out, you damn sure know before you jump what the odds are that your'e going to live or die.  Those that operate within this third level are committed like most will never be able to understand. We train as hard for our craft as many pro athletes do in their own respective sports. We lock ourselves in studios for hours with close friends who will keep us alive. We review video tape dozens of times before we go into a session. We practice things both the right and wrong ways, meaning that we purposely slam ourselves around to gain better understanding. We are experts at communication of details. Generally speaking, we seek to fully understand and master a piece of content internally like a linguist studies the intricacies of dialects for a base language. And yes, we tend to require a little Motrin and sometimes a little more hospital care than others who practice aerials.

The fourth type of aerialist are those that practice [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="MjdAk7cQxPU&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="rock and roll aerials"] . You've seen them on TV before, triple flips in the air, Cirque du Soleil type acrobatics, world class gymnastic coaches, etc. I consider them outliers to swing dancing altogether for two simple reasons, A) the objectives for doing what they do and B) how they train. Watch this video of [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="MpZk94w6kwc&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="Frankie"]. He describes a vision, then coming up with a safety plan best he could, then practice, then letting it fly as an "air step" within his dance.  To me and at least in terms of swing dancing, "advanced' has never been about sequentially learning first a single flip, then a double flip, then a triple, and then putting it in a swing routine just because you can. Advanced is about visualization and development of dancing through the air.

I should mention that some swing dancers have gone way out on the rock and roll aerials limb before and their contributions have been nothing short of legendary. It is crystal clear to me that as a community we will be adopting more and more training aerials training technique from rock and roll to better please the crowd. And perhaps as we do that we will also form a new definition of "traditionalist" that refuses to use techniques. Only time will tell.

Feel free to reach out to feel free to reach out to aerials pioneer Nathalie Gomes or aerials master Byron Alley with further questions on rock and roll aerials in swing dancing.

Advanced aerials classes / workshops?

The word advanced when used to describe an aerials session should trigger an immediate response to a student  -- somebody thinks it's either hard or dangerous -- so -- what's the safety plan?  * In truth those that operate in level three would say the same for all aerials or tricks classes and workshops!

The premise of this blog is that when you are at level three (advanced) as I have defined above, you have likely surpassed the world of unattainable content and ventured into a world where success is a function of risk mitigation and a tightly working team.  You won't find anything like that a camp or in a class, and even if you did you couldn't pay your way into it.  Truly advanced  sessions are invite only and based entirely on trust. Still, I will contradict this thought by saying that even at a camp, it is most definitely possible to teach advanced content to level one and two aerialists.  *see below where I discuss the Lasso to understand how this occurs.

If you're a student, you probably need to think before you put your shoes on for something billed as advanced. The first thing you should look for is how the safety operation is structured relative to the danger of the content being shown. Think like insurance broker. Put it all together in your head with the worst possible scenario and then ask yourself the all important question. Are risks being successfully mitigated?   Never forget the fact that just because people can draw a full crowd for an aerials class, that doesn't necessarily imply a  breadth of experience mitigating unforeseen risk.

Advanced classes? In short, understand the safety plan first. Then decipher if it's advanced because of risk assumption or movement. If it's advanced because of risk, find another teacher.

Students spotting students in classes?

If it is advanced or dangerous content, I hope the hair on the back of a studen't neck stands straight up if they are asked to spot. If that is asked of students, the class will be somewhere within the following two extremes. Either : A) It's really not dangerous content / it isn't really advanced / etc. Or...  B) the teachers are incompetent and someone in that class may very well end up in the hospital on that day.

Safety is everything!  Is it acceptable risk mitigation to have students spotting students for that particular piece of content?  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. In some cases I endorse student spotting -- as long using untrained spotters provides acceptable risk mitigation. (think using a student as pillow, not asking somebody to make a critical catch.) Most of the time though, asking an a level one or two student to spot exposes the aerialists to excessive and intolerable risk. And as for the appointed spotter, there is simply no wavier or quantity of alcohol that will help that person sleep at night if something goes wrong.

