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Here's Everything You Need To Know Before Trying Aerial Circus Classes

You don't have to run away to join the circus — or to get a great workout.

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Hi there! I'm Susie, and I've been taking aerial circus classes for five years now.

David Gonsier / Via instagram.com

Until pretty recently, to learn any circus skills you had to be born into a circus family, go to a professional circus school, or literally run away with a bunch of traveling acrobats. But today, recreational classes (for normals like you and me) are becoming available in more and more cities around the world.

I got started when a friend invited me to join her for an "aerial class." I didn't know what "aerial" was, but I quickly discovered it's a ton of fun and a great workout, especially if you're not a gym person (hi).

Just so we get this out of the way: It may sound incredibly obvious, but aerial is ~not~ the kind of workout you can DIY — even if you have previous experience with gymnastics or dance, or were really good at climbing the monkey bars when you were little. I'll get more into that and how to find a good instructor in a sec.

Ready to give it a try? Here's what you need to know to get started safely and find the right aerial class for you.

1. "Aerial arts," "aerial circus," and "cirque-style fitness" are broad terms that cover a whole bunch of different activities.

So what is all this stuff, even?

"Aerial" refers to any apparatus that's hung in the air, from a simple rope to a giant metal cube. Some of the disciplines most commonly taught to beginners are aerial silks (two long strips of fabric rigged from the ceiling), lyra (a metal hoop hung in the air), and trapeze (which can be "flying" — the kind over a net that you may have seen Carrie try on Sex and the City — or "static" and lower to the ground).

Some schools and teachers offer sampler courses that let you try a few different apparatuses. Others specialize in a certain discipline or prefer to focus on teaching one at a time. Consider trying more than one apparatus to see which you like best. I started with silks, fell in love with lyra a few years later, and now train and perform on both.

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2. Aerial yoga is a different (very cool!) thing entirely.

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In an aerial yoga class, you'll do variations on typical yoga poses using a fabric hammock like the ones above. You'll be going upside down, but you'll stay close to the floor while the hammock supports your body weight. (Aerial hammock, where performers use the hammock to do tricks and drops higher off the ground, is a separate circus discipline you can also take classes in.)

Aerial yoga is a great option if you're already a yogi and want to mix up your practice, or you want to try some inversions but you're not thrilled about heights or are worried you won't be strong enough to climb the fabric. But when I refer to "aerial" in this post, I'll be talking about aerial circus classes rather than aerial yoga.

3. You don't need to have a particular body type to do aerial circus.

Instagram: @zolucock

As one of my aerial teachers, Laura Witwer, puts it in on her blog, "Circus has room for every body, every age, every creative soul who just doesn’t feel like being bound by gravity today."

If you're hesitant because you're not sure you'll have the strength or stamina to keep up, look for studios that offer beginner-friendly aerial circus courses. Some schools also offer classes labeled "aerial conditioning," which are designed to build your endurance by doing exercises on the apparatus, without any pressure to learn tricks.

"If you are significantly over or under weight, very tight in the muscles, or are working around a dodgy fill-in-the-blank, the work has to be modified," Witwer writes. "But so what? It doesn’t mean you don’t start. It means you modify."

4. Aerial can be accessible and adapted to people with different abilities.

When I posted a callout on Facebook for aerial instructors who've worked with students with disabilities, I was overwhelmed with responses. People who use wheelchairs, have had amputations, or have other mobility limitations are learning, teaching, and performing aerial circus arts all over the world.

Lauren Watson of Queensland, Australia, was partially paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident and came to aerial after struggling with physical therapy. "Don't think you have to stick with silks, especially if you do have mobility limitations in your legs or feet," she told BuzzFeed by email. "Lyra and hammock are great introductions into gaining a sense of spacial awareness, and because they are apparatus that allow you to rest, you can still gain strength in your arms and core without having to worry about injuring your lower limbs."

Mel Stevens, an aerialist and teacher with Aim to Fly UK who has a spinal cord injury, says it's important for students with disabilities to focus on having fun, come up with their own goals, and have an open dialogue with their instructors about what's working and what isn't. “Listen to your body and feed your body," she told BuzzFeed.

Canadian aerial performer and instructor Erin Ball (that's her above) had to relearn how to maneuver in the air after her lower legs were amputated. "I am discovering more and more skills and transitions that would not work the same way with feet," she wrote on her blog. "It makes me wonder if we have even begun to explore the potential that actually exists for humans to adapt."

