Photo by Sarah Walor
Christie Griffin, bottom left on the red "silk," is instructed by Host of Sparrows founder Heather Bailey.
Walking into the Host of Sparrows aerial dance class at Dogtown Dance Theatre and seeing the four pairs of colorful, silky ribbons hanging from the 20-foot steel-grid ceiling, I suddenly remembered how deceptively difficult it can be to climb a rope. These are really flimsy ropes — and the goal is to look graceful while maneuvering up and around them. I knew this was going to be way harder than Pink made it look on MTV a few years back.
Heather Bailey, who founded Host of Sparrows and started teaching these classes in September 2011, recognized that I must have a background in some form of training that involves body weight and flexibility. “Do you do Pilates?” she asked. “I love yoga,” I answered honestly, leaving out that I had been a competitive gymnast for 13 years while growing up — I wasn’t ready for any expectations and wanted to be treated like a true beginner.
Which I definitely was. The first step was just to learn how to climb up the fabric, which is actually made of a nylon or polyester blend. The basic climb relies mostly on skilled technique — or muscling your way up, if you’re a newbie like me. My arms were killing me within minutes, and I had to open and close my hands often because I had such a death grip on the silk. Later, when I drove home, I could barely hold the steering wheel!
The second step Bailey taught me was an “egg,” in which you have a silk wrapped around each arm, you tuck your knees to your chest, lift your backside toward the ceiling, and flip upside-down. I have a pretty strong core, but it still took me a few fails before I got this one. In my follow-up classes, I began learning other ways to climb, as well as foot wraps and inversions.
In other workout classes, like Zumba, progression isn’t taught the way it is in activities that are more acrobatics-focused. “Aerial silks is very individualized,” says Bailey. “Your challenges are about your body, what you can and cannot do. Once you can do one thing, then you can try the next. I try to help my students find their strengths.”
Bailey says her classes include students who are there for fun, fitness, novelty or to fulfill a dream. I could see myself getting into it for the fitness aspect; I’ve never done an exercise that works the underside and back of my arms the way this does. “After you go up the silk, you have to come down, so you wind up using opposite muscles,” Bailey explains. “This type of art form really uses all of your muscles.” But even if arms and core are your workout focus, I wouldn’t say just anyone should sign up; you should probably have a certain level of patience for both your body’s limitations and for step-by-step sports.
A “host” is the collective noun for a grouping of sparrows, and for Bailey, it’s an inspiring idea. “Sparrows are everywhere and are considered common,” she says. “Everyday people, if given the chance, can find wings. With a little help, we can all fly.”