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At Washington & Lee, Dancers Practice Their Art 40 Feet Above The Ground

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Students at Washington & Lee practice aerial dancing at a campus facility.
Washington & Lee
Students at Washington & Lee practice aerial dancing at a campus facility.

Students across the country are celebrating graduation in a variety ways, but none quite like a troupe of dancers at Washington & Lee here in Virginia. Tonight they'll be dancing on air—literally—with a performance 40 feet above the ground.  

As Irving Berlin plays on a boom box, young dancers at the Lexington-based university show they can do something better than the rest of us.  They dangle from ropes far above the theater floor, swinging and spinning, turning flips or hanging upside down, tapping their toes on the wall and flapping their arms as if to fly.  This is aerial dancing, an art form pioneered in the 70s and taught at just one university in the nation.  

Professor Jenefer Davies says it's a gift for long-time dancers to experience gravity in new ways. "It's also an incredible challenge for a person's proprioceptors—those sensory parts of our body that let us know whether our legs are straight or whether our muscles are flexed.  It messes everything up," she says.

The ropes are rigged by Broadway professionals.  The dancers wear helmets and are secured by a harness.  Still, it took some getting used to for student Emily Danzig. "I was completely terrified.  I'm kind of afraid of heights."

Blair Davis had no fear, but there were physical adjustments to be made. "We definitely discovered some new muscles when we started."

And Will Fulwider—a jogger and rock climber who catches a Frisbee with grace—was surprised to discover the one athletic attribute he lacks.

"All these girls are mostly dancers, so they're extremely flexible and can do all these things that I can't personally move - especially one move where you do the splits on the wall.  I straight up can't do that," he says.

Yes, there were bruises from sitting in the harness or from hitting the wall, but by training for six hours a day over two weeks, they quickly mastered the art of aerial dance.

"I love the back flips!  I just think that's wonderful.  We do one move where we kick off the wall and lean backwards and kick our legs into a split.  I really like to do that." 

And for long-time dancers like Tailor Hiden and Audrey Kerr, mastering the ropes brought a new kind of freedom.

"Cartwheels are not my strong point, so being able to get up on a wall and do all these kinds of flips has kind of made me feel empowered. Once you've danced your entire life, new things like this - you can't really pass them up. I mean how often do you get to dance on the side of a wall.  We call it the adult jungle gym. It's a lot of fun."

Students perform this evening at 5:30 p.m. on the 50-foot face of Wilson Hall in Lexington, and will perform on May 30 at the Corcoran in Washington.

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