By Collin Czarnecki | Photography: Rebecca Adler
A leg coils and twists itself around a colorful silk sheet hanging from the ceiling while an arm slowly winds around a separate silk hanging nearby.
Soon, an entire body has delicately climbed its way to the top of the suspended silks, weaving itself into the two pieces of fabric like a human needle and thread along the way.
There’s a rhythm to the weaving and wrapping motion though. It’s dancing in midair. It’s mesmerizing.
Suddenly, the arm lets go of the fabric and the body quickly begins to unweave – spinning and spiraling downward toward the floor.
Then, like the sound of a parachute opening, a thumping noise is heard as the spinning body comes to an abrupt stop inches above the floor. It hangs freely by the ends of the silks, still wrapped around the arm and leg.
This is the art of aerial acrobatics, a performance circus art showcased by a diverse group of six Nashville women known as Suspended Gravity Circus.
“You’re working with the natural movement of your body,” said Suspended Gravity Circus aerial artist and contortionist Alicia Dawn. “It’s the way your body wants to move, but it just doesn’t know how because when you’re 10 your parents are telling you to sit down in a chair and calm down, so you lose those skills. How does that baby know how to swim? How does a kid know how to climb a 20-foot tree and just chill there hanging by his knees? This is an excuse to be a kid again.”
By day, Suspended Gravity Circus is comprised of two teachers, a physical therapist, a seamstress, a medical school student and a graphic designer, but at night is when the inner child in them all comes out to play in the form of gravitational escape.
“Circus is our outlet,” said Suspended Gravity Circus founder, Erika Gray. “It was originally an outlet to get our stress out until we recently decided that we want to share this with the Nashville community and we wanted to start performing.”
Using trapeze, pole, silks and a lyra hoop (a circular steel apparatus suspended from the ceiling), the group’s members are as diverse as the gear they use.
“A seeking of some kind of unconventional outlet led us all together,” Dawn said. “We’re all likeminded people and we just kind of bonded. This core group stuck it out because we have common goals, common interests, common passions.”
“This is an excuse to be a kid again.” – Alicia Dawn, Suspended Gravity Circus
Dawn has been the group’s mentor for several years. Prior to Suspended Gravity, she trained under former members of Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, and Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus at New England’s Center for Circus Arts. She also studied with Sarah Poole of Ecole Nationale du Cirque in Montreal and performed in the International Circus Exposure in New York City.
Aside from being an outlet to escape and express their art, the tremendous strength required for aerial circus has been empowering for both Dawn and Grey.
“You’re not only building a skill set to achieve goals, but also to build self confidence,” Dawn said. “All of our girls will start gaining weight because they’re putting on muscle mass and they look awesome.”
“I gained about 28 pounds,” Gray added.
“I weigh 155 and people are like, ‘No you don’t!’ And I’m like yes I do and I can bench it, too!” Dawn said. “It’s very empowering in that sense and that’s why people gravitate to it.”
Earlier this year, the group performed an intimate show at Bastion in Wedgewood/Houston and they just wrapped up performances at Exit/In in May as well as Nashville Zoo’s Brew at the Zoo.
Thanks to a heavy-duty, portable rigging system, which is capable of holding more than 1,000 pounds, Suspended Gravity can perform virtually anywhere in Nashville.
But even though Grey said has no problem suspending herself 18-feet in the air without a net, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s comfortable with heights.
“It’s funny that I’m still deafly afraid of heights unless I’m on some type of apparatus,” Gray laughed.
“It’s a joke in the aerial community that a lot of aerialists do not like ladders because we don’t trust them. If they’re not hanging from the ceiling, we don’t trust them,” Dawn added. “But once you recognize you’re own power, you know what you can do and feel comfortable with it. It’s like writing you’re own name, you’ve done it a thousand times.”
The group is hoping to bring the art form to more venues throughout the year with the goal of taking audiences on a “physical conversation.”
“When you have these shows you’re opening up a dialogue with the audience,” Dawn said. “The whole point of the performance for me is having a conversation in a way you normally don’t have over tea. It’s a conversation in a physical fashion. It takes it to a different place.”
Nashville can take part in that conversation this summer when Suspended Gravity performs at the Sideshow Fringe Festival on Aug. 6 and 7 at Belmont University.
For Dawn, not only does every performance allow her to connect with the audience, but it also allows her to learn more about herself, her body and the human experience.
“Aerial gave me the toolset to delve into the vulnerable parts of myself and that’s what has me hooked,” Dawn said. “I’m risking life and limb – literally – for your entertainment because that’s part of the human experience – the risk.”
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