One thing is for certain, you don't magically become a capable spotter just because you are asked to spot at a workshop. Spotting is like a trade. One starts out as a trainee, then an apprentice, and if they are trusted, they may be asked to assume a secondary spotter role. If enough trust is gained, maybe they'll be asked to be a primary spotter. Over time they may be asked to do something bigger or more dire. There is no safety certification. It's not about money or looks. It's not about popularity.  It's about reputation and trust over time.  And with dangerous content, I think it's pretty important to know all you can about the person responsible for protecting another's spine.

Regardless of level, there is only true thing with respect to spotting. You must trust those you work with enough to maintain safety for the given circumstances. If you don't have that level confidence, something isn't right.

On injury

It happens. I think those of us that operate within level three are used to it. Among other elite aerialists, I've seen all sorts of stuff like tennis elbow, tendentious, shin splints, etc. You should be saying. "Wait... Those are training injuries, the kind that other athletes in other sports get right?"

Exactly.

To do what we do we have to train hard. And like other athletes we sometimes overtrain.  You're not likely to see is a level three aerials person cracking their skull open or snapping their a tibia though.  It's simple, if my partner is nose diving straight to the ground at the speed of gravity, my spotter will have enough skill to minimize the impact of the fall. Either that, or I simply wont' put my follower into that situation. Bruises from strong grabs, maybe. Broken finger, possible. Snapped neck, knocked out teeth, or concussions? Never going to happen, at least not more than once. The quickest way to get blacklisted in the aerials community is to not come through when it matters most.

The way I see injuries with respect to advanced aerials:

  • Training injuries -- be smarter with how you do what you do. It happens. You're a dummy. Get some ice.  Let's grab some dinner.
  • Broken bones, major mistakes, cracked heads, whatever -- you either aren't trained enough to do what you are doing, or if you get injured in training you aren't focused enough on team building.

Hey Tony, why'd you use a picture of you and Jaime doing the Lasso for this blog?

Most should recognize the [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="a4Fce9-v8m8&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="The Lasso"]  (:37) as having been created by Mikaela Hellsten and Oskar Markusson from Sweeden. Perhaps I am missing a chance to take credit for our own accomplishments in the aerials world, but our experience with this particular aerial is perfect story for  this blog entry.

Last year, Jaime and I were prepping content for one of our all-aerials-and-tricks weekends and we wanted to teach that particular piece in one of the advanced classes. Like usual, we went off into the studio (with a trusted spotter) to try to understand and execute this marvelous piece. It is a fantastic, intricate, powerful, quick. It took us quite a while to get it working, but eventually we got it.

As we approached our weekend and switched from content development mode to safety team training mode, we needed to devise a safety plan for the Lasso. Like all our other pieces we intend to teach, we brought the Lasso to our safety team to assist in developing that plan. After dozens of attempts of mitigating the obviously dangerous and highly probable face plant, not a single one of us felt comfortable spotting for the level one and two crowd we were slated to teach. Though we were shooting from the hip with a guess, our crystal ball was saying hospitals, not Motrin.

Beautiful, absolutely. Did we practice it? Of course. Could we have taught it and told the students the risk before we started? Sure. Did we teach it? HELL NO! Instead we replaced it with something that was way more difficult and dangerous, but the danger could be mitigated through a good safety plan. For the replacement, we had to invent two additional versions of the aerial, both designed for the level one and two audience, both designed to progressively build technique and confidence, and all three required unique safety plans. To me, that's what "advanced swing dance aerials" really is, carefully relating audience, purpose, risk and making sure that they all fit together.

Anyway, gotta love the Lasso. One of these days I'm going to ask Mikaela and Oskar if they ever taught it to a class just to see what they say.

Conclusions and closing statements

And as a very emphatic closing statement, I will humbly say I am by no way trying to imply anything about being better than anybody else by posting this article.  For the case of this blog article, I fall into the role of specialist or expert on the practice and development of advanced aerials and tricks.  Most think it's not cool, most say it's a distraction from the dance. Whatever, it's one of the things I bring to the global community and that's why I decided to blog about it.

