Dancing in the Sky

Aerial Dancers Combine Beauty with Strength and Daring

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Posted on 07.21.14 – In the Studio, Lifestyles

Aerial dance is just as mesmerizing to the performers as it is to the audience, with dancers trading the solid floor for a place in the sky. For those that have sipped the cocktail of dance and daring, it’s a heady mix that cannot be easily forgotten.

“Once you start this, you cannot let it go,” says Sandy LaJoie-Maleson who started her aerial dance training at Dance Unlimited in Frederick and is now the instructor there. “When my teachers left Frederick, I was driving to D.C., Baltimore and New York to get classes because I just didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t,” she says. “It’s just so unique. There is an element of danger, but it’s also beautiful, even in the simplest movements.”

An aerial dancer does not perform with a partner—at least not a human one. Instead, these dancers are paired with a long swath of silky fabric that seems as if it has dropped from the sky into the studio like a magical beanstalk.

“IT’S JUST SO UNIQUE. THERE IS AN ELEMENT OF DANGER, BUT IT’S ALSO BEAUTIFUL, EVEN IN THE SIMPLEST MOVEMENTS.” —Sandy LaJoie-Maleson

Performers climb the silky folds in a swift and graceful motion, only to disappear. Suddenly, they reemerge in a burst of energy and drop into a “freefall,” caught again by their fabric partner and cradled back to safety.

It’s both alluring and breathtaking to watch. The term “aerial dance” actually encompasses any type of dance that uses hanging equipment. One of the most popular examples is that of a Cirque du Soleil production. Numerous apparatuses are used, including fabric, and the dances feature a theatrical component as well.

LaJoie-Maleson is an interior designer by trade, but has danced all her life, also working as a personal trainer. She moved to Frederick when her husband Stephen was stationed at Fort Detrick. Though she has many years of dance experience under her belt, her aspirations went skyward one evening while waiting for her husband at Café Nola.

“I saw this poster featuring a dancer hanging upside down and I thought it was for a show. When I discovered that it was advertising a class for aerial dancing, I thought, ‘Who does something like that?’” LaJoie-Maleson says incredulously. But that amazement quickly turned into a question of, “Why not?” Before her husband arrived for dinner, LaJoie-Maleson had whipped out her cell phone and secured a spot in the class.

When Dance Unlimited lost their aerial dance instructors, Lajoie-Maleson was offered the job, but at the time, didn’t feel ready for the responsibility. That changed when two veterans of Cirque du Soleil developed a training course for teachers. “I signed up immediately. It’s one thing to be able to do a skill. It’s another thing to be able to deconstruct that skill so you can teach it to someone else. I learned rigging, spotting techniques and worked with my instructor to set parameters for what I would teach,” she says.

It’s clear that she loves what she’s doing. She says one of her favorite things is watching new students. They are skeptical that the filmy fabric hanging from the ceiling can hold their weight. (Not to worry— it’s rated for two tons.)

And although they don’t think they’d be able to do anything, they walk out the first day having learned four or five new skills, says LaJoie-Maleson.

THE TERM “AERIAL DANCE” ACTUALLY ENCOMPASSES ANY TYPE OF DANCE THAT USES HANGING EQUIPMENT.

“When you see people dropping from the ceiling, you have to remember they didn’t start dancing way up there. You must first learn to tie the knots and build your physical conditioning. The skills that you will later use up high are first learned and perfected just inches off the ground,” she says.

But when the time for the first drop comes, it can be exhilarating. “The scariest part is looking down at the floor just before you drop,” says Kiersten Gasemy of Frederick. “But it’s so amazing.”

Caroline Stevens of New Market agrees, “Flying upside down is just so much fun. I have a degree in physical education and have been a personal trainer for years. I get bored easily, but I enjoy the challenge of this class. I’m the oldest person in here, but it hasn’t mattered,” she says. In fact, while Stevens is in excellent condition, there are ways to modify the skills to accommodate a range of physical limitations.

“THE SCARIEST PART IS LOOKING DOWN AT THE FLOOR JUST BEFORE YOU DROP. BUT IT’S SO AMAZING.” —Kiersten Gasemy

Aerial dancing does not require a background in dance or gymnastics, but those tend to be the first people who sign up. Such was the case with Kaitlin Moore of Middletown. “I’ve danced all my life and when I heard about this, I just thought it was weird and cool and I wanted to try it,” she says. “It’s been a blast. It’s sneaky exercise. You don’t realize how hard you’ve worked your body until later.”

All the students agree that the workout is challenging, not only for the body, but also the brain. This is especially true as they begin to move up the fabric to attempt drops and movements in the air. It requires focus, as well as strength. It also involves some chafing and bruising from the fabric. LaJoie-Maleson readily admits that it’s not a comfortable sport and the danger is  something to be respected. But all the class members agree, “It is so worth it!”

For $20, those interested can come in to Dance Unlimited and take the class just to see if they like it, or simply to satisfy their curiosity.

“This is a great place to give it a try because classes are so much more affordable here than down the road,” says Lajoie-Maleson. “I’m so happy to bringthis back to Frederick.”