Getting the Hang of it

Students' spirits -- and bodies -- are flying at the area's first school for aerial dance and low-flying trapeze.


Jen Pastor just wouldn't learn.

She swung from the top of her canopy bed, from bathroom towel bars that came crashing down, from monkey bars she fell from, leaving a small round scar on her forehead.

"I hurt myself pretty bad," Pastor says, laughing.

Undeterred, Pastor wanted to join the circus but instead went to college to study psychology. But tonight, the 21-year-old is back on the bar, this time with some professional guidance. At Gerstung Inter-Sport school in Mount Washington, Pastor swings on a trapeze, smiling contentedly. Around her, other students take their turns on the four trapezes strung around the large room about five feet off the ground.

They hang by their knees, balance on their hips. Legs are wrapped around ropes, arms posed gracefully in the air. Some move with the trapeze from the mat, experimenting with a form of movement known as low-flying trapeze and aerial dance. Instructor Jayne Bernasconi looks on, calling out instructions.

"Make sure you're in sync with the other trapezes so you don't crash," she says. "That's right, Meghann. You're doing great. Wrap in your thumbs, Kelly."

Bernasconi is pleased. It's the second night of the class and to her knowledge, the first time aerial dance and low-flying trapeze has been taught in Baltimore. Bernasconi previously worked with Frequent Flyer Productions aerial dance company in Colorado and moved to Baltimore last fall after her husband was offered a position at the University of Maryland.

She wasn't sure how much interest there would be in her classes, but the first set is almost full, reflecting what Bernasconi says is a growing interest in aerial dance and low-flying trapeze.

Since the form of movement emerged in the 1970s, she says, about 20 aerial dance and low-flying trapeze companies have started up across the country.

The growth comes as a surprise to Terry Sendgraff, a California dancer who serendipitously altered the future of modern dance one day in 1976.

Sendgraff had been working with aerial dance, incorporating ladders and swings into her choreography, and was using a trapeze while teaching a class in San Francisco. The space was small, requiring the ropes holding the trapeze to be hung closely together from the ceiling.

A new way to move

That spatial constraint led Sendgraff to a startling realization -- that hanging a trapeze from one point instead of two created the potential for spinning and conical movements not traditionally seen on a trapeze.

"That changed everything," Sendgraff says from her home in Oakland, Calif. "It changed the whole movement approach. It really gave it the form it has now."

At the time, Sendgraff says, there were only a handful of U.S. dancers performing aerial work. The burgeoning ranks of aerial dance enthusiasts now include everyone from twentysomethings with gymnastics and climbing backgrounds to middle-agers who just want to try something different. The dance form is also being explored by wheelchair users, who can move under the bar or duet with a partner on the trapeze.

"There's a whole world underneath the trapeze," Bernasconi says.

For Sendgraff, the appeal of aerial dance is as much spiritual as aesthetic. She says the continuity of movement involved creates a sensation similar to that experienced through tai chi, a Chinese martial art characterized by slow, controlled movements.

"It's a feeling of oneness, just complete wholeness," says Send- graff, 66. "People do get in an altered state with it."

`Dance from the soul'

Aerial dance, though relatively new, has roots stretching back to the invention of the flying trapeze in 1859. Sendgraff attributes its growing popularity largely to Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian company acclaimed for its innovative hybrid of circus arts and street performance.

Cirque du Soleil is credited for revolutionizing circus work, and Sendgraff says the result has been a blurring of the line between aerial dance and big-top glitz, something she hopes won't compromise the dance form she helped pioneer.

"It's really dance from the soul," she says. "That's where it came from for me. It's my spiritual practice. It's my life."

For some, the pursuit is less esoteric. Aerial dance and trapeze are strenuous, offering a rigorous upper body workout. Bernasconi, who's been dancing for 20 years, was intrigued by the idea of performing off the ground.

"Everybody dreams about flying, being able to soar," says Bernasconi, whose daughters, 7-year-old Talia and Stacey, 8, have been on the trapeze since they were toddlers. "It's the closest thing I've found to being able to do that."

Bernasconi says for many aspiring aerial dancers, the motivation is pure nostalgia. She recalls one female student who got on the trapeze and had an emotional flashback, remembering how, as a child, she'd save her money to buy rope to swing from.

The strength of that response isn't unusual, Bernasconi says.

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