An instructor elegantly wrapped her body in thick strands of fabric that hung from the building’s rafters. As she effortlessly dangled in the air, she showed her students various aerial tricks they too could master.
Twice a week, Chelsea Barrett climbs the silks at the North Coast Gymnastics Academy in Bellingham to teach aerial circus arts. In her lessons, students are able to to confront their fear of heights while building strength, balance and coordination.
During the class Barrett taught on Nov. 8, participants took turns on the trapeze, a bar attached to rope that hung from the sky-high ceiling. Each person grabbed the bar and pointed their feet over their heads as they lifted themselves up into the air.
Barrett said aerial circus arts refers to the aerial fabric, the static trapeze (a stable bar that hangs between two ropes), the aerial rope or anything else that dangles from the ceiling that you can hang on to and do tricks from.
Barrett said her background began as a dancer at Wendy Setter Dance Studio, known now as the Brittany Setter Dance Studio in Bellingham. She said she stumbled upon aerial arts and immediately fell in love with it after her first class in April 2008.
“One day I was taking out the garbage and I locked myself out the back door and going around the alley, this unsuspecting weird warehouse building had a sign pointing to a door that said ‘Circus,’” Barrett said. “I opened the door and the circus was inside and someone said ‘Are you interested in aerial classes? ‘Cause we’re signing people up.’ So I started that week.”
Barrett said the best experience she’s had since becoming involved in aerial arts was when she took a year off to attend a professional training program at the New England Center for Circus Arts in 2012. After the program, she said she trained at Circomedia, the U.K.’s largest center for circus arts.
“I really enjoyed training at Circomedia in Bristol, U.K. They had a beautiful, tall, restored church with stained glass windows that they had a circus art school in,” Barrett said. “I really loved taking classes there, it was an amazing atmosphere.”
Since then, Barrett has performed in aerial acts up and down the West Coast.
She said after professionally training, she came back to Bellingham to be closer to her family and decided to start her business in the fall through North Coast Gymnastics Academy.
Barrett said aerial isn’t easy. People have to get used to the bruises and blisters that sometimes happen from the trapeze bar.
“It takes a lot of grip strength to hang onto fabric or the trapeze. People don’t realize how physically demanding it is or how much the apparatus rubs up against you,” Barrett said.
In class, students attempted a new move on the trapeze. As their bodies hung horizontally, with their arms stretched backward, they maintained balance by holding onto the bar’s rope with the side of their leg while their other leg extended in a straight line.
Underneath the students were thick, pillow-like landing mats to help ensure their safety.
“When doing circus arts, it should be a pretty low-risk activity. Of course there are risks with any extreme sport [such as] falling or twisting an ankle,” Barrett said. “But I’m really well-trained in injury prevention and instill that in my courses to keep everyone safe.”
Aerial student Tina Lindor has been a hula hoop dancer for five years. She said she was inspired to sign up for Barrett’s course after taking an aerial yoga class.
“When you first stand on the trapeze it’s a little scary, but once you do it you become used to it,” Lindor said.
Isabella Garcia, a recent college graduate, said taking aerial arts classes has been a way for her to get out of the house to exercise. She said after the first session she knew she was hooked.
“To be up their swinging [on the trapeze] is very freeing,” Garcia said.
Barrett said after a six-week session, people improve and their confidence level goes up. She said aerial progress depends on how much work students are willing to put in. For some students, it might take up to five years before they can perform an act where they would do a series of tricks to music.
Although most of the students Barrett works with are beginners in the introductory class, others have had a similar background in heights and acrobatics.
Liana Garvett, a Western sophomore, said her experience in gymnastics, cheer and springboard diving has helped her navigate learning new skills in aerial classes, while achieving a sense of empowerment.
“I really like being upside-down, gaining strength and [the] bragging rights,” Garvett said.
With each person in the class at an aerial introductory skill level, they not only maintain their own strength throughout the course, but are supportive of each other’s.
“I think circus arts helps to build the community because you’re doing something that puts you outside of your comfort zone and anyone who’s in the room experiencing the same thing, you’re going to create a bond with,” Barrett said.
Barrett explained that the circus has a sense of community built into the history of its acts. She said performers consider each other their circus family and play a role in keeping each other safe.
“[Aerial arts] is something that challenges people and allows them to access that sense of play that you don’t get as adults,” Barrett said. “It’s a way for people to explore their physical strength and it helps give people confidence.”
Barrett’s second session of classes begins the first week of December. Information about current class schedules and pricing is on the academy’s website at www.northcoastgym.com.