Aerial silk (also known as aerial contortion, aerial ribbons, aerial silks, aerial tissues, fabric, ribbon, or tissu, depending on regional preference) is a type of performance in which one or more artists perform aerial acrobatics while hanging from a special fabric. 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, fall, 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 French 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. 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 an incredibly demanding art and require a high degree of strength, power, flexibility, courage, 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. 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 he or she performs.
- 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 such as École nationale de cirque.
- 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 fabrics 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 to come down to the ground.
- For all users, the space required is usually between 20 and 30 ft. 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 rigging applies to the hanging of aerial silks and hammocks. Aerial silk rigging equipment commonly includes:
- a figure-eight descender, rescue eight, ring, or other piece of hardware for holding the silk
- a ball-bearing swivel to keep the silk from twisting and to allow for spinning
- carabiners for connecting the silk hardware to the swivel, and for connecting the swivel to a mounting point
- Simply Circus: Aerial Silks Resource Page
- Simply Circus: Aerial Fabrics - FAQ for Aerialists [PDF, 137 KB]
- Aerial Silks Visual Glossary[dead link]
- Aerial silk hanging example and tutorial
- Simply Circus: Aerial Arts FAQ
- 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. [PDF, 3.6 MB] US Army, 1995.
- Steven Santos. Simply Circus: "Rigging I." [Powerpoint presentation, 572 KB]
- 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)
- Shana Kennedy. Aerial Skills Illustrated 2007. Project 630570 at Lulu.com, 2007.
- 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.
- Rebekah Leach. Beginning Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual. Project 7604664 at Lulu.com, 2009. View at AerialDancing.com
- Rebekah Leach. Intermediate Aerial Fabric Instructional Manual Parts 1 & 2. Publisher: Lulu.com, 2010. View at AerialDancing.com
- Kayla Dyches. The Aerialist's Companion. Publisher: MagCloud.com, 2011. View at RiotHooping.com