Photo by Seyi Ariyo on Unsplash

When coming out of quarantine becomes an inspiration to try something totally brand new and exciting

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing Cirque du Soleil moves in the air using beautifully-colored fabric, that dream might be a lot closer than you might realize. I had never really considered it. I’ve got plenty of time in the air, from skydiving to bungee jumping to hang gliding. This is different. This is air ballet. And I was in my first class learning how to do just that at 68. But I’m ahead of myself.

A week ago, inspired by a friend’s comment that she was in the market for doing something off the wall for her, I was looking around Eugene for some ideas for fun and sporty things to do. On the list is a return to salsa dancing, which I dearly love. There’s a competitive group here in town which put on an excellent performance for America’s Got Talent. Not too far from my house. Truth, in a town like Eugene, nothing’s very far, which is one reason I love it here. That salsa option is still on the backburner. Dance is considered a very good outlet for folks who are aging, not just because it’s good exercise but also the social aspect. However I like my sports a little more challenging.

Last week I began getting involved with my local drug-free bodybuilding community.

But I wanted something more epic.

I was scanning options when I saw the Reveler’s studio listed on a Google Map. Curious, I looked it up. Damn. That was right up my alley. I looked at the website, paid up, then showed up to see the facility.

Sally Brewer’s in her thirties, my best guess. She’s about 5'4", and with a very strong, muscled body. She’s not a tiny gymnast. Not at all. I visited her over at her studio, Reveler’s Aerial Works over on Bertelsen Road, a high-ceiling warehouse facility off the main drag. What struck me first was the ease with which she lifted herself skyward using the brightly-colored silks which the big building was festooned with from front to back and side to side.

Up she went, upside down, all kinds of ways to Sunday. It was both elegant and stunning. Ballet in motion.

Man, I’d love to be able to do that, I thought.

No reason why not.

By the time I’d set up at time to drop in to visit Sally I’d already signed the waiver for four Absolute Beginner’s classes. Sally and I discussed: I’ve got severe CMC joint arthritis, so I need to be able to do some workarounds on some tricks. She’s had carpal tunnel surgery, so she knows the drill when you want to work out but your hands aren’t available.

Sally’s got that friendly ease of someone who has worked with all kinds of folks from all kinds of backgrounds for a good long time. Perhaps the best part of aerial silks is that it’s body-friendly. You do not have to be an athlete, nor skinny, nor tiny, nor uber-talented. What struck me was that as long as you understand the dangers of the sport, and there are plenty, and are happy to suck at it when you start, chances are you, too, can feel like and look like a flying bird.

My first experience with silks was nothing short of disastrous. I was visiting a girlfriend of mine in the Netherlands back in 2016. In her backyard was a hammock-style set up of bright red silk. She invited me to have a go, then walked inside without offering instruction.

Being clueless, I climbed on. I played on it for a while, but being about as graceful as a drunk camel I managed to force the thing to flip me on my head without any warning whatsoever. Physics are both swift and unforgiving.

Unfortunately that also meant that I connected the concrete slab over which it was positioned. I hung upside down for a while, bleeding scarlet blood that matched the silks that encased my body until I could get the stars out of my vision long enough to stumble out of them. I’m not without a sense of humor but I also value what’s left of my noggin.

I’ve seen ads for the silk hammocks. As much fun as they look, without some kind of instruction, you really can get terribly hurt. That was one of many concussions.

This is different. This is a carefully-choreographed training, with plenty of thick pads on the floor for the inevitable.

My first class was crowded. Half the group in the facility was an intermediate class, which was clear by how swiftly they were on their way up towards the ceiling and doing all kinds of tricks. Our beginner group walked through basic stretches. There is nothing but nothing like a group stretch to remind you of all those times you put off that yoga session. Not any more. Not if I want to master this. A lithe body works best, and anyone can learn to stretch better. No more skipping the morning yoga. Which is fine, as it was a habit that I needed to reinstate anyway. The aging body needs flexibility, and it’s just a good habit no matter what.

Mastering something like this for me at 68 with my injury history, with a shoulder and hand surgery in my near future is going to be an interesting proposition. What I want is body confidence and strength in areas where I’ve never had them before. The pleasure of a completely different sport, and one which requires your complete and utter concentration full time, is very appealing. Not only that, sports like aerial silks have a way of bleeding over (okay, sometimes literally) into other sports. For example, when I spent a year learning salsa in 1998, I had no clue that the dance skills would serve me so well in kayaking, but they did. Any kind of body work and athletic training is likely to have a positive impact on other sports, which is why football players take ballet and do yoga as well.

