How Circus People Taught me to Use an Aerial Sling

Rene Cizio

I woke up with a sore crotch and that is probably all you need to know about learning how to use an aerial sling.

My hands are permanently stuck in this claw shape and I have bruises on my thighs. My arms, back, and neck feel like they’ve been through some medieval torture device.

I took an aerial sling class at Aloft Circus Arts. It’s probably kind of like the yoga sling classes you’ve heard about, but more agony climbing and less yoga.

The aerial sling is like a hammock. It’s one long piece of silk fabric with the two tails connected at the ceiling allowing it to hang like a trapeze (they also teach trapeze at circus school, but that wood bar does not look friendly).

DOING NOTHING SEEMS EASIER

I had booked the class weeks before, but I decided I wasn’t going to go on the appointed night. I didn’t think I could do it. It seemed hard. Why waste another night embarrassing myself?

As I sat down on my couch, the nag that lives in my head popped up. “You’re right, don’t try anything ‘hard.’ Just sit on the couch. That’s the recipe for success!”

I changed my clothes and ran out of the door at the last minute.

AT THE CIRCUS SCHOOL

Among the largest circus training schools in the country, Aloft Circus Arts is housed in a historic 100-year-old church in Logan Square, Chicago. Now, instead of parishioners, among the huge stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling, and old church pews, there are trapezes, aerials silks, and tight wire.

I signed up for an aerial sling intro class, and, as luck would have it, I was the only person who showed up. Apparently, I’m not the only one with self-doubt.

It wasn’t just garden variety self-doubt I was feeling while looking at the women in the other classes (young, fit … terrible). I had actual doubt about whether I’d be able to pull myself up on the silks at all. I was banking on being hidden among the other students.

While many other aerialists practiced on hoops, bars, and silks around us, my teacher, Alisa, and I prepared for my first lesson. As she gave me an overview of the apparatus, I stopped myself twelve times from telling self-deprecating jokes about how I wouldn’t be able to do it anyway.

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Photos by the Author

WELCOME TO THE FREAK SHOW

I just wanted to set her expectations for what she was about to see, but somehow I reigned it in. I refused to let my inner mean girl run the program. My circus, my monkeys!

After the introduction, Alisa grabs the silk, does some pretty flips, and leaves me staring dumbfounded as to how she used the fabric to wrap, suspend, drop, swing, and spiral her body into various positions. She said she went slow so I could see what she was doing. I’m so screwed.

“Ready to give it a try?” she asked. I wondered if I could pretend I had to go to the bathroom and run out the back door … “I’m ready!” I said.

I’M SHORT AND STOUT, WHICH IS MY EXCUSE FOR WHY I CAN’T DO MOST THINGS

The first exercise was to put the aerial sling around my hips and hang like in a downward-facing dog. I couldn’t get the thing down over my gut.

No worries, she said, we could try leaning into it and rolling. When I did it that way, I got my hands stuck under my back. It didn’t feel great. Probably didn’t look that cool either.

The third method was to jump into it like you would a swing. Just hoist your ass up and hop in. But there’s not a lot of weight to the silk, so I couldn’t really get it under my rear end. Eventually, she helped me and walla! I was in!

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OW, YOU WOULD THINK SILK WOULD BE SOFTER

For each position or exercise, she would demonstrate, and I would mimic what she showed me—hashtag #NailedIt.

After sitting, we tried standing, then leaning, leaning further, one leg out, the other, so on and so forth. After about 15 minutes, I was dripping sweat (though this alone is not unusual for me), my hands were numb, and my arms were on fire. But I was doing this thing!

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Photos by the Author

CLIMBING, HANGING, AND DROPPING

By the time we got to the hanging part, I had devised a way to choke myself out before my arms completely gave up on me, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.

My grand finale was to be a climb up, leg wrap myself into a type of cradle, hang, and drop myself into a pose at the bottom. Easy fucking peasy. Just one problem, I couldn’t hoist my ass up at the top of the climb.

LOOK MA, NO HANDS

Once at the top, I wrapped the silks and dropped my legs into the position, fell backward, as intended, and performed the drop. Since my neck was not broken, it is a full success.

I had so much doubt about my ability to perform in this class, but I was so darn proud of myself for doing it by the time it was over. It felt like being a woman warrior.

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I didn’t allow myself the negative self-talk that has stopped me from trying things in the past. Instead, I pushed aside my doubt, fear, and ego to try something new despite the high likelihood of humiliation. Does that make me brave or stupid? Probably both.

What it makes me feel today, though, jacked-up hands, paralyzed body and all, is empowered. If I can do that, what else am I capable of? Probably a lot. Certainly, a lot more than that mean girl in my head thinks I can do. (I thought I told you to shut up!?)

Does this make me a hero? Well, YES, it does. I’m my own hero. You can be your own hero too – in any way you want. Or just go to circus school.

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Digital nomad, solo traveling full time. I write about travel, adventure, universal energy, and the journey through life. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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