The Accessible Aerial Course at Flying Fantastic

July 2023

Accessibility | All

'Aerial for all' is a very easy thing to say, but often disabled people are left out of exercise classes. According to Sport England, disabled people are almost twice as likely to be physically inactive (43%), compared with those without a disability (23%). This year, Flying Fantastic decided to really commit to this statement by running a 10 week accessible aerial class from January to March this year with funding from Access Sport and Sispan.  

As a previous amateur aerialist, news of this accessible aerial course filled me with excitement and hope. I began doing pole dancing classes in 2015, long before I became disabled, and started doing aerial hoop in 2018 when I moved to London.  In April 2019, I suddenly and dramatically became disabled and my life changed completely. Before I was a relatively healthy 26 year old. Now, I have an ICD (Implantable cardioverter defibrillator) fitted for a previously unknown heart condition and I'm an ambulatory wheelchair user as a result of a brain injury. I hadn't even considered trying aerial again until I worked with the inclusive circus company Extraordinary Bodies and they recommended Flying Fantastic. I went to aerial sling, aerial pilates and bungee dance classes in 2022, trying to figure out what worked for me. 

Having a dedicated accessible aerial course for disabled students this year has made so much difference in my progression. The classes were smaller than other classes I had tried at Flying Fantastic with two instructors and three students in the class. This made a real difference for me because I didn't feel like I was taking up too much instructor time with my needs. Unlike in other exercise classes, we began the sessions by doing a check in, where students and instructors let each other know how they were feeling on a scale of 1-10. This time and space before the class began to let everyone know how you were feeling felt very personal. On bad days, I would start the class feeling like a 6 but I would leave feeling like a 7 or 8. 

Every week we started the lesson with the same warmup so it was familiar to us students to make it easier to follow along. We began the warm up by patting the muscles all over the body. Then, we did jogging or marching on the spot depending on the students abilities. As I can't stand for very long without feeling unbalanced there was equipment available to hold on to for support. We moved to the floor to get those abs and the core warmed up and then ended with a killer arm workout set to music. 
Now that we were all warmed up, it was time to move to the equipment. Unlike in other Flying Fantastic classes which focus on one discipline, we were taught moves on both the aerial sling and the aerial hoop. On the hoop we began with secretary and sleeping beauty as these are moves that begin in the sitting position. A few weeks in,I felt familiar enough with secretary so I was able to let go with both hands. Now, I use it as a rest position towards the end of class when I'm starting to get tired. On the aerial sling we were introduced to open sling moves and went through sailboat, butterfly and vampire drop. I actually found using the sling was much more difficult for me compared to the hoop. I found open sling moves like sailboat really hard as I had to navigate my feet around the open sling, which I found really tricky. I personally find aerial hoop easier because it is more solid. Before this course I didn't think I would ever be able to aerial hoop again, so I wouldn't have even tried it. 

One element of the classes that were vital for the visually impaired students was the opportunity to 'feel' the move. The instructors would get into a static position and give an audio description of how to get into the move. The visually impaired students would then feel the position of the instructor's feet, legs arms head- whatever was helpful for them to understand the move.  

''Doing the sessions with Flying Fantastic is great, exciting, painful and sometimes frustrating. I'm learning so much about what my body can and can't do and how it works" said Lynn, one of the visually impaired students who attended the course. "I have demonstrations verbally and tactilely (by feeling the facilitators) on how to do various different movements. I'm absolutely amazed how much I've learnt in the sessions…It's really boosted my confidence.''

''I have enjoyed coming to the sessions and trying new things out which I hadn't thought I would do. I have found muscles I never knew I had and feel stronger for it" said Jo, another of our visually impaired students on the course. "Thank you everyone for being so patient, happy and tolerant. I know my Dad enjoyed what I was getting up to and was very surprised. I shall have to keep my newly acquired fitness up.'' 

The instructors on the course had so much patience and showed an amazing amount of willingness to adapt what they know and how they teach to our needs on the course. Jemima was one of the instructors who worked on the accessible aerial course. "I'd say I learnt how true the statement 'aerial is for everybody' is. How there's always a way and if you're willing to learn and play you'll find the ways to make it accessible for everyone." Some of Jemima's adaptations that I have found so valuable to my aerial journey have included lowering the hoop and adding a hand loop. Recently, after months of work, I managed a mount to the sitting position after months of trying. What was the winning combination? A delilah mount on a 2 point hoop with a hand loop. When I finally managed it, the sense of achievement was overwhelming.  

After the course, there was an additional session where the two instructors shared their knowledge with other instructors from the Flying Fantastic team.  In the discussion session, they heard from the instructors what they found useful as teachers and what the students found useful in the classes. Then, we headed down to the studio so the team could see the students in action. It was fantastic to see that other instructors were keen to learn how they could support us in our aerial journey.  

Most of all, the course has given me the confidence to keep coming back and trying moves that I remember from before I became disabled. Overall,  I have noticed a massive improvement to my fitness levels and confidence. That core strength will translate to other areas of my life, like getting out of bed or off the sofa. I don't think I'll ever have the fitness and strength to be as good at aerial as I used to be before I was disabled, which will always make me sad. But this course has brought me confidence and happiness and I'm back doing what I love. I'm so glad that Flying Fantastic are committed to continuing to support disabled students with a regular accessible aerial class on the timetable, but more importantly a can-do attitude.