Ahead in Air: Active Learning through Aerial Dance                               

Dr. Mila L. Parrish, University of South Carolina

Young children interact with the world physically as gymnasts, athletes, and dancers creating imaginative play.

Provided the skills, resources, and the chance to express themselves, what kinds of kinesthetic understanding would children ages 6-11 create and learn for themself within aerial spaces?

Supported by the muscular strength of their teacher along with ropes, harnesses, and cables,, children create 3-dimentional expressions of their relationship to the space in the Ahead in Air curriculum. This public school-university partnership demonstrates young children’s artistry beyond the expectations of traditional dance education curricula. Foremost in the Ahead in Air curriculum is the investigation of geometry of space and the development of communication skills, collaboration, and trust. Working with a trained aerialist, dance educators, and their university professor, twelve pre-service dance educators from the University of South Carolina participated in this unique practicum experience as part of their teacher certification coursework.

Elementary school children are dangling from ropes performing aerial extensions, arches and spins celebrating their skills as gymnasts, dancers, artists and athletes. They are using every inch of the space around them stretching, bending, twisting and soaring in space. They are communicating, problem solving, working together and defying gravity as architects of space.


Dance is identified as aerial dance when it uses special apparatus, ropes, wires and harnesses to support the performers in the air.

Aerial dance is a relatively new form of dance. It has been in practice since 1970s and is credited to the invention of professional dancer Terry Sendgraff. Sendgraff, known for her low trapeze works produced a blending of dance and the circus elements. Sendgraff is the inventor of the single-point trapeze, an apparatus where the two ropes of the trapeze connect to a single attachment point, which allows an element of spinning as well as swinging.

Aerial dance has grown in popularity over the past thirty-five years. Currently there are aerial dance festivals and aerial dance studios which specialize in aerial fitness including working with trapeze, fabric, bungee and hoop and other with a more artistic, whole body approach focusing on body centering and flow, economy of movement, and choreography and aesthetics. Additionally there are performing aerial dance companies, such as Project Bandaloop, which has been creating aerial dance since 1992. Project Bandaloop is known for a thrilling style of dance climbing in natural and untraditional spaces such as on the side of mountains, on bridges and
between skyscrapers. Amelia Rudolf directs Project Bandaloop dance company which offers workshops, school programs and aerial dance performances using vertically dynamic environments (Thomas, 2001; Browning-Blas 2010) to support skills of artistic collaboration and trust (Hunt, 2011). Aerial work can present engaging interactive environments for learners to explore, encourage active participation, teamwork and exchange, and can be a highly effective tool in teaching complex concepts and ideas (Hunt, 2011; Schreiber, 2004).

There is a growing body of research praising the value of critical thinking and creative problem solving found in dance.


Multiple intelligence theory supports learning fostered through movement and collaborative learning, and further demonstrates that dance can be a powerful tool with the potential for transforming the learning experience (Armstrong, 2000; Rubado, 2002). Studies carried out by Howard Gardner with Project ZERO at Harvard University (Wolf et al.1991; Fowler, 1996) using multiple intelligence theory have indicated a range of positive effects on learning, illuminating learning goals in the arts (Eisner 2002; Paulson 2010) that include creative readiness and social competencies such as communication, collaboration, and creative thinking in the arts (Deasy, 2003; Paulson 2010; Sterman, 2010; Barone 2001; Gage, 2012).