Taginspiration

The Artist Athlete

For those who have been following my aerial dance journey, you will know that I have transitioned from calling myself a pole dancer to now an aerialist. I train with many apparatus since having been adopted by the circus and as much as I cannot wait to return to pole (yes it will happen!) I am loving the new discoveries I am making about my body, movement, and dance while on hammock, silks, and lyra.

The title of this post is not mine. Shannon McKenna is The Artist Athlete and is my most recent girl crush and go to for training advice and circus knowledge. Anyone in the world of circus, or aerial, or pole for that matter falls into the mixed up world of artists and athletes. We ask our bodies to do amazing feats of strength and flexibility, twisting, lifting, and bending, and then attempt to merge these movements with grace, story telling, emotion, and meaning. Jamilla Deville straddles these worlds quite successfully, training cross-fit alongside pole to balance her body, reduce training bias, and prevent injuries. I would love to know some more dancers who also train this way.

This is now, an invitation to you, as pole dancers, to reach a little further and come and visit the world of The Artist Athlete. Let’s bridge the gap –

Do pole dancers consider themselves “aerialists”? 

What could the lineage of circus and pole offer each other in terms of show creation and training advice?”

I don’t know if these ideas were part of Shannon McKenna’s  goal when she created The Artist Athlete, but I am so glad to have found a source of knowledge and experience that can guide me through the tents and fanfare of the circus, right to the nitty-gritty stuff. She asks the questions that keep me awake at night. And finds people to interview that actually know some of the answers!

You can find The Artist Athlete in the usual places, but I highly recommend you listen to her podcast! She is currently up to episode 16, so you have lots to binge on if you are just getting started. Her interviews with contortionists, circus coaches, physiotherapist, and acrobats are going to open your mind to the range of talent and knowledge that could help you in your aerial dance journey.

If you still need convincing, here are some of my favourite snippets that I related to with regards to my dance practice, choreography creation, and how I think about dance and circus as I get older, Whether dance for you is your full time job, a hobby, or just a way to stay fit and healthy, these insights into the artists’ practice may help you find new inspiration, new motivation, or just comfort that your journey is shared by others.

Episode 2: Liza Rose
“In a world where every trick and transition under the sun is already out on Instagram and YouTube, how do you go about making art that is truly your own? … aerialist, choreographer, and studio owner Liza Rose … found ways to create her own art and her own opportunities. ”

“… dedicated to finding transitions, finding story within the phrases I am working through, finding ways that I can make choices in the air … instead of my shapes looking like what I’ve learned in class or what would be known as traditional. I try to spend a lot of time finding my points of contact, assessing what I need to engage in my body to stay up in the air and stay safe while I’m there and then making choices with all the rest of my body. That’s my process of trying to create authentic movement.”

“… that’s the way you are going to be able to make your own style, if you are able to assess your own personal safety and you’re able to move in between these places of rest, these places that you know will keep you on the thing”

 

Episode 11: Laura Stokes
How [has] your relationship to the material changed …?
“… it’s so complex and it’s also like my relationship to the material is more physical than it is linguistic. But, yes my relationship has changed … it still feels relevant to the audiences that we play to, it doesn’t feel relevant to me and my current interest artistically but it doesn’t feel like a penance to perform it. Sometimes I thought like wow it’s so strange to have a time based piece of art that in order for it to be seen I have to enact it. It would be so different for me to travel with a painting or a sculpture that I made five years ago and say here is this piece of work that I still believe in, I’d like you to look at it. But the enactment and embodiment of it sometimes is a bit of a push, but there is also a practice and there is something that also becomes deeply familiar and comfortable … and there are discoveries in that, I am always looking for new moments and maybe it’s similar to a relationship with a person where trying to keep the lens of what is new, who are you today?, keeps it fresh while also appreciating the comfort that can come from deep familiarity. It’s not this raw edgy new relationship it’s something that I can sink into”

 

Episode 12: Brandon Scott
“The thing that I would tell myself when I quit gymnastics was this is not the peak of your athleticism. Because at the time that is what I thought … when am I ever going to be in the same shape as I am as teenage boy in competitive gymnastics. This is the peak, I was just resigned to it. And now as a person who is far stronger and far more flexible when I was at that time, I just want to give that past self the reassurance that you can always keep progressing especially if it’s something that you love there is so much more time and so much more to learn and there is so much more growth to be had …. at any point in your life”

___

Want more? Shannon McKenna has also released a set of E Manuals to help you learn about how to hang upside down safely, efficiently, and consistently – we all want to be able to do aerials forever right?

Join the conversation – aerialist? pole dancer? circus artist? all of the above? I would love to hear your thoughts – hit me up on Facebook or Instagram!

