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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Finding grace in the air

    Melissa Buckheit closes her eyes and tightly grips the trapeze dangling inches away from her head.

    In the blink of an eye, she hoists a leg onto the small bar and hangs in the air for a few moments before bringing her other leg up in a similar fashion. She pulls her upper body to a sitting position on the trapeze and waits as the slow beat of the music pulses through the room.

    For the moment, her trapeze is still. Some days, a partner will give her a push to set the trapeze in a small circular motion around the floor.

    But Buckheit is on her own today.

    She slowly fans one arm toward the ground until the length of her body is draped over the trapeze. Throughout her performance, she will not once steal at glace at her audience or the device that keeps her above ground.

    Her arm and abdominal muscles strain to keep her in position, but this combination of strength and grace allows her aerial dancing to flow from one movement to another.

    Buckheit is an aerial dance teacher and student at Zuzi! Dance Company, School and Theater at 738 N. Fifth Ave., and has been learning the art of dancing with a trapeze for the last four years.

    In addition to teaching aerial dance to children at Zuzi! and Arts for All, Buckheit teaches literature and creative writing at Pima Community College.

    A ballet dancer until the age of 18, Buckheit said she enjoys how aerial dancing combines aspects of improvisational, ballet and modern dance.

    “”For a lot of the precision and grace (of aerial dance), you have to have a lot of inner strength – like core and arm strength,”” Buckheit said.

    Buckheit lowers her body to hang upside down and grips the trapeze bar. Her eyes remain closed, but she will not stay in this pose for too long as the blood quickly rushes to her head.

    As Buckheit continues to dance in the air, her fellow classmates watch and critique her performance. For some, aerial dance is a natural fit because of their previous dance and gymnastic experience.

    For Sandy Haywood, aerial dance is a chance to revisit her youth.

    At 70 years old, Haywood’s age is the only thing that stands out in aerial dance. She fearlessly maneuvers on the trapeze until she is hanging upside down with both arms reaching toward the floor.

    “”I had this real fantasy when I was four – I really wanted to go to the Barnum and Bailey Circus,”” Haywood said. “”And it stuck with me.””

    After a bicycle accident left her on crutches for years, Haywood made a list of things she still wanted to do – and learning how to aerial dance on trapeze made the cut.

    As a life coach, Haywood often instructed her clients not to be afraid of trying something they really want to pursue. She took her own advice by signing up for aerial dance classes 10 months ago.

    “”One of the things I work with people on is to bring out who they really are and I think I’m doing that for myself along the way,”” Haywood said. “”This is really a new life for me.””

    And she shows no signs of slowing down. She has even installed a trapeze in her living room so she can practice at home.

    “”It’s been great although I’m still a very, very beginner,”” Haywood said. “”My goal isn’t to become a professional trapeze dancer. It’s to get some strength and some courage because it takes courage to hang off this thing at my age and trust that everything’s going to be fine.””

    Nanette Robinson, Zuzi artistic director, said properly learning aerial dance can take years to master but the hardest step is often the first.

    “”It’s a lot of risk taking and, as we begin to age, we sometimes have more fears,”” Robinson said. “”Just hanging upside down is a huge trust issue. It’s a huge change. Even though we’re only five feet off the ground, it does take courage. It takes just the willingness to really stretch yourself, to stretch your imagination – to stretch what you think you can do.””

    When Robinson opened Zuzi in 1998, she only offered two aerial classes but now she offers 10 classes throughout the week for children and adults of all ages and experience.

    While most turn to aerial dance as a hobby or supplemental dance training, many find working with a trapeze strengthens the body and mind just as well as weight lifting or traditional exercise.

    “”I think it’s much better than doing crunches or doing Pilates because you really get to experience that weightlessness and that freedom of flight,”” Robinson said.

    Karyn Reim, a physical therapist and member of Zuzi’s dance company, said she enjoys challenging her body through aerial dance even though she’s suffered her fair share of bruises and blisters while performing on the trapeze since she joined the company two years ago.

    Reim effortlessly twirled in a tight circle on the trapeze around the room. With one hand tightly gripping the trapeze, she dropped her upper body toward the floor until her head was inches from the floor.

    “”To me, it’s like an adult jungle gym,”” Reim said. “”I loved the jungle gym when I was little.””

    While aerial dance is learned mostly from experimenting in the air, students in Robinson’s class begin class on the ground for stretching and improvisational dance.

    Students introduced themselves and how they were feeling to the class through movement. It was not long before students were moving freely across the classroom and improvising short dances on the trapeze.

    As the music slowly begins to fade, Buckheit remains on the trapeze. The music guides her to a resting position and she finally opens her eyes.

    “”We’re creators from the very beginning,”” Robinson said. “”There’s that African saying, ‘If you walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.’ When you’re really present and one-pointed with something, it can become a beautiful dance.””

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