Leading up to the winter holidays, I usually get a few emails from parents asking where they can buy their kids or teens one of those “fabric thingies” that they hang off in circus class. These are my favourite parents, the ones who ask a coaches’ opinion before purchasing professional aerial equipment that’s going to encourage their kids to hang off trees and teach their friends.
Because make no mistake, having access to a silk of their own will encourage your child to go hang it off of random structures.
How do I know? From lived experience.
In 2012 at the age of 15 I bought my first aerial silk. She’s a bright coral beauty that I’ve performed on many times and still use today. At the time I was training at The Circus Company then known as Aerial Silks Collingwood. We were a small gym with about three very thin silks to learn on. Kristin, who ran the circus classes was ordering more fabric for the gym, and asked us if we wanted to add our very own silks to the order. I was ecstatic, and couldn’t think of a better way to use the money I had saved from my job at the vet clinic.
The first time we hung our new silks, I climbed all the way up to the gym ceiling and stayed there for a very very long time. I swore I would never come down, but eventually my foot went numb and I was forced to concede to gravity. It was amazing to be able to take classes and practice routines on my very own aerial silk.
My first performance on her was spectacular.
I was utterly filled with joy to be able to do what I loved, on a silk of my very own, in front of hundreds of people.
Having my own silk also encouraged me to learn about rigging—that’s how we hang things up in circus. It got me thinking about forces and loads and structural capacities (AKA looking at every ceiling everywhere and asking myself “could I hang from that”). I started learning about the kind of gear that you need to be using if your hanging your weight off of something; hint: it should have a kN rating or WLL before you even consider using it as circus gear. I took courses with rescue professionals and learned how to tie knots in spansets, practicing them at the gym around balance beams and at home around the kitchen table legs. I was mentored by our rigger and shadowed the other professionals I was working with when we set up for performances. I talked to climbers and read books by circus rigging professionals. I joined a Facebook group called “Safety in Aerial Arts” which featured a lot of critiques from industry professionals about sketchy setups, bad choices, and what NOT to do (though there was a lot of useful learning there too). I’ve taken some seminars with Brett Copes from Fight or Flight Entertainment who’s rigged for companies like Marvel Universe Live and Cirque du Soleil. All of this learning before I had even turned 18! Of course, I’ve continued with my education since then, always asking a million questions whenever people will answer them. But all of that is to say that in my first few years of owning silks I absorbed a lot of information on safety and best practices, and had a pretty great support team of people to practice under.
And, I still took my silk out on “field trips” to hang off of structures outside of the gym.
Granted, many of those were fairly reasonable well thought out adventures with a safety analysis, rigging plan, and at least one other circus person on site—sometimes even a consult with a rigger. A lot of those decisions I still stand by today (bridges are incredibly structurally sound for circusing purposes ).
And I’ve collected some fantastic stories! Like the time that I went with one of my circus sisters and hung off a bridge in the town that I lived in. I had dreamed about it for months, drawn up a rigging plan, and even cross checked things with a rigging professional. Super safe teenage shenanigans—even if they did involve scaling a bridge and suspending ourselves above moving water.
What we didn’t account for however, was the dam above the bridge opening up and soaking the bottom of our silks while we were on them! Or the middle aged woman who was concerned about our teenage shenanigans and loudly proclaimed that she was thinking of calling the cops on us. Luckily we don’t know if that ever went through because we united all of our knots and hightailed it out of there on our biked with the wet silks dripping from our backpacks.
While I stand by that adventure, and love the story of it. I’ve also done some more questionable things with my silks. Like for example hanging of trees. And not just hanging off trees, trying doubles work that involved my friend hanging off my arms while I was suspended upside down on the silks, with only patio furniture cushions as mats. (And yes I absolutely dropped her while she was upside down. She’s fine now, but that was definitely an avoidable mishap).
I’ve also, in particularly questionable circumstances, done a double salto drop on a tree branch that had a rope slung over it. A setup I knew nothing about at the time and simply trusted the person who had set it up and their knowledge of rigging. Now if you’re not already aware, rigging on trees is really risky because there’s no way of knowing the health of the branch that you’re hanging off of (unless you cut it down). But doing drops on trees is generating an unnecessary amount of force and putting yourself and the tree in an absurd amount of risk. As a well educated professional, I definitely knew that it was a risky move when I did it. But to be honest, I probably went ahead with it because I was new to Toronto, I wanted to make friends, and I was seventeen and believed myself invincible.
In one particular circumstance of doing silks in the park I learned (after being on the fabric) that the point had been improperly tied off and I hadn’t been securely anchored on a closed system while I was in the air. Thank my guardian angels that nothing had happened, but it scares me to think of how that could have gone otherwise. And for the record here, I had all the tools to have known better and understand that this was a risky and unnecessarily dangerous move.
All of this to say, I suppose, that if you’re thinking of gifting your kid their very own aerial fabric, there’s a lot of stuff that comes along with it. Chances are that most youth won’t have access to the learning opportunities that I did when I was fifteen and sixteen, or the countless hours of mentorship to get hands on rigging experience. But what I’m sure they will have is the desire to hang off of anything and everything that they could possibly climb or throw a rope over.
Having your own circus equipment can be an absolute joy, and it lets you develop as an artist with consideration to the specifics of an apparatus that is yours and no one else’s. It’s truly special. And, if you’re only going to be hanging it up in a circus gym or studio it can be relatively safe as well.
But, if you’re considering aerial silks as a gift (or any other aerial equipment). Make sure that you’re prepared to have an open and ongoing dialogue about safety and the appropriate places to “hang out” with this new friend (which absolutely does not include trees). And if you’re considering an at home circus set up? Well, that’s a whole other bucket of peanuts to talk about!
Hugs and sparkles!