Same Same, But Different

Last month the International Pole Championships brought the best of the best to the world stage. Live streams and social media stories allowed even those across the globe to watch each routine. As I sat there with my laptop perched on my knees, red wine in hand, the next routine started … “I know this song!”

Not only did I recognise the song, I had also choreographed my own routine to it. The waves of joy and appreciation I felt as I watched the competition were then mixed with nostalgia, memories, and connection. Hanka Venselaar … we speak the same language.

Across five years pole dancing in Sydney I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to perform over 15 self choreographed routines.Not only did the studio host regular showcase nights, but we also had access to a theatre venue once or twice per year, allowing us mere mortals to grace the stage and get at taste for the limelight.

Choosing a song for these performances was always so hard. I read over people’s playlists for pole and usually roll my eyes. They were just not my style.

So when I watch competition pieces it is rare to find such a connection with an artist. Tricks are always impressive, flow is inspiring, but when someone perhaps feels something that you feel …. priceless!

In hip-hop culture there are constant references to other artists. A title of a song included in a lyric, a sample from a record inspiring a whole new flow from a new MC. There appears to be less of a threat of copyright infringement and more an appreciation for each other’s talents. Don’t hide your source, name and fame them!

Not to say here that I expect Hanka Venselaar to have seen my performance from 2016. Or to understand how important that piece would become in my growth as a dancer and aerialist. That is not why I write this article.

Dancers, especially from pole, sometimes feel that revisiting a song that someone else has danced too, is the wrong thing to do. What if we changed our perspective to see just how many different interpretations of a song there could be? Not to make them hierarchical, not for the sake of for better or worse, but to learn, to grow, and to be encouraged to also think … more?!?

It is for this reason I have selected to play myself and Hanka Venselaar side by side (or at least simultaneously, my video editing skills only got me so far hahaha). My dance, from 2016, a part time pole dancer of five years, with a number of performances under her belt but far from a professional. And Hanka Venselaar, a competitor in the International Pole Championships and who has tens of titles and a lifetime of experience in aerial arts.

This video was created as a comparative exploration and should in no way diminish or criticise either performance. This one minute sample is from the same piece of music, matched identically as we both reach the climax and move towards the end of the song.

I have the utmost respect for Hanka Venselaar and the other competitors from the International Pole Championship 2018 and believe this platform for pole dance adds value and greater understanding to the idea of pole dance as art. The pole dance community supports creativity, diversity, and unique expression. This video compilation explores how one song, interpreted by two unique and creative minds can lay a foundation for a dance that is both very similar yet entirely different.
Personally, I am elated to find a dancer that shares a certain musical taste and I hope, if Hanka Venselaar sees this, she will have witness how her movements and dance inspire others involved in aerial arts.

May we forge a path of shared vision and shared passion, collaboration over exclusion and judgment. The tens of thousands of pole videos now dancing through the Internet have created a library of people’s stories. The threads of music and songs that now join dancers together throughout the years and across the other side of the world are just waiting to be discovered.

Happy dancing! 🙂

 

Musing on Beginnings

One of the most appealing aspects of the pole dance community is how vibrant and diverse it is. You can be a classic pole dancer, stripper, lyrical dancer, rock’n’pole star, or explore any niche that takes your fancy. Within this, you can also adapt any trick and make it your own. Bend a leg, add a new hand gesture, hold on with your ankle instead of your knee, the innovation is endless and this freedom supports so many people in being able to join and be accepted.

As I find myself in a more aerial world these days, I keep remembering how great this exploration of diversity was. How enlivening it was to just freestyle and play on pole. I cannot wait until I feel as free and creative on silks and hoop that I used to on pole. An old adage is finding it’s way through however, as I realize that it’s not until you know you the rules that you are able to break them!

Being a beginner on hammock, silks, and hoop is an amazing learning experience, but I do sometimes feel trapped by my limited knowledge. With only a handful of tricks up my sleeve, and so much conscious effort going into remembering how to do them, I find it hard to find space to let them flow and evolve. My pole dance background has put me in a position to learn other aerial arts quickly, but as much as hoop and pole, silks and hammock can be similar there are just as many differences and nuances that make each unique and challenging.

“It will all come in time” I keep telling myself, but I’m so eager to return to that space where I used to dance. When all the moves were so familiar that the spaces in between became so much more interesting. That is where the creativity is! I encountered this same learning curve with traditional dance classes. The structures of ballet and the poses of contemporary dance were so overwhelming that I just stopped, completely hindered by my lack of ability to just flow. I know it’s worth persisting, but some days feel easier than others.

