Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
At West Asheville’s Aerial Space, physical challenges not only foster self-esteem—they are gravity-defying fun, too.
It’s January. It’s cold outside. It’s dark by six o’clock. If that isn’t enough to deter you from getting back into shape, the monotony of an elliptical just might. If you’re looking for a new fun indoor activity to try, Aerial Space in West Asheville teaches classes in Trapeze, Lyra (Aerial Hoop), Silks, Aerial Yoga, Acro Yoga, and Aerial Dance.
Owner Blue De Leeuw and her business partner, Andrew Hartnagel, have carefully crafted an all-inclusive environment where anyone interested can learn aerial arts. Fun is a top priority, as the Aerial Space website suggests: “Everyone should be able to run away and join the circus… if only for an hour.”
“It was a huge goal of mine for [Aerial Space] to be a good healthy environment,” De Leeuw says.
De Leeuw spent many years performing with the San Francisco Ballet before discovering circus arts. Her viewpoint is that each body has its idiosyncrasies that can be utilized. “I have large hands and feet, which is not so useful in ballet, but very useful in circus arts,” she explains, “and plump bodies can be incredibly useful on a Lyra.”
One of her longtime students happens to be a 71-year-old gentleman. “He performed in our student showcase. I don’t think he can even touch his toes,” De Leeuw says.
Hartnagel’s training as a martial arts instructor, and later as a high ropes course director, gave him many of the tools he needed to teach Aerial Arts as its Education Director.
“The martial arts I studied as a kid included a lot of meditation and was non-competitive,” Hartnagel says. “And as a high ropes course director, I was used to being up in the air and talking to people who were afraid and trying to conquer their fears.” Hartnagel flew to New England to study aerial arts because at the time, there were no professional programs in the Southeast.
“Andrew is not a performer,” De Leeuw says. “He comes at it from the point of view of improving people’s lives and creating a fun workout.”
De Leeuw brings the perspective and skill of a professional performer, including stints with San Francisco fire circus Uberlesque, Supperclub SF, Asheville Aerial Arts, the Aerial Angels, Air Born Aerial in Fayetteville, Waynesville’s BoHo Stage Show, and Asheville Vaudeville.
The studio is located just off Leicester Highway, near the intersection with Patton Avenue. The space itself is bright with hardwood floors and soaring ceilings, and pipes have been rigged to support the colorful silks and trapezes. Several thick landing mats create stations for students to practice on. The studio is not huge, but classes are small, typically three to five students.
Hartnagel’s All-level Silks class is focused on honing technique, building strength, and reaching personal goals. This individual sport requires the level of mental focus that yoga or rock climbing often can; one must strategize and adjust amidst challenging physical exertion.
Close-fitting clothes work best since you may be upside down and you wouldn’t want to be blinded by your shirt. Most students wear tights and t-shirts, or dancer-inspired clothing like shorts over tights. Clothes also serve as a protection at the beginning against rubbing one’s skin against the silks; the back of the knees and underarms are areas to protect. The class is done barefoot.
Hartnagel is tall and muscular, not exactly the kind of man you picture spinning on silk ropes. “I started out on the double trapeze, because I’m a big guy,” Hartnagel explains, “but when you’re the ‘base’ you’re basically just an apparatus.”
Hartnagel found himself yearning to experiment with the silks. “The fabric offers far more possibilities. It worked my brain a lot more,” he says.
Space To Fly
Hartnagel stumbled onto the sport when he was walking one afternoon in 2008 and spotted some people practicing with a trampoline and trapeze outside in their backyard. They let him try it and he was hooked. Turns out some of them were Asheville Aerial Arts performers, a fledgling group at the time. He soon met De Leeuw at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) where the group would practice indoors.
But renting at JCC was only available once a week. And this is a sport that requires apparatus to be safely rigged, so it’s not easy to move around with it. What they really needed was a dedicated practice space to train in. Meanwhile, they continued to train outdoors, even into December.
“It was really hard to do aerial arts outside in December,” Hartnagel admits.
De Leeuw, for her part, had long been dreaming of a studio space where she could create the all-inclusive, non-competitive culture she envisioned.
The journey that eventually led her into the world of circus arts was not an easy one. As she puts it,
“I barely escaped a career in the ballet.” Ballet is known to be an exacting discipline: hard on the body, plagued with eating disorders and burnout. De Leeuw’s experience was no exception.
