Leslie Friend hangs upside down in a perfect split from two beautiful blue fabrics tangled around her torso and ankles. The fitness instructor, casually swinging from side to side, welcomes me to her aerial silks class at the Studio Cleveland in the Flats.
What did I get myself into? I think. As a 22-year-old former cheerleader, I'm no stranger to fitness. But in recent years, I've done more cardio than strength training. Friend teaches the weekly introductory class, which intertwines strength training and Cirque du Soleil, to adults on Monday and kids on Thursday.
Our seven-person class runs through a quick warm-up of jumping jacks and stretches, before pairing up on three sets of stretchy material hanging from an industrial hook on the ceiling.
As Friend holds the silks together like a knotted rope in gym class, I attempt to climb them, wrapping my leg around the silks, placing one foot on top of the other — like creating a new floor — and using my lower body to get higher. It takes a couple of attempts, but eventually I'm able to smoothly execute the move.
At various stages, you release your legs entirely to wrap them at a higher point. I make the mistake of looking down at the huge cushion below. "I hope I'm not going to need that," I say. But Friend reassures me, reminding me to bring my legs up and continue on.
I make it about halfway to the 14-foot rigging before my muscles and shoulders give out. I slide down the silk like a fireman's pole. After more tries, Friend tells me to switch feet. Like writing with the wrong hand, it feels awkward. Yet Friend says my form is actually better.
Although simple, the movements work your entire body. As the hour-long class continues, I learn how to tie my left foot in an intense knot, then raise myself up, pull the silks away from my body and balance there, arms out, suspended. At each step, I stop and ask, "Is this it?" Most of the time, she just smiles and readjusts me or moves to support my back when I forget to flex my abdomen.
I try to picture myself as a professional aerial silks performer, flawlessly executing complex moves. I want to do more, to keep moving upward, but I don't have the strength. Around the room, even my more advanced classmates are feeling the same way, coming down from the silks halfway through a wrap, shaking out their hands and arms.
"Some people are very nervous about being off of the ground, and most of the movement we do in the class is tying yourself into fabric," Friend says. "So in that sense, it helps overcome that nervousness."
Set up for all experience levels, the class helps build strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and confidence. By the end it doesn't feel like I've been working out, just trying to figure out a puzzle for my body — even if it tells me differently for the next few days.
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