Aerial silks (also known as aerial contortion, aerial ribbons, aerial tissues, fabric, ribbon, or tissu, depending on personal preference) is a type of performance in which one or more artists perform aerial acrobatics while hanging from a fabric. The fabric may be hung as two pieces, or a single piece, folded to make a loop, classified as hammock silks. Performers climb the suspended fabric without the use of safety lines and rely only on their training and skill to ensure safety. They use the fabric to wrap, suspend, drop, swing, and spiral their bodies into and out of various positions. Aerial silks may be used to fly through the air, striking poses and figures while flying. Some performers use dried or spray rosin on their hands and feet to increase the friction and grip on the fabric.
The three main categories of tricks are climbs, wraps, and drops. Climbs employed by aerialists range from purely practical and efficient, such as the Russian climb, to athletic and elegant tricks of their own, such as the straddle climb. Wraps are static poses where aerialists wrap the silks around one or more parts of their body. In general, the more complicated the wrap, the stronger the force of friction and the less effort required to hold oneself up. Some wraps, such as the straddle-back-balance, actually allow performers to completely release their hands. Foot locks are a sub-category of wraps where the silks are wrapped around one or both feet, for instance, an ankle hang. In a drop, performers wrap themselves up high on the silks before falling to a lower position. Drops can combine aspects of free fall, rolling or otherwise rotating oneself before landing in a new pose. Preparation for a drop can make for a pretty wrap, but the ultimate goal is the fall rather than the pose. Of the three trick types, drops require the most strength and are also the most potentially dangerous. Rosin (dry or mixed with rubbing alcohol) is employed to help performers maintain their grip. Aerial silks are a demanding art and require a high degree of strength, power, flexibility, courage, stamina, and grace to practice.
The fabrics used as silks are very strong with some give and flexibility. The fabric is 2-way stretch polyester lycra or Tricot Nylon. The width varies depending on the routine and the acrobat. The fabric is usually quite long, as it is doubled for rigging, giving the acrobat two strips of fabric to work with as they perform.
- Low stretch fabrics. Low stretch fabrics are primarily used by beginners who have not yet developed proper climbing technique.
- Medium stretch fabrics. Medium stretch fabrics are the principal choice of professional aerialists and graduates of professional training programs.
- Width. Fabric width is mostly a personal choice. The thickness of the fabric when gathered is also influenced by the "denier", or technical thickness of the fabric's weave. 40 denier is a common choice. The following applies to 40 denier nylon fabric:
- 60" - Narrow when open, thin when gathered. Fairly common simply because the fabric is widely available.
- 72-84” - Average for adult performers
- 96" - Wide when open, thick when gathered. Best for adults with large hands.
- 108” - Very wide and thick. For adults with very large hands, or specialty acts.
- Length is a function of the height of the space available.
- For beginners, it is beneficial if the fabric comes down past the ground, allowing them to practice wraps at a lower level where they can be spotted.
- For intermediate users and above, it is sufficient if the fabrics come down to the ground.
- For all users, the space required is usually between 20 feet (6 m) and 30 feet (9 m). There are a great many tricks that can be done on a 12-to-15-foot (3.7 to 4.6 m) aerial fabric and a few drops require more than 30 feet, but for the most part 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m) is best.
Aerial silks were invented in 1995 by André Simard, the journey began when he was hired by Cirque du Soleil to develop and research acrobatics in 1987, his job was to discover original and imaginative ways to attract the audience to the shows. (“The beautiful yet dangerous art of aerial silk”, 2010). Now silks have been incorporated into circus arts as well as a form of aerial fitness.
Aerial rigging applies to the hanging of aerial silks and hammocks. Aerial silk rigging equipment commonly includes:
- a figure-eight descender, rescue eight, ring, or another piece of hardware for holding the silk
- a ball-bearing swivel to keep the silk from twisting and to allow for spinning, which is sometimes not used but makes spinning more manageable
- carabiners for connecting the silk hardware to the swivel, and for connecting the swivel to a mounting point, so depending on the setup, there can be multiple carabiners in use at one time.
Carabiners are the most used rigging piece for all aerial arts, but only two or three styles are safe for aerial use, these are the auto lock gate and screw gate carabiner. rated two different ways, one for the spine and one for the gate, though distributing weight on the gate is not recommended for it is about 1/3 of the spine kN rating. When using a carabiner for aerial arts, it is important to hook, then rotate and screw downwards, so there is little or no risk that the carabiner will accidentally open or that the screw gate will become unscrewed, also the top part of a carabiner is stronger.
- A span set or daisy chain can be used to add length to the silks if needed, they can also be used to wrap around a beam.
- A span set is a polyester loop that can hold up to 44kN (10,000 lbs.), depending on the quality.
- A daisy chain is made of nylon webbing with loops sewn on, to offer more length variation, but it is less strong then a span set and may not be able to withstand the downward force of drops and other aerial tricks. A basic daisy chain tops out at around 4kN (1,000 lbs.) on each loop, and end to end is around 22kN (5,000 lbs.). (Providing Hardware For Flight)
A kilonewton (kN) is a measurement of weight in motion. Knowing the weight that your rigging and hang point can withstand is important for your safety and the maintenance of your equipment. Example: A 100-pound aerialist dropping 5 feet on silks, with half a foot of stopping distance and the stretch of the silks, calculates to 1,100 pounds of force exerted on rigging, silks, and person. (Types of Carabiners and What kN Ratings Mean.) Equation: W x (1 + D falling/ D stopping) Example with the equation: (weight 120 x (1 + distance falling (3 ft.) / distance stopping (1/2 ft.)) The weight exerted from this drop would be 840 pounds or 3kN.
- Basic Circus Arts Instruction Manual: Chapter 2 - "Static Trapeze, Rope and Silks." [PDF, 6.2 MB] and Chapter 8 - "Manual for Safety and Rigging." [PDF, 3.3 MB] European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (FEDEC), 2008.
- FM 5-125: Rigging Techniques, Procedures, and Applications.[permanent dead link] [PDF, 3.6 MB] US Army, 1995.
- Sharon McCutcheon, Geoff Perrem. Circus in Schools Handbook. Tarook Publishing, 2004. (ISBN 0975687409)
- Hovey Burgess, Judy Finelli. Circus Techniques. Brian Dube, 1989. (ISBN 0917643003)
- Carrie Heller. Aerial Circus Training and Safety Manual. National Writers Press, 2004. (ISBN 0881001368)
- Jayne C. Bernasconi and Nancy E. Smith. Aerial Dance. United States: Human Kinetics, 2008. (ISBN 0736073965) View at Google Books
- Elena Zanzu, M.A. Il Trapezio Oscillante: Storie di Circo nell'Aria. (The Swinging Trapeze: Histories of the Circus in the Air.) Bologna University, Italy, 2004-2005. Language: Italian.
- “Types of Carabiners and What KN Ratings Mean.” ITS Tactical, 27 May 2016, www.itstactical.com/skillcom/climbing/types-of-carabiners-and-what-kn-ratings-mean/.
- The beautiful yet dangerous art of aerial silk. (2010, April 29). Retrieved from aerialists.org website: http://www.aerialists.org/
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- “Providing Hardware For Flight.” Aerial Essentials- Buy the Best Aerial Equipment Today!, aerialessentials.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=74.