Girls build strength and confidence through aerial acrobatics

By Christina Campodonico

“I love the independence. You only have yourself to rely on while you’re in the air, and it really teaches you how to be self-sufficient,” says  Aerial Warehouse student Aisha Mainwaring, 16. Photo by Ted Soqui

“I love the independence. You only have yourself to rely on while you’re in the air, and it really teaches you how to be self-sufficient,” says Aerial Warehouse student Aisha Mainwaring, 16.
Photo by Ted Soqui

It’s a busy night at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica. The small venue on Pico Boulevard is packed with parents trying to find primo seats, while little girls in sparkly costumes and hair slicked back into buns scurry backstage before the show begins. An anticipatory hum fills the air.

It looks like the start of yet another performance of “The Nutcracker,” but this isn’t your average holiday recital.

Trade the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pancake tutu for hoops that dangle from the ceiling, replace Clara’s pointe shoes with trampolines, swap out the Waltz of the Flowers for flowing fabrics called aerial silks and you have the makings of Aerial Warehouse’s first ever “Winter Holiday Showcase” — a blend of aerial acrobatics, tumbling tricks and gymnastic maneuvers performed by 65 of the gym’s school-aged students.

Think Cirque du Soleil, but for kids.

From the full house you wouldn’t know that the Culver City gym has only been around for nine months, but you can certainly tell that its array of circus arts has already cultivated a devoted following.

Aerial Warehouse co-owner Wendy Turner knows the draw of circus arts well. Turner’s 12-year-old daughter Alexa pulled her into the world of aerial acrobatics about seven years ago, and she hasn’t been able to pull herself away since.

“When my daughter started doing circus, I threw myself into it as a parent wholeheartedly,” said Turner, a mother of four, who would volunteer to do makeup and hair for her daughter’s shows.

As her children started heading to middle and high school and there were less opportunities for her to take hands-on roles in the productions, Turner started looking for ways to keep active in the art form.

Motivated by Alexa’s passion and her own enthusiasm for the sport, Turner, formerly a recreational dancer and gymnast, teamed up with Cirque du Soleil alum Shana Lord and Lord’s stuntman husband Chris Solomon to open up a gym that would not only combine aerial arts with stunt staples like tumbling and trampoline, but also create a safe and fun space for kids to stay fit and exercise their creativity.

“We wanted to have a facility that used our backgrounds in acrobatics and gymnastics and dance to create an environment [where kids] can feel safe and learn and grow and still be able to reach the highest elements of physical endurance, strength and acrobatics,”
said Lord.

After two years of preparation, Aerial Warehouse opened its doors in April behind an unassuming storefront at 3961 Sepulveda Blvd. In the months since, the gym has attracted about 150 students and holds dozens of classes in tumbling, aerials, trampoline, Parkour and Pilates, each taught by professional stunt people, aerialists or Pilates masters.

While enrolling your child in circus arts training may be a little out of the ordinary, Turner thinks that the acrobatic aspects of these disciplines actually get kids back to basics.

“Kids are not outside like they used to be — climbing trees, jumping fences, playing — so those are all the muscle groups that we’re trying to activate,” she says.

But what if you’re not that into letting your child hang upside down from a hoop 20 feet in the air? Or your kid is afraid of heights?

Aerial Warehouse builds safety training and injury prevention into its curriculum, says Lord, by integrating Pilates-style training into workouts and teaching students how to cope with their fears through exercises like trust falls.

“Fear is a good thing. You should be afraid when you’re 30 feet in the air,” says Lord. “We teach them to overcome fear and to recognize that fear is a part of everyday life. You recognize your fear, run the elements of training and make it fun while you’re doing it and the fear starts to dissipate.”

Fear seems far off the mind of Aerial Warehouse’s Aerial Arts Crew, an all-girl team of intermediate and advanced students in their tweens and teens. Whether dangling from a hoop or wrapped in an aerial silk, they seem quite comfortable hanging out in Aerial Warehouse’s 5,000-square-foot gym at an altitude of about 26 feet. They pull themselves up from the ground like monkeys scaling tree vines and knot themselves into body-bending poses — splits, arabesques, straddles, back bends and other unbelievable contortions with ease. More amazing is how they manage to allow the silks to cradle and hold their bodyweight against the force of gravity. It almost looks effortless.

Many of these young athletes have been training since age five or six and have known each other for years. Several were drawn to the sport through previous experiences in dance or gymnastics but have stuck with aerials because of its unique technical and artistic challenges as well as its noncompetitive nature.

“I just love it because it’s not really like a sport. … It’s just about having fun and making art, rather than competing and throwing a ball in a basket,” says Cami Katz, a ninth-grader at Harvard-Westlake School.

Aisha Mainwaring enjoys the sense of camaraderie at Aerial Warehouse and its supportive community for generating creativity.

“No one judges you for anything you want to do or want to try,” says the eleventh-grader at The Archer School for Girls. “It’s a judgment-free zone, and you have the ability to do what you want and no one’s going to shut down your ideas.”

Aisha’s mother, Monna Mainwaring, thinks that aerials are an especially positive type of athletic training for young women.

“The empowerment that the kids get from having to be so reliant on their own skill, their own strength and their own ability — up 20 feet in the air — it kind of makes them fearless, but it translates to what they can do in the real world,” she says.

“These girls are tough. Sitting on an iron bar or hanging from your guts upside down at 20 feet — it’s not comfortable. They come home with bruises and scrapes and they’re just like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” Mainwaring continues. “There’s something about being able to pull yourself up. It’s literal and metaphorical, like I can pull myself up and out of this.”

Most of the girls of the Aerial Arts Crew don’t aspire to become professional aerialists, but they do express desire to continue pursuing this passion throughout their lives. Perhaps it’s the sense of confidence that the art form inspires. During the Argonaut’s visit, I only see one girl fall once from a very low height. She laughs, dusts herself off and climbs up again. Nothing can bring her down.