Along the same line of thinking, everybody has something to offer our dance community. Dead on beginners, photographers, specialists, historians, DJ's, scene leaders,  up-and-comers, rock stars, professionals, storytellers, promoters, and studio students all contribute evenly to create our community. Please support all from our community that work diligently at their craft, no matter what role they choose to focus on.

Regarding all the mentions to safety, I don't know if other pro aerials teachers would agree with me or not. I will say though that shifting my focus to safety, risk mitigation and team building has worked well for me and those around me. One specific time comes to mind where I was asked to spot an intermediate piece in an advanced session. Of course as a safety I didn't care if it what level the piece was, all I saw was a lot of risk and that caused me to be right up there and overly active with my spot. Halfway through, the aerial went very wrong and the follow quickly started a powerful and full speed nose dive straight toward the hardwood from less than three feet up. She has two daughters, a husband, a life, and yes she went home to all of it without a scratch. 

Beyond that, I don't have anything major to close with. With respect to me I think I'm nuts for doing what I do -- but I do what I do because there's something way deep inside me that says I have to do it. It's always been that way. To those who want to advance, I say focus on the team you work with before you start focusing on the content. Life and limb are more important than debuting a hot new trick at the local jam circle, and once you really start to push yourself, you'll almost immediately start assuming risks you are not capable of dealing with yet.

Aerial shout outs

As far a execution goes, there are many who can stop the show with a single piece, like [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="a4Fce9-v8m8&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="Juan and Sharon"] in the Barrel Frankie (3:11). Still, within this blog I wanted to call out some massive contributions that you can't see by watching a video.

Kevin and Jo -- [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="Drb_rLwhfOc&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="The Flying Lotus"], 2007 (:55) -- The Flying Lotus is a fantastic and wildly successful addition to traditionally inspired aerials. Respect to Kevin for following through on such an unusual vision. I've heard the story, I know it wasn't easy. And triple points for Jo for having the skill to stabilize the follower's flight and landing the development phase!  I personally think this is the closest-to-being-a-traditional-air-step piece created since the revival.

Jaime (with me) -- [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="sIIy67hCYWk&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="Cracker Barrel"], 2012 (3:28) -- Though Jaime and I have done a lot in the aerials field, I have to give it up for to Jaime for her work incorporating professional level modern dance jump techniques into swing dance aerials. The non-horizontal barrel jump entry to this piece is a great intermediate aerial for widespread teaching, but the horizontal version opens doors for stage and show choreographers using non swing dancers. She's made several similar contributions over the past few years.

Mikaela and Oskar -- [video_lightbox_youtube video_id="a4Fce9-v8m8&rel=0" width="640" height="480" anchor="The Lasso"], 2011 (:37) -- This is pure new school and totally bad ass.  I see the Lasso the same way I see the advancement of skateboarding. In the 80's, skaters were all about big things, going down big hills, making big slides, catching big air, etc. By the 2000's, skateboarding transformed to super intricate and powerful smaller motions a couple inches off the ground. To me, the Lasso follows the same progression into the world of small, closer, powerful, quick, and twice as intricate.

Richard Kurtzer -- NYC Spotter, 2010-2013 -- In addition to being a proven spotter around NYC, he was also head spotter for two Northeast aerials weekends. For each weekend, he prepped a team of 8 safeties. And during the weekend those safeties were responsible for about 60 students all weekend long.  Though he's an amazing aerialist and safety in his own right, risk mitigation at that scale is something that all should respect.

[Be sure to subscribe to changes in this post, I may adjust this list over time]

A shameless plug

Jaime and I love teaching aerials, tricks, etc. at all levels. And we specialize in putting on full weekend tricks and aerials camps. As you can imagine, we've invested a lot of time in developing safety practices to make such events both feasible and fun. Feel free to reach to us if you're interested in bringing us out to put one of these epic events on for your community.