Sally getting ready to climb. Julia Hubbel

We were all masked, some of my group a little nervous.

We had 45 minutes. Sally had us working on our first trick in no time. We worked in pairs, and laughed hard. It felt icky and awkward and sucky.

It’s supposed to. Some of the women have ballet or gymnastic backgrounds, so that the moves are easier. I’ve got considerable upper body strength, but that isn’t the point. The point is technique. Most folks will never nail such tricks right away. The process of figuring out what we’re doing wrong is part of mastering it, to the point where those in the class next to us were using those basics without having to think about them.

Perhaps what was the most fun for me in watching Sally demonstrate the tricks was to figure out the physics. Each trick utilizes the silks wrapped around the foot in a certain design, or the planting of the opposite foot to tightly pin the silk so that you are moving up against a tight platform against your inner foot. Once I figured that out, it was far easier to climb.

Of course, once I got close to the top of the silks, I suddenly forgot how to get back down.

That’s where a sense of humor comes in.

Maria, who had arrived early like I did, is a young woman who used to be a competitive diver. She was awkward at first, and swiftly began to tap into that body confidence that being airborne over water gives a diver. It wasn’t long before she and the other women in the class were sorting out the basic problems of how to wrap the silk into the inner thigh, around the foot and voila! up you go.

Photo by Benjamin Wedemeyer on Unsplash

By the end of our first 45 minutes, we were sweaty and breathless. I was delighted. My hands hurt, which was to be expected, as my fingers were being forced to do the work that my grip would normally do. However, l was hooked.

One of the biggest advantages of learning a brand new sport when you’re much older is that if you’ve been active your entire life, and I have, you have some body awareness to draw upon. You can watch your instructor with different eyes, and be able to assess what they’re telling you. Perhaps most importantly, you are far, FAR more patient with your body. You expect to suck at something, you know full well that being a putz is part of the process, and having fun during the intitial parts of learning the new skill is actually the funnest part, particularly when doing it with others.

Being able to laugh makes you loose, creative and both intellectually and emotionally flexible. Those are two reasons that kids are so good at learning new sports. They don’t mind falling, they don’t mind making mistakes, and they just get up and do it over and over again until they’ve got it. The older you and I get, the more worried we are about looking good, the more rigid and inflexible we become. Of course we have farther to fall, but learning how to fall is part of the art of any sport.

The years of making mistakes have taught me patience, if nothing else. I kept doing the same move over and over, different ways. I called Sally over and she made a single correction: putting a lot more pressure against the silks on the inside of my anchor foot. While this is obvious, nothing is obvious to the uninformed. Suddenly I had a solid base on which to stand and climb, and up the rope I went like a monkey with all the ease in the world. I was utterly delighted.

There really is nothing quite like having a puzzle problem suddenly solved. Now that’s what I’m talking about. At fifteen dollars a lesson, that’s a small price to pay to feel awfully good about your body.

Then, of course, I found myself hanging near the ceiling, terribly proud of myself, and I couldn’t remember the position to descend. It was a long way down, Sally was busy with all the other students, and I hung there, swinging slightly.

I flagged Sally down again. We grinned at each other behind our masks, and in seconds I was on the mat again.

the author on the way down Julia Hubbel

Maria and I stood outside after the class in the 85 degree sun and discussed her diving background. She had started out a little scared, but was feeling far more confident. She asked me why I wanted to do this.

That was easy.

Some time back I had read a story about Betty Goedhart, who is the world’s oldest trapeze artist at 86. Here she is:

Local woman, 85, is world's oldest trapeze artist
Later this month, Betty Goedhart will turn 86. But the La Jolla retiree has already received the best birthday gift…

Betty didn’t even begin this until she was 78. For my aging dollar, there is nothing like having inspired people lead the way, especially those who take on Big Ideas. There have always been people like Betty around, but we often didn’t know about them. The Internet allows us not only to know their stories but also be inspired to push ourselves in new ways.

As you and I ease our way back into life, having made it through the pandemic so far, at least, it does beg a question: what do you want to do with the time you have left? Is there a dream you have left undone? Are there risks you are willing to take, now that you and I have seen how short life can be?

For me the answer is a resounding yes. As I barrel towards seventy, I am quite happy to leap into new things. Eugene has plenty to choose from, and a great many inspirational athletes to train with. There isn’t much like hanging in the air, wrapped in pretty silks, to make you appreciate being vibrantly alive.