I am writing this as a musing of my current circumstances, but also as a reminder to myself as I explore the role of teaching beginners. Too much freedom and too much information can lead to confusion. As a teacher it is important to find a balance between “sticking to the syllabus” so to speak. and encouraging students to make something their own. I don’t want to overwhelm a student with too many rules about how a pose should be. And I think aerial dance is the perfect community to share an acceptance of diversity of body shapes, performance styles, and freedom of expression.

This is still part of my personal experience. I choreographed a silks routine with a friend, incorporating a few doubles tricks and interchanging combos. We both have different strengths and were very accepting that the combos were going to look different when performed by each of us. I am incredibly proud of the end result and believe that the variations in our movements add to the quality of the finished product. I really hope to be able to perform this routine with her once again!

But, there is something nice about tradition, and being able to recognise things that are the same, as markers of your own progress and connections to a community.

I think about my teachers in the past. I followed the same yoga teacher for over 10 years, attracted to his playfulness and innovation. Yes we did Sun Salutations and Warrior poses, but we also did cartwheels, dynamic jumping transitions, and ballet! My favourite pole teachers had a way of making everyone feel successful. They started the class with the aim to teach a move and at the end of class we all had our own slight variations and probably understood the move better for it.

Wearing multiple hats as a teacher may be useful here, and having space to perform for students – and share your creativity – as well as teach, and share the basics. Inspiring students to look beyond the studio and find other dancers that they like is also part of the package, allowing the teacher to gain insight into the student’s motivations and ideas.

Starting a studio was always going to be a huge learning curve. Starting it in Cambodia was only part of it! Realizing what you really want to achieve is the next step.

____

Check out our studio on Facebook and Instagram, or keep up to date with my dancing on my personal pages –

Mel Nutter as Baudelaire on Facebook and on Instagram

Imagery and Visualization for Choreography

I have always been fascinated with the process of choreography, actively seeking out connections between pole dance and other forms of movement. For me, the elements of choreography for the pole, aerial, or floor routines, should overlap. Incorporating narrative is important, as well as including motifs and themes. These help the dancer communicate with the audience as well as tie the whole routine together so it is much more than just a sequence of clever tricks and poses.

I recently came across Wayne McGregor from his TED talk and hearing his ideas about choreography just blew my mind!

Dancers from the pole and aerial community talk about “combos”. Thousands of videos are all over social media, linking tricks together in familiar or innovative ways with the change of leg or hand or direction around the pole. Hundreds of questions flood pole discussion groups asking how to link poses – what do I do after a superman? – any tips for my leg hang to ayesha transition?

Creating smooth combos is an essential part of creating a routine, but listening to Wayne McGregor opened up an entirely new way of thinking about movement and what comes together to make a dance.

What struck me is that he didn’t talk about poses, but about movement. Rather than stationary shapes connected with transitions, he uses spatial language and direction to inspire dance. Sometimes he places an imaginary object in the room and asks the dancers to move around it, to trace it’s shape, go under it, or respond to it changing. The eventual dance may have familiar shapes and poses but how they were created and how they flow together becomes a unique collaboration between the choreographer and the dancer.

When we work on a spinning pole we are essentially holding a shape and allowing the motion of the pole to accentuate our movements. The language of pole dance can be limiting as we think about choreography as a sequence of poses – climb, straddle, scorpio, butterfly. Even for floor work, movements can also become quite static, one pose to the next, even if they are choreographed to the rhythm of the music. Naming poses is useful, especially to help us communicate choreography with other dancers, but it should be remembered that this is not the only way to think about movement.

What if there were other elements on stage to inspire your movement? Real props, or imaginary ones, can fill the space and will influence the way you can move around it. If there was a box in the middle of the room, you could leap over it, dance around it, or even pick it up and dance with it!

I first heard Kristy Sellars talk about giving the pole in your routines a character or status, which offers similar possibilities. Think of the pole as a lover, or an enemy, and explore how you might respond to it differently, in the way you touch the pole, walk around it, or dismount from it.

Using these ideas will change the way you enter a pose and move through it, or may inspire a new shape or movement all together. Rather than your combos looking like everyone else’s, your dance will become uniquely you.

I highly recommend watching Wayne McGregor’s TED talk and taking inspiration from his ideas about dance, choreography, movement, and expression. We all have movement habits and it’s easy to let muscle memory and familiarity take over. Adding imagery and visualization to your choreography will help you break these movement habits and dig deeper into your creativity. For those who also feel uncomfortable with freestyle, these exercises can also be a great starting point to exploring new movement and inspiring a new direction for a routine.