5. It's not just for women.

arthurhong / Via Instagram: @arthurhong

Most of the other students in the aerial classes I've been in have been women, but don't let that stop you — there's plenty of room in the aerial community for people of all gender identities and expressions. (And if you have external genitalia, read this post about protecting your bits while you train.)

6. You don't need a ton of upper body strength to start, but if you stick with it you might develop some serious guns.

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OK, this move is still #goals for me, but I'm about a thousand times stronger than I was before I started taking aerial classes. Five years ago I couldn't do a pull-up. Now I can do at least one without cheating from a dead hang, and a few more on a good day. (My coach, Laura, calls them "the most important exercise on the planet" for aerialists because lifting your own weight is part of so many moves.)

Coming into your first aerial class with a high level of upper body strength — say, from rock climbing or a regular lifting routine — can certainly help you progress faster. But if you feel like your arms are about as strong as limp spaghetti noodles right now, don't worry. Nobody expects you to be super-buff in a beginner class, and your instructor will modify things accordingly.

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7. You'll get a great core workout, too.

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"Aerial arts is a whole body exercise," Emily Scherb, a Seattle-based physical therapist and circus instructor, told BuzzFeed by email. That's because you need to create your own stability through the core, upper back, and shoulders while you're hanging off the ground, she says.

"Just hanging from the bar in a properly engaged position involves finger flexors, the rotator cuff, scapular stabilizers, abdominal, and glute recruitment to connect and stabilize the whole body. When you add in climbing or turning upside down, you still need to maintain that core engagement. You're going to be working hard!"

8. You don't have to be super flexible, either.

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Full splits look pretty, but you 100% do not need to have them to come to aerial class. (I'm still working on getting mine!) If you can't touch your toes or do a backbend, you can still do aerial. It's all about starting where you are and working toward where you want to be.

That said, regular yoga practice is a good complement to aerial classes if you want to improve your flexibility. Some circus facilities also offer supervised and assisted stretching classes, and even contortion, if you want to get mega-bendy.

9. Consider what class level and format will work best for you.

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Some studios and teachers offer classes tailored specifically for beginners; others offer mixed-level classes that beginners are welcome to attend. If you're in a mixed-level class, your instructor should still be giving you plenty of individual attention and modifying the moves for a first-timer. If you're not sure what the class descriptions mean or what level you should be in, call or email first to make sure the class you're signing up for is beginner-friendly.

Some places offer drop-in classes, which you typically reserve and pay for online. Others require you to sign up for a series of classes over several weeks or months and pay for everything up front — not great if you're commitment-phobic or travel a lot.

If you'd rather start with one-on-one instruction or go with a friend, many teachers offer private or semi-private lessons for up to three people. Expect to pay more per hour than you would for a regular group class.

10. Find a qualified teacher who practices proper safety measures.

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Like any kind of exercise, aerial comes with risks, including paralysis and even death. So it's incredibly important to make sure you work with an aerial teacher who knows how to keep you safe. (Also, check in with your doctor first and make sure you're good to start a new exercise program.)

How do you know if you can trust an aerial instructor, school or studio? Ask where they trained and how long they've been teaching, says Adam Woolley, head coach at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts and safety program manager for the American Circus Educators Association (ACE). Look for someone who has specific experience teaching aerial arts — performing and instructing are two distinct skill sets.

Ask the other students in your class how long they've been coming to this studio or teacher. You want to be with an instructor who's built a real community and has had some returning students for years — it's a testament to their skill and safety, Woolley told BuzzFeed. You can also ask if it's possible to observe a class before signing up to get a sense of the teacher's style.

ACE maintains a directory of organizations that have paid their membership dues. It's a good sign if a place you're considering is on that list, Woolley says, though it's not an endorsement of their safety practices. (It's also not necessarily a red flag if they're not listed, as ACE was only established in 2014 and is still gaining members.)

11. Be prepared to sign a waiver before class.

Vertical Fix Aerial Arts Group / Via instagram.com

Not to be a Debbie Downer again, but if the teacher or studio doesn't ask you to sign a waiver on your first day, this is a bad sign. It shows they're disorganized at the very least, and may even be unaware of the risks of what they're teaching.

“It shouldn’t be that different than your experience coming to a gym for the first time," Woolley says. Look for a professional website with instructor bios, a well-designed logo, and an organized intake process, he suggests. Expect to be asked about any injuries you have and medications you take.

When you show up for class, you should see mats laid out under the apparatus. (Yoga mats are fine for aerial yoga, but aren't sufficient for aerial circus.) In a beginner class, Woolley recommends that no more than four or five people be in the air at a time, so the instructor can keep a close eye on everyone.

