1) Tell us about when and how you discovered aerial silks and decided to pursue it.
I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show when I was about eight years old, and that was my first encounter with this strange curtain-y thing called aerial silks and the start of a life-long fascination. It wasn’t until my first year at university in Washington DC, where I was studying Biology that I took my first silks class. When I told my professor about exploring the three-dimensional movement of aerial silks for a project on movement-awareness, he told me his wife was an aerial silks instructor. I took my first silks and trapeze class with her, failed miserably, and continued to do so for about a year.
2) How did you go on failure to being skilled enough to teach it?
When I came back to Dubai, there were no aerial or pole studios, and only a handful of performers around, so my progress was hindered. After two years, suddenly studios started popping up all over the city and I could consistently train a few times a week at the Dubai Circus School and many other studios such as Aspire Gym. That’s how I went from being a beginner to being comfortable on the silks. I won’t call myself an expert because the beauty of aerial silks is no matter how much you train, there’s always more to learn and amazing people to learn from.
3) So, how exactly would you describe aerial silks – is it a sport, is it a stylised form of dance, is it more of acrobatics?
It’s all of the above and more depending on your style and goals. I like to categorise movement loosely into four main categories – expression, inner balance, competing with yourself and competing with other against a certain standard or record. For me, silks taps into all of these – its expressive as a form of dance and free movement; it’s a sport in that it is extremely physically demanding, requires strength and control from muscles we don’t work in day-to-day activities and it’s not exempt from bruises and burns. And every new move learned contributes to continuous improvement.
4) How is an aerial skills class different from swing yoga?
I have only ever taken two swing yoga classes. However, based on my limited understanding, silks in swing yoga use a ‘hammock’ style instead of flowing loose from the ceiling, it is more the practice of applying standard yoga moves and postures on the silks, and swing yoga involves staying close to the ground whereas aerial silks requires you to climb, drop, spin and roll at different heights.
5) It’s called aerial ‘silk’ but what exactly is the fabric used during an aerial skills performance?
I actually have no idea! It’s definitely not actual silk, as that wouldn’t be strong enough. The fabric needs to be able to hold a decent 400kg, especially for complex routines with drops, or more than one person. The silks also vary in width and stretchiness depending on the aerialist – more ‘rigid’ silks are easier to climb, hence good for beginners, but may give you some rope burns with certain moves. Stretchier silks are harder to climb but are great for more dramatic drops and rolls.
6) In what ways does aerial skills give performers a sense of empowerment?
Overcoming mental obstacles. Time and again, I’ve seen students doing a move for the first time get stuck at a height I can’t reach and they’re desperate to come back down the easy way. I can’t get them down, and they can’t reverse from where they are, so they have no choice but to grit their teeth, confront their fears and go for the move. Once they accomplish it, the look on their faces is one genuine empowerment that’s elating to see.
7) What has practicing aerial skills taught you about yourself and your body?
Pushing through and continuing to work towards a seemingly unachievable goal – even mastering a pull-up took me a long time – was a humbling lesson in resilience, consistency, patience and overcoming my perfectionist tendencies. It also taught me to remain calm and self- reliant in tricky situations – not many things make you panic quite like getting stuck in compromising positions eight meters high the air with nobody to help you out but you, especially when you’re acrophobic.
8) Have you overcome your fear of height?
Of course, not! I’m still very, very afraid of heights. I’ve gotten more comfortable with my body doing certain moves from a greater height; if I’ve done the move enough times I’m comfortable to do it form a height but the fear is still there. You learn to stay calm when you’re scared, take risks, fall and get back up, and really trust your body.
9) How do you manage to make all those strenuous inversions and flips look so effortless and graceful?
What looks effortless and graceful actually requires a lot of upper body strength, core strength, a decent amount of flexibility, pain tolerance, and innumerable trials until steps become somewhat automatic. Then you layer in aesthetic element such as ‘extended knees and pointed toes’. Looking elegant and fluid takes time and repetition. The first few times I try a new trick, it’s choppy, uncoordinated, and overall not pretty. I probably look like a gorilla attempting to be a ballerina – this is usually where I tend to get stuck in the fabric or fall out of it.
10) What do you do when you’re not falling out of fabrics?
I have a full time job and it’s a desk job! I’m a senior analyst at Expo2020’s Innovation Impact Grant Programme. When I was studying in the US, the curriculum put emphasis on non-major related classes, so I gained additional marketable skills that could be applied to different industries. I’ve worked in the Dubai Aquarium’s back office as a biologist and after I’ve worked full-time at the WWF’s UAE office on policy with a significant research element on wildlife conservation. From there I got into the space of NGOs and was exposed to Expo2020.
11) What was the experience of being on the Nike Chrome Blush campaign like?
The Nike team approached me to take part in a photoshoot and interview with other awesome women athletes. Joining the campaign was a no- brainer – the slogan was ‘Believe in More’ which is a statement that I strongly stand by. The whirlwind outdoor shoot happened over four days in the summer during Ramadan, which was tough, but the energy of the entire team and the message made it absolutely worthwhile, and the response was so amazing – it opened up a lot of conversations around women in sports, women in the region, stigmas and transformation.
12) Have you ever encountered a difference in the way people perceive aerial skills compared to other forms of sport in the region?
Something like silks warrant a lot of questions or criticism as it is very expressive, often eroticised, and usually involves outfits that may not be conventionally seen as modest. However, those opinions or criticisms are often a result of just not understanding the sport/activity or the perspective of the person doing it. [as the first Emirati aerial silks instructor], the biggest blessing is I’ve never received unfair remarks that I am aware of, but instead have received questions – why it is that I do this, or wear this and that has opened some of the most heart-warming, genuine and honest conversations about what it is like going against a status quo.