I created a simple dance flow with a scarf to explore the prop vs no-prop concept. A small dance was recorded with the scarf and then repeated without it, attempting to recreate the movements as closely as possible.

This clip could be worked on and polished for accuracy, however the point of the exercise needs no more clarity. What amazed me was how the eventual choreography would never have come about without the experimentation with the scarf in the first place. Sure, I could have danced and imagined I had a scarf in my hand, but the result is a completely unique flow that emerged from my body interacting with the scarf in the first place. My body learned “the dance” so to speak and could then repeat it for the second take.

These experiments may never become a final dance, but they do teach us something about the way we move in relation to our environment, and how to inspire new movement through the use of props, imagery, and visualization.

I’d love for you to share your experiments too! Tag me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with your videos!

 

Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual – Review

For one of the most beautiful aerial arts, fabric, tissu, or silks, is one of the most complex. A student of aerial fabric needs to be strong in their upper body and core, similar to other aerials arts, but also needs to train their brain and spatial awareness skills to think about how the knots and fabric are keeping them safe and supported in the air.

Many students report that their initial instruction comes from a “monkey-see, monkey-do” class structure. However, for a student to excel and eventually learn to create and compose moves on their own, it is essential they work from a basis of proper technique and understanding.

Rebekah Leach, a pioneer in the aerial arts, has created a set of manuals for aerial fabric, aerial hoop. aerial yoga, and rope, to ensure students and instructors can do just this!

This review looks in detail at the Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual (4th Ed)  published in 2011. The Intermediate Part 1 and Part 2 versions are also available to purchase as paperback and digital download from her website and on Amazon.

What you need to know
The Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual contains

  • over 250 step by step photographs including close ups of knots
  • over 40 poses, tricks and transitions on the fabric
  • amazing explanations of knots and wraps using clear language
  • conditioning tips
  • teaching, spotting, and safety advice

With chapters based on moves and transitions from basic climbs to single and double footlocks, students and instructors can easily see how moves can be connected together and even begin to play with their own variations once comfortable in each position. The progression of moves also introduces the student to the hip lock (aka the hip key) and various climbs inviting students to develop strength and techniques that will support them in their aerial dance journey.

For students:
Although being a fan of aerial fabric dance for many years, I have only started training on the apparatus recently. My background in pole dance and lyra offered some familiarity in going upside down and being off the ground, but nothing prepared me for the complexities involved in tying knots with my feet and learning how to control my body as it spun and sway in the air!

 

Currently, my instructors (who speak only a little English) work from a modelling approach, completing the move or sequence themselves and then spotting carefully while each student in the class attempts the same pose. If your circumstances are similar, of even if you are learning on your own, you may find that this manual fills in many gaps in your training and understanding.

Rebekah Leach borrows language from ballet to clearly explain the direction of wraps – en dedans and en dehors – supporting the mind-body connection that pure modelling cannot achieve. Studying the manual outside of class and revisiting how knots and footlocks are created, offers essential theory to my practice. Her notes about weight distribution, exit strategies, and common mistakes, revise concepts taught in class and have even made great talking points for me to discuss with my instructor.

From a safety standpoint, the advantages of such an approach are obvious. To really understand what is holding you up and why, you need to learn how to see the knots in your mind and be able to follow the direction that the fabric is wrapped around your legs or body.

The clarity and quality of the photographs in the manual are really impressive! Each movement sequence used to create knots and transitions have been broken down with photos at every step. Close attention has been paid to make note of how to position your feet, or keep the fabric running along one side of your body, to support your progress in replicating the moves and ensuring the fabric ribbons don’t slip from where they are meant to be.

One of my favourite parts of the book is also how the author notes how to practice the pose on the ground first! If it’s just for balance, coordination, or to train strength and flexibility, this is such a great training tip for beginners, allowing you to feel what the move is like before attempting it in the air without all the nerves of danger and physical exertion. In a similar way, Rebekah Leach also regularly refers to the concept of “exit strength” making note of how important it is to have the strength to return to the ground safely as well as the technique. This idea may not come naturally to beginners who will also benefit from learning resting poses in the air.

 

For instructors:
Even if you are a seasoned aerial fabric instructor, each year or term your students will arrive to class with different skills and learning abilities. Rebekah Leach has laid out the Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual as a curriculum for a term of classes with references to how to know if your students are ready to progress or attempt certain moves.

Sharing her teaching expertise, Rebekah Leach offers instructors guidelines of how to structure the entire class, from warm up to cool down, and how to maintain the motivation of students who may not be ready for aerial poses or to go upside-down.

Most importantly perhaps, the author’s notes on spotting and how to catch common mistakes, supports best practice in focusing on how the student entered a lock or wrap, how to verbally direct a student to unwind or de-tangle themselves, and where to support a student when physically spotting transitions and tricks.

