In 1959, an article appeared in a small French newspaper reporting that a pupil of a circus school had presented the most incredible number using a long piece of fabric.
Over the past decade, the Aerial Silks, as it’s now known, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to companies like Cirque du Soleil and performance artists like Pink. It even appears in fitness classes.
At a studio in Miamisburg, a local group of aerial artists train and share their love of this performance art form with others.
It can be difficult to navigate the steep stairs of the historic former hotel at 7 East Central Street, but the reward is a lovely open space on the third floor with 17-foot-tall ceilings. One wall is lined with mirrors, and on the other side hang rows of long, silky fabrics draped in ceiling-mounted rings.
This is the Dayton Ballroom Center, which is used as a practice space by the Gem City Cirque. “We do aerial arts,” said Kaitlin Kenny, one of the founding members. “The short version of being an aerial artist is – if it crashes, we’ll find a way to play on it.
Kaitlin discovered the aerial arts by accident while living in Florida.
“I was looking for belly dancing, of all things. I couldn’t find anything where I was at the time, but there was this studio that did aerial silks,” Kaitlin recalls. “And I took a look, and I was like – hey, I’m dizzy, let’s try. I was in love from my very first class.
The Gem City Cirque was born out of the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, Kaitlin and her friend Angela Thomas just wanted to work out, but everything was closed – all the gyms, all the studios were closed. So they set up a mobile platform in Kaitlin’s garden.
“I saw my neighbors peeking out the window wondering what we were doing there,” Kaitlin said. “And, it kind of became the neighborhood thing, and we were like, ‘There might be something to this. ”
So they formed an entertainment group that took off and began booking shows around the Miami Valley at festivals and private events. Since then, they have connected with other artists in the area who were also looking for an opportunity to perform, and they formed an air cooperative.
“We also have people who are more floor specialists, so they’re fire dancers, or fan dancers, or something like that,” Kaitlin said. “My favorite is the dance trapeze. So it’s not the big swing you think of, but it’s a single hanging trapeze that you can do a bunch of moves on. I’m not the most flexible performer, but I’m very strong, and this device lends itself to strength-based movements. It’s very graceful, it’s very stimulating.
Malaki Woodward is the owner of Fire and Ice Aerial Arts, which operates here at the Dayton Ballroom Center. She became addicted at the age of 16. Malaki was influenced by Rebekah Leach who had just released a series of books which was one of the first aerial training manuals. Malaki performs with the Gem City Cirque when she is not teaching.
“I teach from six to any age,” she said. “I’m currently seventy-five. She doesn’t climb too high, usually stays about 2 feet off the ground, but she’s definitely capable of quite a bit.
Kaitlin places a thick gym mat under a long length of gray silk fabric, attached to a metal ring in the 17-foot-tall ceiling. Kaitlin asked Malaki to put some music on in the background.
“So I can’t think too much about what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m working on a lot of ambience – which means I don’t have any particular choreography in mind – I’m just improving a bit.”
Kaitlin warms up by stretching on the silks then goes through a few poses. Hanging upside down by one hand from what looks like a giant hoop called a lyra, she twists her body into an arc – one leg crossed at a 90 degree angle over the other, pointing up at the ceiling.
It looks…really complicated.
“So the meat hook is called a meat hook because of the position the body is in, and it’s the one it has a base of strength in, which is why I like it,” she said hanging on the lyre. “It takes time to learn. This is not a beginner’s move. It’s getting really tight on your end here, so you have to learn to be comfortable with that.
Kaitlin also teaches classes with Fire and Ice.
“I teach beginners here in the studio. My favorite beginners are students who don’t have a fitness background, and they’re not sure they can do it, but they want to try it,” she said. “Watching their confidence grow, and they’re like – oh, I can do this – that’s just the coolest thing.”