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12. Expect to learn a few basics in your first class and stay pretty close to the floor.

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Typically you'll start with some kind of warm-up, either on the ground or using the apparatus. Next you'll move on to foundational skills, like how to correctly grip the fabric or bar, start a simple climb, or get onto the apparatus. Your teacher should go over key aspects of safe technique, such as proper shoulder positioning and abdominal engagement.

Don't feel bad if you don't go much further than that on your first day. A good teacher will make sure you've mastered the necessary beginner skills before moving on. Your instructor should also listen to you and respect your limits, rather than pushing you to do things you don't feel safe doing.

“You should always feel safe," Woolley says. "At the end of the day, while it is very different and it is a lot of fun, it should not be that different from most group fitness classes.”

13. Wear comfortable clothes that will keep you covered while you're upside down.

Aerial classes can have some awkward moments. Like when you're hanging upside down with your legs spread wide and the instructor physically pushes your butt up above your head. Or when the apparatus tries to pants you.

Running tights or leggings and leotards or shirts you can tuck in are best. Avoid baggy clothes and zippers that can get stuck on the fabric or bar. You should wear more clothing to an aerial class than you would to a pole-dance class — you'll want to cover the backs of your knees, your stomach, your lower back, and your armpits for certain moves to avoid friction burns and scrapes.

14. You'll want to eat a light, nutritious meal a few hours before class.

aerialcsouza / Via instagram.com

Hanging upside down on a full stomach is no fun, but you'll be working hard, so you don't want to show up feeling weak or hungry. I like to pack a nutrition bar or a banana to munch on if I need it, along with a big bottle of water to drink during and after class. (Read more on what to eat before and after a workout here.)

15. Expect to be sore the day after your first class. Like, got-hit-by-a-truck levels of sore.

Nicole Elisa / Via instagram.com

Even if you work out regularly, aerial classes work muscles most of us don't use every day. Your forearms will ache. Your abs will ache. Your hands will ache. You get the picture. (You'll get used to it!)

That intense next-day soreness is also linked to the fact that you're in the air, doing something totally new, which can spike adrenaline, says Dr. Scherb. "With a little adrenaline helping, you will have the ability to fire your muscles more than normal, and afterwards that can lead to more fatigue than expected," she told BuzzFeed.

16. Don't be surprised if you develop a few "apparatus hickeys."

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Friction from the silks or rope can result in burns on your skin. (They'll heal and peel just like a sunburn.) Pressure from the trapeze bar or lyra can give you bruises. Wearing clothes that cover your skin helps prevent this, but it can be a little jarring, especially if you start taking aerial classes when the weather's nice and you're walking around in shorts and a tank top.

Oh, and your hands might get pretty callused from gripping the apparatus, especially if you get really excited about aerial and sign up for as many classes as you possibly can. (Not that I've done that or anything.)

17. Don’t stress out if you don’t look like a pro at first.

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People come to aerial classes from a wide range of backgrounds. One of the women I train with is a former competitive gymnast. Others have taken ballet since they were tiny and have gorgeous lines and beautifully pointed toes I'd kill for.

When I started doing aerial, I hadn't taken a dance class since I was a little kid and was, shall we say, ~challenged~ in the grace department. I felt like a total klutz, but I tried to stay focused on having fun and getting better at my own pace.

Some people get bitten by the aerial bug and decide to work toward the goal of eventually performing in public. Others just want to come to class every week and get a fun workout. Both of these approaches — and anywhere in between — are fine! Look for a teacher who can create the environment you need, whether that's super-relaxed or a serious ass-kicking.

18. Be ready for some mental challenges along with the physical ones.

aerialgangsta / Via instagram.com

Even if you are not painfully afraid of heights, this picture probably scares you a little. Or a lot. (I'm looking at it right now, thinking of all the ways a person could fall out of this position, while also knowing I probably have the strength to do it myself if I can work up the nerve.)

You shouldn't be asked to do anything like this in an intro class, but if you continue with aerial, you'll eventually get to something that feels ~scary~ to you. And you'll have to decide whether or not you think you can do it.

You should feel comfortable asking your teacher to explain what's keeping you safe in each move, what to look out for, and what could go wrong. Your body's instinct may be to protect itself, to scream, "DON'T DO THAT!" But if you're being taught by a knowledgable, safety-first instructor, the moments where you feel like you might actually die are controlled, fairly minimal risks.

Pushing the limits of what's "scary" has been a huge, valuable part of my own personal growth over the last few years. For many people I know, it's one of the most rewarding parts of choosing aerial as your main workout.

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