During your most recent nature walk, you may have stumbled across a girl suspended in mid-air, gracefully entwined in a colorful length of fabric. The apparition part dancer, part acrobat, part forest spirit can't help but inspire curiosity, and maybe the slightest twinge of envy. Who, but a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, could possibly be dancing on fabric in the middle of a grove of trees?
As it turns out, the dancer is San Luis Obispo resident Rebekah Leach, the activity is aerial fabric dancing, and the envious can turn a lesser shade of green. Leach is offering a series of introductory aerial fabric dancing workshops July 9-13 and July 16-20.
"I first got interested in fabric dancing when I was really little," she said. "I grew up in Redlands and they had a youth circus so I saw it at the circus. My parents said it would be too expensive to take classes but it stayed in the back of my mind." Much later, while studying abroad in Thailand, Leach located an aerial dance festival in Boulder, Colo. In August of 2005 she took one of the classes, offered by Frequent Flyers Productions, returning in August of 2006 for an additional class.
Leach, who doesn't consider herself a risk-taker, derives the confidence to be a fabric dancer from her dance background. She grew up dancing in her room, and characterizes her style as athletic. Toss in a background in gymnastics, and Variable Velocity's Diana Stanton as a major influence on her dance style, and it's not surprising that Leach fell in love with fabric dancing.
"Fabric dancing also exists in the circus world," acknowledged Leach. "You could come at it with that point of view. Then it's more focused on the tricks instead of the transition points. I'm focused on the dance world of it, which means that I want to turn it into a dance." Granted, most dances don't take place 20 feet in the air, but Leach insists that a combination of trusting her own strength and physical awareness while dancing on fabric keep her safe, and unafraid. The only factor that limits the height to which she ascends during a performance is the ceiling. But she is aware that not all people share her confidence. Some take one look at the space between ground and dancer and insist that fabric dancing is not for them. According to Leach, the real challenge to fabric dancing is not strength. It's space.
"The one difficulty with fabric in general is the ability to hang fabric from the ceiling, which de-motivates people," she explained. "That is an obstacle. I'm hoping that people will see the possibilities and try to create space for this." Leach purchases her fabric from contacts she acquired during her workshops at the Aerial Dance Festival. Fortunately, aside from the fabric and a few tools with which to hang said fabric, her craft doesn't involve many materials. It's finding a place to station those materials that really stretches the imagination.
At home, Leach hung fabric from a pull-up bar, which presents an admittedly limited workspace. And in order to practice outdoors, she consulted several engineering friends about how best to rig the material from a tree. The majority of Leach's performances take place at the Cal Poly Theater, where she was a guest artist during the Orchesis dance show. Additionally, she participated in the recent Sapphire Moon show at the Clark Center.
But being the only practitioner of her craft can be a lonely experience and enough people have expressed interest in learning that Leach decided to offer four introductory and two secondary workshops for $140 apiece. While she was aerial dancing in a tree, a passerby expressed interest in learning what Leach was doing. As it turned out, the girl passing by was a fire twirler with Fluid Luminescence a group that practices at the newly created ECHO Artspace in Grover Beach. At the stranger's insistence Leach agreed to organize workshops for anyone interesting in learning to dance on fabric. With the perfect venue a warehouse that functions as whatever kind of space artists need it to be it was just a matter of deciding what to teach.
While Leach chooses to dance on the fabric, she has no intentions of limiting her workshops to dancers. San Luis Obispo Little Theater's choreographer, Suzy Miller, will be taking the class in order to apply her new skills to future shows. In order to instruct people with different interests, Leach plans to provide her students with a basic overview of fabric dancing, which includes learning to climb the fabric and how to securely wrap your feet in the fabric while in the air.
"Whatever people want to use this for, I'm here for them," she said. "There are certain exercises, kind of like yoga where you have certain poses, or like ballet where you have the plie, that kind of exists for fabric dancing. There are certain movements where I feel like I'm doing yoga pushed against fabric. I could see there being fabric yoga in the future."
So, whether you've always wanted to join the circus and have just discovered a potential talent, are a dancer looking to push the boundaries of your art, are a yoga fanatic looking to take your relaxation to the friendly skies, or simply interested in experiencing something new, aerial fabric dancing may be your new adrenaline rush of choice. And next time somebody bumps into the airborne dancing spirit in the forest, it could be you.
INFOBOX: Pack a harness and your dancing feet
Intro to Fabric: July 9-13 MWF 12:10-2 p.m. or 2:10 to 4 p.m., July 16-20 MWF 12:10-2 p.m. or 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Level 2 Fabric July 23-27 MWF 12:10-2 p.m. or 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Each workshop has space for six participants, takes place at ECHO Artspace in Grover Beach, costs $140 and can be reserved by filling out an application at Instructor Rebekah Leach's website, aerial.dancing.googlepages.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arts editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at email@example.com.