Nancy Smith has literally written the book on aerial dance. As Founder and Creative Director of Frequent Flyers® Aerial Dance, she leads her company in conceptualizing original work and nurturing new artists. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Frequent Flyers® has spent 26 years stunning over 160,000 audience members and elevating 14,000 students.
Each Frequent Flyers® performance is built on Smith’s artistic instinct. Initially a modern dancer, she trained with Joan Skinner in Seattle. “The company was very avant garde,” she shares. “All improvised music and dance.” It was 1986 when she saw her former teacher, Robert Davidson, performing an early iteration of aerial dance. “I just looked at what he was doing and thought, That’s it. That’s the marriage of my dance background with my childhood love of climbing trees, spinning until I got dizzy and fell down, swinging for hours.”
Instantly inspired, she trained with Davidson for one week before retreating to a studio for eight months. Nearly a year of playful collaboration led to a show, then a company. “I started out doing what would be called classical aerial dance that came out of the post-modern dance movement and links directly back to Alwin Nikolais, a very famous post-modern dance pioneer, “she says. “My lineage comes through Terry Sendgraff, who was inspired by Nik, and then down through Robert Davidson to me.” In 1988, Nancy was one of only a dozen U.S.-based practitioners. Given the decentralized start of the discipline, not everyone greeted its emergence with the same enthusiasm. “I would say that my colleagues in the dance community felt that it was a gimmick,” she says. “They didn’t understand that it was an art form that came out of the post-modern dance movement and that it was tied directly to dance.”
Maybe her colleagues didn’t get it, but her funders and the audiences did. Nancy’s adventures in the interdisciplinary art form appealed to government agencies. “I was blending theater, dance, aerial, original music, original sets,” she says. “I was producing large-scale shows.”
Today, fundraising is a bit more challenging. Boulder, Colorado, boasts the highest number of nonprofits per capita, and most government funding is directed toward social services. But Frequent Flyers® is resilient, maintaining momentum and welcoming growth. They founded the Aerial Dance Festival 17 years ago and currently teach approximately 25 classes per week. Five years ago, they upgraded from a shared space to a dedicated studio and added their 9-month Professional Training Program with two tracks: Performance and Teaching. “Earned revenue has gone up at the same time as unearned has gone down,” Smith stated. “We are the first aerial dance school approved and regulated by the Colorado Department of Higher Education to provide an aerial track for students to simultaneously pursue while obtaining their MFA degree in Dance through the University of Colorado,” she says.
The support they’ve found – both public and private – fuels the creation of large-scale productions in addition to more intimate performances. “We produce at least three major shows a year,” says Nancy. “Fall/Winter, a big show in the Spring, and then our own work as part of the Aerial Dance Festival.” Their schedule is peppered with corporate shows and other projects: They’ve created youth outreach programming, performed at the Democratic National Convention, collaborated with symphonies and most recently they’ve collaborated with the astrophysicists at Fiske Planetarium for their show Star Sailors, to integrate rendered video projection to illustrate a galactic exploration spanning the time frame from the 1800s to 50,000 years in the future.
In the book ‘Aerial Dance’, the genre is defined as ‘the intention of the choreographer using aerial and it’s relationship to modern dance aesthetics…with the key difference of extreme use of the vertical space and the use of a variety of apparatus to access the vertical space. Whether on the ground or in the air, the movement is completely connected.’, but Nancy is careful in describing its association with circus. Audience expectations may be too high when the aesthetic and budget of larger companies come to mind. “We want people to walk into the theater and fall in love with what we’re doing without a preconceived idea.” But Frequent Flyers® does embrace circus arts, a relationship that emerges each year at the Aerial Dance Festival. “Not surprisingly, a lot of cross pollination occurred between circus and aerial dance,” she says. “At our Festival, everyone comes together to share their aesthetics and techniques, as well as discuss equipment and other common interests.” While there is a separate history and lineage of the circus and aerial dance, the two artforms are becoming more entangled. “I’m loath to engender the conversation of aerial dance versus circus arts,” says Smith. “I really don’t think that serves any of us anymore. There’s so much blending and new stuff coming out, and it’s always hard to define something as it’s being created, because it’s continually changing.”
Her hope is that aerial dance will continue to gain traction as an honored art form with a wide audience. Frequent Flyers®’ collegiate-level education is a big part of that, developing talented dancers who make the world watch. “In terms of the creative aspect of our company, I feel like we’ll continue to push the envelope, find interesting collaborations and seek out partners to continue making interesting work and keep testing the boundaries and advocating for this art. That feels really important to us.” Nancy admits that the emergence of the digital age jeopardizes the long-term viability of performing arts, but she’s confident it can’t replace the spark of a live show. “My hope is that we continue to make work that people value the experience, the communication that transpires between a live performance and the audience in the room,” she says. “The magic of that communication and the power of it.”
Going forward, Smith hopes to strengthen the relationship between circus arts and aerial dance.“I’m really glad to be a part of a bigger dialogue and involved in discussion with Circus Now about aerial dance and circus and the future, and to have the conversation about how we can all support one another, not ever using the word versus.” Aerial dance continues to construct an artistic identity sometimes interwoven with circus. “I think it’s the old expression that there are many roads to Rome,” says Smith. “We’re all kind of trying to create something worthwhile, we just have different approaches perhaps. But the end product may have a lot of similarities; and where there’s differences, great! That’s where there’s some juice. You push us in directions, we push you in directions. We are all learning from each other.”
The Aerial Dance Festival is a 2-week immersion filled with classes, lectures, discussions, performances and networking opportunities for all skill levels. It will be held August 2 – 14, 2015 in Boulder, CO.
Article written by Mara Flanagan, interview conducted by Seb Kann. Circus Now is a volunteer-run, member-supported non-profit organization. Please consider supporting us by becoming a member or donating.