The Jam Cellar Guide to Practicing Aerials

We’re about to start an aerial series at the Jam Cellar. To prepare our students for class, we have put together a set of rules and tips for practicing aerials.

UPDATED! Some revisions have been made in word choice since this article’s publication. (Most recent update: Oct 5, 2010)

Air-Step (Aerial) Training

The old timers used the term “air step” because they didn’t think flips and throws should be done will-nilly, but always as part of the flow of the dance. They take time, muscle, practice, partnership connection, and both parties doing work in order to make them look good.

We will be working slowly on the aerials throughout the series in order to (1) make sure we get them right and safely and (2) realize the full potential that many aerials have for sex jokes.

There are some important rules and tips we want our students to see before class:

Ultimately, it’s your own responsibility to think. We can teach advice and give rules all day, but ultimately it’s up to you to think about what you’re doing and to make the decisions for yourself and for your safety. For instance, if you are in class, learning an aerial, and start to feel fatigued, it’s up to you to recognize that and stop doing the aerial. Far from being a failure, you will have succeeded in understanding your body and your limitations, something that is essential to getting the best out of your aerial training.

What do I wear when practicing aerials? When you’re first learning an airstep, you will probably want to look like a complete doofus. This means comfortable clothes you have full movement in, but aren’t too baggy, like sweat pants, t-shirts, and loud bright white sneakers.

Both leaders and followers may want to wear shirts that cover 3/4 of their arms or more, or have a track jacket handy, just in case the leader decides to wear jeans the day he decides to learn the waterfall. And don’t wear anything you care much about.

Also, make sure your clothing isn’t high maintenance. If your pants are too big and you have to hike them up every time you do an aerial, then lose them (No pants at aerial class tonight.) You don’t want to wear anything that something (or someone) can get caught on, like a large belt buckle or anything bedazzled. (or watches or jewelry or Prince Alberts).

Belts and tight-wasted pants can cut off natural movement of the spine, so elastic waste band pants are recommended.

Dancers should always stretch and warm-up before attempting aerials, and it’s not a bad idea to do so afterward as well. (For our series especially: If you show up late to a class, you will have to warm-up/stretch for 5 minutes before being allowed to join in.)

A commenter below and several people I have run across in the workout world have told me stretching isn’t as important at the beginning of a workout. This is ultimately one of those times where you will have to make the decision for yourself and find out what works best for you (afterall, on this point, I don’t think anyone has come to a big universal agreement). Though I think it IS pretty universally acknowledged that you should ALWAYS warm up before doing any high-intensive activity, such as an aerial training session. This is easy as doing a few minutes of jumping jacks, jogging in place, or the running man (make sure to switch feet periodically).

I personally like a quick stretch after a warm-up and before doing anything demanding physically. Tony Horton does too. And, it’s rule #18 in Zombieland. How is all this evidence not conclusive?

The success of the air step is mostly determined by the prep. If you have a great prep, physics often takes care of the rest. It’s extremely difficult to pull a good aerial out of a bad prep.

Communication is essential for safe practice. Before every attempt at an aerial step, the couple will always establish how far they are going to go (insert sex joke here). This is an extremely important part of aerial training. For instance, for one aerial, we may use the words “prep,” “plop” or “all-out” to signify different degrees of the aerial. One person will say “Plop” and their partner will say “plop, got it.” And then both partners know the plan.

And once the aerial is learned within the dance, leaders should always call it before hand, and followers will either respond “yes” or “no” (or “what?”) before the leader does anything else. (An exception is choreographed phrases, where simply calling the choreographed phrase will call all the aerials involved.)

Spotters should be present for almost any aerial’s learning process. They may or may not be needed for mastering the aerial once the basic mechanics are in muscle memory. If you don’t have a spotter when trying to learn a tricky aerial, don’t do it. (And spotting means managing aerial failures with hands-on help, not saying “oh shit” from three feet away.)

The follow should be attempting to work just as hard as a lead in air steps. Many aerials involve the follow starting an action and the leader helping the follower with that action. For instance, a follower will jump, and a leader will lift her higher after she has jumped. This means a follower has to work hard to get aerials done well.