From age ten to 18, De Leeuw studied with the San Francisco Ballet. She basically dropped out of school in sixth grade and admits she was obsessed with ballet. She lived as an emancipated minor on her own in San Francisco, supported by scholarships.
The intensely competitive environment was brutal, and although De Leeuw was up for an apprenticeship with the company, she says she “fell apart.”
Having devoted every waking moment to ballet, her life was completely out of balance. “It took me over in a very negative way,” De Leeuw admits. “I didn’t have a healthy well-rounded life; I didn’t go to school; I didn’t have friends.” Her all-encompassing devotion to the rigid world of professional ballet had left her depleted. After leaving the ballet, she struggled with depression and addiction as she tried to get her life together, finally earning a GED. During this period she started performing with a fire circus in San Francisco and learning trapeze. The less structured environment combined with the physical challenge of circus arts was a boon to her spirit.
But eventually De Leeuw found that even the world of circus arts is not exempt from the same negative aspects. There can be unhealthy competition, and the ego can get the body in trouble. Part of De Leeuw’s motivation to open Aerial Space was her determination not to have this destructive culture infuse her business.
“I’ve got to give credit to Blue,” Hartnagel says. “She was enough of an entrepreneur to say, ‘If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to make it happen.’”
Out of Body
Although Hartnagel has been physically active all his life, he says at 38 years old he is in the best overall shape he has ever been in. “Aerial arts improve strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, and coordination,” Hartnagel says. “It promotes a mechanical harmony in the body.”
Although students are pushing themselves, the environment at Aerial Space is enjoyable and encouraging. Everyone is able to participate at their own level while building the strength to advance. And it likely won’t get boring. “Like yoga there are so many advanced levels,” De Leeuw says. “You can never achieve it all.”
At times Hartnagel says he has reached a state of euphoria that he compares to a musician who, after much practice, finally reaches that place when he can play effortlessly, without looking at the keys. “It feels like that, but in your whole body,” Hartnagel says.
Hartnagel’s Silks class begins with simple warm up exercises and stretching. He creates a playful atmosphere where joking around is encouraged. After the warm-up, he checks in with each person to find out about any injuries or concerns.
As students prepare to begin working with the silks, they rub a pinch of natural pinesap into their palms for a better grip. (Pinesap looks and feels like course yellow salt and makes your hands a bit sticky.)
De Leeuw demonstrates how the fabric must be correctly wrapped around one’s foot, sort of like a stirrup that helps keep you suspended. You step up into it, so both feet are off the ground. She then suggests hanging sideways with one arm, then hanging from the crook of an elbow, lifting a leg, or doing a little backbend. Just playing with different positions engages core muscles, and before you know it you are sweating and your heart is pounding.
But the idea of swinging on a trapeze or hanging upside down could be intimidating for some.
“Everyone has voices in their head telling them they can’t or shouldn’t do something: ‘I’m out of shape; I just had a baby; I’m overweight,’” De Leeuw says. “I get calls like that all the time. There are a million reasons not to get up and have fun.”
Sure, De Leeuw is a professional dancer. She is a performer. This stuff is easy for her, right? Not so fast.
“I was rehearsing for a major touring show. We were testing the equipment that was going to pull me over and above the audience,” she explains. “The rigging failed and I fell 20 feet onto concrete. I was in a wheelchair for six months.” Since suffering this devastating accident four years ago, she has had numerous surgeries and now has permanent screws and metal plates in both feet.
She had a miraculous recovery, especially considering she was not expected to walk normally again. She has even performed since the accident.
Although De Leeuw admits she is basically retired now as a performer, this small-statured woman with the willowy dancer’s body and soft voice continues to practice the circus arts that changed her life for the better. “My body suffers when I don’t use it,” she says.
Trying something new and physically challenging often creates a huge sense of accomplishment. And this is an important part of the curriculum at Aerial Space: building self-esteem through personal achievements. There are classes for kids as well.
Although performing is not the focus, some students do go on to pursue further training and become professionals. “Waverly and Heather first took classes at Aerial Space just for fun,” De Leeuw says. “Now they are world class performers.” (Waverly Jones and Heather Poole both teach classes at Aerial Space and perform with Asheville Aerial Arts.)
“We make mistakes and make fools of ourselves every day,” De Leeuw says, of her colleagues and students, “and we praise each other for trying something new.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…