Dancing on Air
University of Wyoming students get a new perspective
Every other year in August, a crowd of people gathers at Vedauwoo, a popular rock-climbing area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. They tilt their heads up, not to gawk at climbers, but to watch dancers hanging from ropes and harnesses as they perform against the curtain of a 200-foot rock face. Pushing off the rocks, the dancers strike poses in the air, flip over each other and move gracefully up and down the rock face. The scene, a combination of fluid choreography and natural grandeur, is stunning.
The biannual performance is put on by the University of Wyoming’s vertical dance program, a unique two-course sequence started in 1999 by geology and geophysics professor Neil Humphrey and Margaret Wilson, an assistant professor in dance. Together, Humphrey and Wilson teach students the basics of vertical (or aerial) dance, a form that features dancers suspended in the air performing traditional dance vocabulary. While some UW dancers who complete the program may go on to specialize in vertical dance, Wilson and Humphrey’s ultimate goal is to make the students better all-around performers, even when they’re firmly on the ground.
The seeds for the program were planted in 1995, when Humphrey, who had begun studying dance recreationally with Wilson, staged a flying scene in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the show, Humphrey went on to study vertical dance at the Project Bandaloop workshop at the Banff Arts Center in British Columbia. He attended in 1998, and upon his return teamed up with Wilson and director Rebecca Hilliker to stage a play at Vedauwoo that incorporated vertical dance. It was so well-received, and the students who participated were so enthusiastic, that Humphrey and Wilson easily convinced the university’s department of theater and dance to begin formally offering vertical dance.
The program consists of two one-credit classes: Vertical I, which is offered every spring semester, and Vertical II, which is offered every three or four years depending on interest and Wilson and Humphrey’s availability. Although there aren’t formal requirements to enroll, preference is given to dance majors.
Over the course of 16 sessions, Vertical I students learn how to use the equipment—including belay devices, static and dynamic ropes, pulleys and harnesses—required for vertical dance. (While some vertical dance companies use silk or ribbon, the UW program focuses solely on ropes and harnesses, so that the dancers don’t have to worry about interacting with and controlling other equipment.) Once they master equipment safety, they learn to dance while suspended. During the 16 sessions of Vertical II, students begin to experiment with choreography for different types of rigging.
In Vertical I, Wilson and Humphrey start by attaching ropes to the top of a theater grid and suspend the students just a few feet off the ground. They teach students basic movements, such as V-sits and planks. “They work with these to find the form,” Wilson says. Then they ask the students to move from one position to another trying new directions, dynamics and transitions. Not only does this help them get comfortable with their feet off the ground, it also requires that they use their dance knowledge.
“They are learning a lot about their bodies in the process,” Wilson says. “What works on the ground does not always work in the air, and if they just focus on the transition, they discover for themselves that they are moving in new and different ways.”
When the dancers become more confident on the rope, they climb to a higher position or lower themselves down from the catwalk onto ropes, where they work on movement ideas with a partner. “They create their own movement sequences,” Wilson explains, “because we have found that if they are problem-solving on the rope, they not only extend their vocabulary, but they are more comfortable as well.”
As the dancers gain competence in the air, they strengthen their back and abdominal muscles and develop a greater spatial awareness and understanding of their bodies, which enhances their performance in their other dance classes.
Though most Vertical I and II students are dancers, Humphrey says one of the first things they must understand is the different relationship to the audience.
“I have to remind them that as soon as you are lifted up in space, the audience has no idea where they should be looking,” he says. “On the ground, you typically know where the audience is relative to your body. In rope work, your orientation is often random—your feet may be pointing straight at the audience.”
Humphrey and Wilson emphasize the importance of using the whole body, making sure that every movement extends from the feet to the hands to the expressions on their faces. That way, “even if your back is the most visible body part,” Wilson says, “the audience sees you fully performing.” This carries over to their regular dance studies as well, where the vertical dancers often appear to have more confidence.
Whether she ends up dancing on the ground or in the air, recent UW graduate Mary Alex Floyd says her vertical dance experience has had a tremendous impact on her. “Dancing on the ground is easier, and so is losing balance,” she says. “I am less afraid to try anything.”
Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Originally published in Dance Teacher, August 2011