I also love that Rebekah Leach has included reference to pioneers in the field, and innovators of certain poses, inviting instructors to broaden their knowledge base and find inspiration from other aerial artists.

One of my favourite quotes from the Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual is

“Each skill is like a word which builds sentences to tell a movement story”

Something that comes through in each tutorial, is the author’s passion for unique expression. From a solid foundation in understanding how the wraps work and support the dancer, one can then explore movement with the fabric as a form of self expression. The emphasis on proper technique is strong, but not without vision for what can be achieved even from students at the beginning of their aerial fabric dance journey.

Get your copy of the Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual from Rebekah Leach’s website and begin your own exploration into aerial fabric dance!

Floor Flow Drawings

A new space inspires new ideas. At home, my dance space is a few square meters on the floor in front of the kitchen bench, stretching out towards the couch. Our floor is polished concrete, slightly too hard on the knees, but amazingly slippy for wearing socks and doing some slinky floorwork or chair dancing. Sessions of yoga often flow into dance sessions as I let my body move with or without music.

The nature of the space creates boundaries for my movement, but I’d rather think of them as creative limitations. I can’t move the fridge or the cupboard, but I can find a new way to slide under myself or turn around, reaching the boundary and bouncing off again.

One morning, I had an idea of being able to draw my floor flows. Inspired by other artists and dancers, I was curious as to how a movement, or a series of movements, would translate to a 2D field of lines on paper. My eagerness grew as I slowly collected the materials to complete the project.

Sourcing charcoal here was a challenge, so for my initial attempts I strapped together six 8B pencils and held them in each hand. Finally getting lines on paper was immensely satisfying, yet I craved to be able to smudge the lines as I rolled across them. Three drawings later, however, I already had a new understanding of the process and output that I was creating.


The freestyle drawings gave great insight into the way my body was moving on the page. It tracked the path of my hands but not my feet or legs. For a long time I have struggled with knowing what to do with my hands when dancing. Body waves, and leg sequences flow quite naturally, and as a pole dancer I could always just hold on to the pole. But now it was the movement of my hands and arms that was in focus.

After a few more pencil freestyles, and a run through with charcoal I took a step back and reflected on the shapes that were appearing. The boundaries of the paper had to be respected, but in the same way as the walls of my lounge room and furniture had to be creatively avoided, I was confronted with almost endless opportunities of how to move within the space of the paper.

Watching the videos of my freestyles, I began to isolate movements that offered shapes and lines that I found aesthetically pleasing. Breaking these down there were sixteen sequences. I made notes of these sequences and shapes in small drawings, numbering each line to recall how my body moved to create the shape.

Just like the process of creating choreography for a dance, my body and mind formed a relationship around the language of movement. My body had showed my mind a new way to move. But this new language needed translating, my mind breaking down the patterns to something more understandable. I am now at the stage where my mind is retelling these ideas back to my body. With a greater understanding of how my movements are reflected on the page, the process is now less of a freestyle and more a choreography.

My small sketches speak to me and tell me how to move. Without words, the lines and shapes ask me to pirouette, turn, thread through, and extend. Some of these dances were seemingly endless repetitions that lasted for 20 minutes or so. Others existed in the boundaries of a song, inviting me to stand up and look back at what I created as the music moved back in to silence.

As much as I am so excited to share these drawings as themselves, I am also curious as to how a pole dance or floor routine could be choreographed with similar symbolism and design. Last year I wrote about Merce Cunningham and how his theories about movement and dance influenced my choreography, and how these thoughts inspired a new way of recording movement. Reflecting on these ideas, the drawings seem instrumental to the evolution of my thinking about movement and dance.

The following video is a floor flow drawing routine I created with choreography with charcoal. This sequence was choreographed based on the sixteen flow shapes I discovered through my freestyles. It was a whole new learning curve discovering how to link the flows together so I didn’t have to get off the paper during the song. After the rehearsals though it was exciting to find that the dance felt similar to my early freestyles where I just let the music move me. I love those moments when the dance takes over, and even though this sequence was mindful and choreographed, it was wonderful to let go and just flow.

 

 

I’m so grateful to my husband for letting me take over the space and helping wash off the charcoal for so many days in a row! I hope you enjoy and are inspired to work creatively in your own space. I’d love to hear your feedback or share in your own ideas for new work!

Everyone who has subscribed to my newsletter will receive exclusive access to the behind the scenes videos of these floor drawings, including the small sketches, process notes, and outtakes! Don’t miss out! Sign up before April 19th to share in this new venture into creative movement.