It was a little over five years ago that I first learned of aerial dancing. I was producing some events around the city, when aerialist Erica Cope began to make some noise in the local event scene. At the time, it was like pulling teeth to get venues to incorporate her act into their parties, festivals, fundraisers, etc. They all thought that I was crazy even suggesting that something like this would ever work, for numerous reasons. They looked at me as if I had a bird on my head when I proposed that Erica perform.
Fast forward half a decade, and we find that Erica’s troupe has made huge headway into the local event scene. She and her accompanying aerial dancers appear at all sorts of events. Just last week, I saw the troupe (Buffalo Aerial Dance) perform at Kleinhans. It was around that time that I decided to talk to Erica about all of the progress that she had made since the days when no one would take her and her act seriously.
When did you start aerial dancing?
I started learning aerial arts 10 years ago now! Hard to believe it’s been that long.
Who taught you?
My first 3.5 years I trained with a variety of instructors at Versatile Arts in Seattle, and I was lucky to be living in a city with such a top notch school. I try to go back and train there once a year. Since moving back to Buffalo, most of my aerial training has involved travelling to other cities when I’m able to. I’ve taken several teacher training courses through New England Center for Circus Arts and I go to Toronto regularly and take private lessons. In Buffalo, I train a lot of yoga and dance; I think it’s really important to cross-train as an aerialist, and also to support and connect with other local studios.
Did you start this trend in Buffalo?
There’s not a simple answer to that. A woman by the name of Goldie was teaching a few aerial classes here before I came back, but I think that was somewhat irregular. She has also been teaching aerial work at UB. As far as classes for the general public, I did play a major role in starting that. I have to always tip the hat to Amy Taravella who provided the space in which everything was able to germinate. When I first moved back to the area, about 6 years ago now, I was looking for a space to train though not at all expecting to teach. I was in graduate school and focused on that, but didn’t want to give up my love for aerial arts! Amy allowed a handful of independent performance artists to train in the Alt, and through a series of evolutions, I became responsible for the space and founded Buffalo Aerial Dance.
How has the aerial climate changed since you first started?
It has certainly proliferated! I suppose I can credit myself for that to some extent. A lot of it is that Buffalo was ready for this to happen. Though coming from a city like Seattle where the aerial scene has been entrenched for decades, I feel that the fledgling aerial culture here still has some things to learn. My studio has been here for about 4 years now, and there wasn’t a visible aerial culture in Buffalo prior that. It’s definitely cool to feel like the spark of something new, but that also means that everything has to be built from scratch, including standards of quality, and that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Video: Botanical Gardens – Buffalo Aerial Dance Aerial Silks, Erica Cope, Courtney Barrow from Jim Bush on Vimeo
There are other studios opening in the area now, and even without any studios around, I know people would still have become interested in aerial arts through social media. That can be a great tool for inspiration, but can also lead down the slippery slope of DIY aerial training, which generally isn’t a very safe or effective way to get started. Aerial arts are incredibly fun and exhilarating, but that has to be balanced with respect and understanding of the broader culture of this art form. It takes a long time and a lot effort to develop to develop that culture, and much of that responsibility is on the local studios and instructors. I’m very grateful for the chance to talk about this! I read about and research aerial arts all the time, including a fantastic blog by Laura Witwer, and one article in particular that comes to mind outlines levels of proficiency for aerial coaches from Three Trick Tallulah to Elite Eloise. I think I’ve been teaching at “Recreational Rainbow” level, and I’m striving to become a “Professional Petunia.” My goal is for my students to be able to recognize the difference, and of course to do their best, have fun, support each other and all that good stuff.
Not everyone needs to aim to become a professional by any means, but I hope that some will. Having more high level aerialists around helps guide and direct the culture. More laid back and recreational aerial arts are very popular too. That’s how I started out, and got hooked because you get to combine fun, social life, fitness and artistic expression into one amazing thing. I think the good people of Buffalo are definitely starting to pick up on that!
Where do you practice?
Buffalo Aerial Dance is still in the Alt Theatre inside the Great Arrow Building, which is a delightful and beautiful space (thanks again to Amy) and great for beginners, but many of my students have progressed and we do hope to eventually move to a venue with more height.
Do you offer classes?
Yes, of course! I love teaching aerial arts. I teach silks, lyra, trapeze, rope, Aerial Yoga, and Aerial Fitness out of the Alt Theatre. I also teach a teen class and a kids (ages 8-12) class and I’m hoping to add more youth classes and start creating those future professional aerialists of Buffalo.
How many events do you do a year?
It’s hard to say because I never know who’s going to call me or what they’re going to request. There have been some weird ones! But I’d say on average Buffalo Aerial Dance performs about once a month, sometimes at public events and sometimes at privately hosted parties.
^Erica talks about finding balance and taking risks at Creative Mornings.
How big is your troupe?
Currently I have 4 other aerial dancers that perform with me regularly, and I wanted specifically people with prior professional performance experience in the troupe. For larger events, I sometimes ask advanced students to perform with us as well.
What’s new for 2017?
The immediate next thing is a big Summer Solstice celebration and performance at ArtPark on June 17th organized by Jon Lehrer whom I’m very excited to be working with. It’s going to be amazing and people should definitely get tickets!
Besides that, I’ve been lucky to be able to host some workshops from top notch professionals who’ve come to town and that’s definitely something I hope to do more of in 2017. And I’m also working with a few others locally to get funding so we can start offering aerial programming to low-income youth. There’s a ton of research proving on the benefits of social circus programs on self-esteem and overall confidence for kids who really need that sort of boost, and it’s something that could really benefit our city too.