Author: Holly J Coley | Photographer: Hillary Caltagirone
People have always been attracted to the open air. Consider the tale of Icarus, the Wright brothers story or even the lyrics to Sia’s, “Chandelier.” Doesn’t everybody want to fly like a bird through the night?
We’ve spent a good portion of our collective history trying to ascend to heaven, if not in a metaphysical sense than a literal one and we’re always finding ways to do this. Take aerial dance, for example. While acrobatics have been around for hundreds of years, this modern art is relatively new, coming to the states in the seventies. Using a variety of apparatuses such as silks, rope, and lyra, an aerialist not only showcases coordination and skill but a story with their movements. It’s beautiful and theatrical.
For those living in the Hudson Valley, learning the craft once required one to travel to Manhattan or out of state. But thanks to aerial artists like Alisha Mai McNamara, that’s changing. As instructor and founder of Hudson Valley Circus Arts, she’s made a business out of teaching people to soar in and out of the classroom.
Hudson Valley Circus Arts is stationed inside BSP, a popular music joint in uptown Kingston. Once a vaudeville movie house in the 1900s, it’s kind of the perfect spot to teach something as grand and gravity defying as aerial arts. With her team of well-versed instructors, Alisha’s studio provides a variety of fun classes that will grow your strength, mobility and confidence.
The Newbies/Conditioning class teaches foundational aerial moves while offering variations to students as they advance. The Tricks and Transitions gives the chance to expand aerial vocabulary while learning a fluid series of movements each week. Private lessons are available and there are also workshops throughout the year. Most of the classes are open level and structured to meet a student’s personal skill set, so if you’ve never seen fabrics in person let alone tried them, no worries. According to Alisha, they pride themselves on catering to beginners while still making it challenging for those with experience.
“We’re always teaching to whomever walks through the door,” she says. “And whomever comes is welcome to take any class.” For those who think they already need to be fit to try a session, think again. According to Alisha, all one needs is some determination and an open mind. “You will gain strength as you go,” she says. “You don’t have to train to start aerial arts.”
To look at Alisha you’d think that she comes from an extensive dance background. Long-limbed with defined muscles, you may guess that she studied ballet at some point but you’d be wrong. “I did a lot of yoga and rock climbing but I was in terrible shape when I started aerials,” she reveals. Sh’es been aerial dancing for seven years and teaching for almost as long but the upcoming launch of her official studio still feels surreal. If you ask her if she ever thought that she’d be teaching circus arts she’ll laugh and say, “I’m still like, ‘Oh God, how did this happen?’”
Her induction to aerial came in college after a fellow student caught her performing fire poi, a hobby started in high school. “I was doing that on campus and there was a girl named Tara Jacobs who recruited me for the circus club she was starting,” she recalls. “She was an awesome facilitator and great leader.”
Soon Alisha found herself frequenting NECCA (New England Center of Circus Arts), a circus school close by. They had silks and as someone who likes a challenge, she was drawn to the sport, taking solo lessons and practicing relentlessly. “I was super obsessed and began doing it a ton,” she says. “I loved how hard it was and I could see the changes in my body really quickly and that was super exciting.”
She also liked how cerebral and dramatic it could be. Working with silks required her to engage her mind and having studied theater, the expressive nature of it spoke to her. “It’s a very mental kind of sport,” she explains. “Some people learn through just moving and will try things sooner and I’m the person in class who will watch [something] three times and visualize it…To me [Aerial arts] is the most beautiful innovative theater. It’s like a hybrid modality that encompasses dance and defies definition in this really interesting way.”
When she moved to the Hudson Valley in 2010, Alisha hit the dilemma of not having a place to practice. Rather than give up her new love she traveled to studios in the city until she found a local gymnastic school that had silks available. “I trained a lot and commuted to teachers a lot,” she remembers. When she asked one of her instructors if she should start holding classes closer to home she was encouraged to go for it. “I like performing but I think teaching is my bigger love,” she muses.
She began slowly at first, sometimes only working with one or two students. On days that nobody showed she used the time to perfect her own skills. Soon more people started joining her and by 2014 she needed to find a new place.
Of course, this wasn’t the simplest venture. Tracking down a spot with high ceilings and exposed beams (a necessity in order to hook various apparatuses) was not the easiest task and with the aerial community relatively small, there was little support. She was eager to hire other teachers but without a studio, that posed problems. Only now can she look back on it and laugh, “I was so alone in this vision.”
The search dragged for a year and things looked grim till she came across another young business owner, Leighann Kowalsky. Leighann pushed her to continue looking, bringing her to BSP where a room was available. Spacious and bright, when Alisha saw it she knew it was Hudson Valley Circus Arts official home.
Along with being fun, aerial silks offer a number of health benefits, flexibility and strength training being the obvious ones. According to some experts, the sport can burn between 300-400 calories per hour and because it’s low impact, it’s easy on joints. It can rectify back issues and builds core strength. It encourages creative expression, something many of us don’t have an outlet for in our adult lives. Self-esteem soars with every trick mastered and the strong community surrounding Hudson Valley Circus Arts provides a supportive social network that extends outside of the studio. People of all ages and fitness levels find themselves attracted to the classes. “I’ve made some awesome girlfriends through teaching,” Alisha says. In fact, all of her instructors were once pupils . “I feel that it’s about empowering women. To be someone who identified as not particularly strong [and] to get really fucking strong and graceful…I love giving that to other people.”
Alisha and her team are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the remodeling of the space. “We have a fair amount of up front installation costs associated with getting into that room,” she explains. “We are ripping out the ceiling and insulating the attic space above the ceiling so we can expose those joists…Our Kickstarter is to offset a little bit of that cost, so we can keep growing at a moderate rate.”
Part of that growth will include offering more classes, including hula hoop, aerial rope, lyra, hand balancing and flexibility, and aerial yoga (also known as aerial hammock). There are also whispers of a student showcase in the works, so don’t forget to check the studio’s official Facebook page for updates.
While she’s eager for the grand opening, Alisha is most excited about seeing her students develop and introducing more people to the aerial world. “We attract some really awesome women to our classes,” she beams. “And we get really invested in one another.”
Growing the studio is her main focus, though she can see it later serving as a springboard for a cooperative down the road. She’d love to help other artists teach their aerial passions in a safe community environment while offering support. Right now it’s just a dream but the possibility is very real. After all, sky’s the limit and Alisha knows how to fly.