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“Making it pretty”

Recently in aerial silks, hoop and Aerial Yoga classes at Flight Aerial Arts a few people have commented that I seem to make things look easy, when really we all know they're not! I know it's definitely not the case that I simply find them easy, so it got me thinking about how and why certain people seem to be able to do this, and what effects it has on skill progress, body awareness, injury prevention and confidence.

The first thing that came to mind is that it is absolutely a conscious choice, and one that I believe anyone can make. I simply noticed how captivated I would be when watching someone else moving seemingly effortlessly – whether during a performance or in training – and simply decided that I wanted to have that effect on people too! So I asked myself what it was about the way those people moved that made them stand out? I believe it is the combination of strength with fluidity and control that makes a movement hypnotic. It almost seems as though we are hard-wired to recognise and appreciate skillful movement as something very beautiful – we all know it when we see it, and it can be hard to tear our eyes away when we do.

So let's break this down. A certain degree of strength is obviously required to perform any movement safely and with confidence, and looking and feeling strong in a skill from start to finish is an important part of making something look effortless.

Fluidity means that your body looks to be moving as a well-oiled machine rather than a collection of separate parts, and moving through your range of motion in a way that is smooth and not jerky.

Control can be thought of as the opposite of momentum – you can pause a movement (without falling over!) at any time when it is performed with control, but when performed with momentum this becomes much harder. It also means stabilising the parts of your body which are meant to be stationary, allowing more of your energy to be channelled into the intended movement. Smooth controlled movements waste much less energy than jerky unstable movements, so moving in this way is more efficient.

So a big part of making something look easy/effortless is using your body efficiently, as it has evolved to be used. This is what people mean when they are talking about training with “good form”. When you do this, no part of your body is unduly stressed or strained in a way it is not primed to cope with (provided you are working on something appropriate for you and not being reckless about it), and movements look very natural... because they are!

It follows then that being mindful of moving in this way protects your body from injury.

A good example of this from aerial training is the shrugs we do as conditioning exercises on the hoop and trapeze. Among their many benefits, they teach us to use the bigger, stronger muscles in the back to pull the shoulders down and back while hanging from our arms, rather than letting the shoulders get pulled up to our ears and asking the small muscles in the shoulder (whose real job is stabilisation and smaller rotational movements) to support our entire weight, which is much more likely to result in injury.

I came to realise then that this was about much more than just making things look good – it's also about respecting and protecting your body.

The good news is you don't have to go away and learn loads about human anatomy in order to start putting this into practice straight away (although any gain in your anatomical understanding will always be helpful, not to mention fascinating and fun!). Just thinking about making all your movements “pretty” is a really good start. For inspiration, Youtube is a goldmine and you will find yourself drawn to the way particular people move and probably start wanting to emulate it, allowing you to map how those movements actually feel in your own body.

Let's face it though, as important as the above aspects are there's definitely more to this than the purely physical. The secret ingredient might just be the intentionality and confidence with which the movement is performed. There is no shyness, shrinking or self-consciousness in beautiful, hypnotic movement, and it can help to imagine throughout your training that you are always performing for an audience, executing all movements to your highest standard and fullest extension. For some it will feel uncomfortably attention-seeking to “turn it on” in this way in a class environment, but just give it a try and you may be pleasantly surprised at the difference it will make to your session. Even if you're not feeling that confidence right now, just start by faking it and you'll eventually make it!

Some tips for prettying up your training (these can be tricky to do when you're learning something new, but very helpful when working on improving the tricks already in your arsenal):

  • Don't be lazy – make sure all parts of your body, even those which aren't doing the work in a particular trick, are not just hanging/lolling/otherwise forgotten about, but are active and in whatever position they may be. Imagine lasers shooting out of your fingers, toes, sternum, eyes (anywhere that's helpful!), and visualise the shapes they make in space

  • Create the illusion of effortlessness – try to get into the move/execute the trick with as little faffing as possible. Reduce your repositioning of your hands etc to the bare minimum for much cleaner tricks

  • Start AND finish your tricks – treat the entire trick, from the moment you step up to the apparatus to the moment you walk away, as part of one flow. This way you not only practice the trick but you work your mounts and dismounts, beats, and everything else in between. Keep your form throughout and work on flowing smoothly through all transitions.

  • Slow it down – slowing your movements as you flow through your tricks and focus on the aspects of strength, fluidity and control can teach you a lot about your body, which is unique to you. You will learn where you feel comparatively strong/weak/flexible/stiff and be more aware of what aspects need some work. Imagine the air is honey, and you have to exert a gentle push to move your body through it. This is especially good for pretty arm/hand/finger movement.

Being open to learning about the anatomy of your tricks will always help you perform them better and feel more secure in them. I'm really happy to have met Danii and found a teacher and friend who shares my appreciation of the importance of body-mechanics in any movement style. Not only will this approach transform your tricks, it will protect your muscles and joints so you can enjoy your aerial play for many years to come!

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