Health & Fitness

By Katie Calautti

Even I – the girl who holds a permanent bid for Least Graceful Human Being On The Planet – watch figure skaters, ballerinas and Cirque du Soleil performers with a mixture of awe and I-can-do-that-too gusto. They just make it look so easy.

Recently, I got a bit carried away (pun intended) by that sentiment when I signed up for an Aerial Fabric course at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, intrigued by the idea that I could get fit while flying 20 feet off the ground. I was told to wear body-hugging workout gear, as I’d likely be “hanging upside down.” In hindsight, the fact that I didn’t think twice about this warning makes me question my sanity.

Twenty minutes into the class, I was being ushered up a yellow strip of fabric by the course’s incredibly helpful (and infinitely patient) assistant Polly, and I happened upon a crushing realization: I have absolutely no upper-body strength. I looked down at Polly from my paltry (yet painstakingly hard-won) two feet of air space and remarked, “Is this a bad time for me to tell you I was the kid who couldn’t climb the ropes in gym class?” But I digress.

To say that the students entering MMAC’s Aerial Fabric course are in good hands is a woeful understatement. Instructor Bobby Hedglin-Taylor is a vivacious wealth of knowledge, experience and energy. His resume boasts 25 years of theatrical work and 17 years of circus performing. He’s shared the stage with greats like Lauren Bacall, Bebe Neuwirth and Nell Carter, and he’s worked as an aerial sequence choreographer for the past 10 years. His assistant, Polly Solomon, began her career as an aerial dancer and actor, and has been a member of MMAC’s staff for a year, where she teaches a children’s circus arts class. Combined, they are an unforgettable duo – putting students of every experience level at ease, answering questions, and instructing with patience, all the while emphasizing the fact that aerial fabric exercise should be a joy.

After warming up, the class was split into groups of three, and Polly brought me to the side bar to teach me hand and foot ties. Called a “single hand lock” and “single foot lock”, these simple twists of fabric sustain all of your body weight when you’re in the air – so form is essential. I learned that the super-strong double-weave fabric is made of Tricot, which safely holds hundreds of pounds of weight. Bobby taught me the difference between the front and back of the fabric, the safe angles to move my core, and how to keep my wrists counterbalanced.

With a head full of new tricks and my ties down, I tried my hand at climbing, which – as I mentioned earlier – proved more intimidating and cumbersome than it looked, especially with the rest of the class watching. Everyone warmly embraced my clumsy novice status, urging me not to give up. Seeing the more experienced students float effortlessly above – backs arched, toes pointed gracefully, legs in perfect splits – motivated me to press on. I immediately felt the effects in my shoulders, back and abdominal muscles – gravity is used as a strengthening force in aerial exercise. Bobby extolled, “There’s something about hanging upside down that releases endorphins!” He’s right – it’s addictive.

After basic climbs and dives, things really ramped up – Bobby built upon each lesson with new moves and more challenging compositions, demonstrating first before turning the groups loose to try on their own (while he and Polly spotted). Formations called “Bird’s Nest,” “Gazelle,” “The Flying Nun,” “Windmill,” and “Dive Between” were announced and performed at impressive speeds. Bobby touched upon inversion exercises; basic belly wraps and drops before turning on music and counting off choreographer-style, asking his students to fly with the fabric trailing behind. Bobby’s mantra, “If you’re laughing, you’re breathing” was in full effect. The experience of exercising in the air is as unique as studying under Bobby – enjoyment, safety and technique all hold the same emphasis.

Fellow student Anna Snider gave me hope for my future – she navigated the colorful fabric like a pro, and told me she’d been taking the class for about six months. As a dancer, she finds that aerial fabric works different muscle groups than more traditional forms of exercise, and also proves to be a more challenging total body workout. “When I want to train myself to push to the next level in Pilates or yoga, I take Aerial Fabric,” she noted. “Plus, this class keeps me from getting bored with my workouts.”

Take it from me: you don’t have to possess high levels of strength or coordination to enjoy yourself in one of Bobby’s classes. Along with Aerial Fabric, he also teaches Lyra at MMAC (a similar dance-in-the-air-style fitness regimen that utilizes a hoop instead of fabric). For schedules, pricing and more information, visit: http://www.manhattanmovement.com/classes

Originally published April 2010
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