Commitment on both parts is a lot safer than second-guessing.
There will probably come a point in your aerial life when, working on an aerial outside of your comfort zone, you start to overthink something, hesitate, or let scare creep up. If you start to hesitate, you’re more likely to mess up timing, not give enough power, and let fear drive your instincts. When this starts to happen, then take a step back. Go back to a more comfortable place and work up from there again. Speak out loud the technique you’re going to use to accomplish the aerial, to remind yourself what your body needs to do. Or, you might just need to call it a day and come back on another day.

earlier in this article, I used a Frankie Manning anecdote that, though nice, didn’t quite fit with what I was saying. I’m going to go find it again and maybe try to find a way to rework it in.

Fatigue and pain will never lead to better air steps. If you feel either, or—if a spotter or partner does—take a break and revisit the step. Though this is tricky to do in class, it’s a great rule of thumb for life: instead of practicing airsteps for three hours straight once a month, practice airsteps for fifteen minutes several times a week.

Also, it’s not just physical fatigue you might be suffering from. If your brain’s trying to wrap it’s head around ten different actions it has to accomplish in a split second, it won’t be able to keep it up for very long.

When in doubt, think about the physics of the move and the muscles you’re using to get the job done.
If you’re the flyer, then know how your body accomplishes a back flip versus a front flip. Know that jumping with your legs gets you higher than a leader picking you up, and an explosive crunch is much more useful than anything a leader can do to flip you. (Before you try this on your own, however, make sure you know how a crunch should be different for a front flip than a back flip)

If you’re the base, know that arms aren’t as strong as your core when it comes to moving weight in mid-air, and your back isn’t as strong as your thighs when it comes to lifting weight. And the good use of a pelvis will get leaders far in the world. (rim shot.)

An air step is only mastered if you can dance into it and out of it smoothly. Otherwise, (old timer voice) “you might as well join a circus, Jim.”

Timing and understanding the mechanics of the air steps you are about to do are just as important as strength in doing an airstep.

In order to practice air steps constantly and work on their technique, it will be helpful for you to get into good shape with cross training programs such as core-strengthening workouts or perhaps the classic old school workout of carrying a baby calve up the stairs every day until it becomes a bull.

Know the points in an aerial in which you can bail out and how to safely bail. And know that sometimes there won’t be a point.

Finally, it’s a simple fact that air steps involve people being in midair, people who won’t always land land on their feet perfectly. If you get into air steps, its best to be alright with the possibility of getting hurt.

So, when practicing air steps, try to capture the spirit of the adventurous ten year old inside you, the one who probably did front rolls down the stairs at some point. If you’re not seriously hurt, don’t dwell on the pain. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. Or, you know, call for an ambulance.

5 responses to “The Jam Cellar Guide to Practicing Aerials”

  1. Great post. One thing; I’ve always understood the Frankie quote about how they went for it each time as referring to doing the aerials in the choreographies during practice every time, instead of oftentimes just marking were an aerial will be and practicing them separately, thus practicing them much more and in the actual dance to get that smooth feeling that you see in clips where Frankie does aerials.

    Do you know the context of this quote and where it stems from? It would be nice to see it in full.

  2. Nice post, but I’ve gotta say, the idea that you should stretch before you exercise is a complete myth. It isn’t helpful for decreasing injury OR soreness, and it can even be detrimental to performance.

    What IS recommended is warming up and dynamic stretching, which is basically just going through movements similar to what you’re going to be doing for your sport (and a lot of people tend to do that anyway).

    Sources can be supplied if you want them, though just searching Google on the topic turns up a number of relevant hits. There have been a good number of articles written on this in the past several years – still, members of the public don’t seem to be hearing about it.

  3. Secretly leaving a roller skate at the top of the stairs is a good way to get your follow used to being airborne!!!

    Seriously, I’ve never done an aerial apart from a frog leap, where the follow brought her knees up forwards and I nearly lost my crown jewels!!

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