Michele Frances is a multi-award winning professional aerial coach & performer, Physical Therapist, Certified Pilates Instructor, and strength training specialist. She has been coaching and performing aerial arts for over 12 years and currently resides in Austin, TX. With an extensive background in human anatomy and kinesiology, she specializes in aerial silks, single and double point sling, and corde lisse. Recently, Michele worked as a contract coach for Cirque Du Soleil during the 2016 Kooza run in Austin, TX. During this time Michele worked with one of the regular cast members to increase their silks vocabulary and assist in choreography for a new silks act.
CN: Did your work as a physical therapist predate your involvement in circus? How did you come into physical therapy and circus as careers?
MF: I was a physical therapist before I even knew what aerial was. I went to school and was licensed for four years in California before I started circus. I had no idea what the word “aerial” meant at the time, but I thought I was interested in flying trapeze. I went to my first class and my teacher introduced me to static rope and silks.
CN: How did your experience as a physical therapist affect how you approached your own circus education and practice?
MF: I started aerial training pretty late in life, and I didn’t really have a dance background or anything like that. I was already a physical therapist, and I was already pretty well down my path of specializing in orthopedics, which is muscle and bone related type injuries. I believe that I was able to progress more quickly to a higher skill level because of my pre-existing understanding of kinesiology and biomechanics. When I had the early growing pains of a beginner, whether it was some soreness or some strains here and there, I could self-treat. So, it helped me progress in a safer way as an aerialist, and, despite starting so late in life, I was still able to get to level of being a professional aerialist. I would never have been able to do that if I didn’t have the knowledge that I had about physical therapy going into it.
CN: What is unique about working with circus performers in your physical therapy practice compared with other patients?
MF: From the physical therapy standpoint, I see a whole plethora of different types of clients every week. I work in one of the best sports clinics in Austin, so I see professional athletes, endurance race junkies, weekend warriors, and even just grandparents who are active and they want to keep up with their grandkids. I also work with a lot of the circus community here in Austin and in Seattle, where I lived for eight years. There are two types of injuries that come into my office: injuries that have a traumatic onset and repetitive strain type injuries. When it comes to working with the circus folks, it’s typically not a traumatic onset; it’s pretty much always more of strain from overuse or repetitive misuse or overuse. When I’m working with aerialists, I’m working on building up strength and performance, whereas, with my everyday PT clients, we’re working more on tissue repair before getting to the strengthening and performance aspect of the process. When I set a rehabilitation exercise prescription for an aerialist, I’m working on balancing their strength and flexibility or inflexibilities, whereas with regular patients, we work more on healing tissue before we even start working on rebuilding mechanics and strengthening.
CN: From your standpoint as both a coach and physical therapist, what are the most common errors in aerial training that lead to injury and how can they be prevented?
MF: The number one thing I see with aerialists is issues with shoulder biomechanics, rhythm, and range of motion. I often see beginners who are just coming into the studio and getting into aerial, and suddenly they go from maybe taking yoga now and then to taking twelve aerial classes a week. They get really trick hungry and are focused on amassing skills, but not necessarily very well. So, they haven’t established stability, whether it’s core stability or shoulder mechanical stability, but they keep trying to push themselves to get to that next step. A good coach is going to break down each skill, even if it’s something as simple as a double knee hang, by teaching them to engage their pelvis and the “rotator cuffs” of the hips and use all of their muscles rather than saying, “Well, let’s see if you can tolerate hanging from the backs of your knees.” I often find that when I’m working with an aerialist who has had an injury and has had to step down for a while, we end up breaking down those skills again, and we’ll find areas where they’ve been compensating, sometimes for years, and then we have to fix that. Start by working on the fundamentals, and then go back as a seasoned aerialist and work on those fundamentals again, because we can find shortcuts and forget those little nuances that can make a huge difference in the quality of the movement and the protection of our own body. The other error I often see is not working both sides of your body. It’s important to work on both sides and try to keep as balanced as possible because otherwise you’ll start to develop more core control on one side versus the other.
CN: Women’s bodies are obviously biomechanically different from men’s, can you discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages that women face with respect to aerial training?
MF: Everybody is different, and there is always someone who can blow a stereotype out of the water, but the common theme is that a man’s center of mass is higher a woman’s. I find that with women who come and try aerial, it can take quite some time for a lot of women to get their first inversion in the air where they can get their hips up to the fabric and their shoulders down. It can be very frustrating. I have some female students who work for six months to a year before they can get a nice clean inversion without tagging their toe. Men can almost always invert their first time, usually in slow motion, and sometimes even with straight arms, but their bottom halves are lighter, so they have less to lift up and then their shoulders are heavier, which adds counterbalance. Women generally have a lower center of mass, so we have to build up even more strength to counterbalance our center of mass when we’re trying to get upside down in the air.
CN: Let’s talk about straddle splits, which can really be difficult for some aerial students to achieve. What is your perspective on the achievability of this for people who have been working on them for a long time?
MF: I know! I feel like I’ve been stuck for the past five years in the same spot. I think everybody’s case is a little bit different, whether there is a history of an injury or maybe they are just really tight, but it has to do a lot with the shape of femoral neck. If you think of a femur going into the hip socket, if the femoral neck is crooked the bones are going to hit at the top and you will be limited by your own bony encroachment. What I’ve found for myself and for my clients is that if you can work on getting a little more external rotation, by turning out from the hips, it becomes easier to straddle. By externally rotating and including a pike, it allows for more openness than if I was just in a star shape. Ultimately, it really is a matter of perseverance and persistence, getting that right coaching, and getting some hands-on treatment. A good way to gauge whether you’re stretching effectively is whether you are just feeling the stretch in your groin, either your tendons or your joints, or if you’re feeling the stretch in your muscle belly. In order to gain motion, you need to find length in the muscle. I find too that when we’re trying to get that “pancake” stretch (straddle with pike), we’re often limited by our hamstring flexibility and not just the adductors or the inner thigh muscles.
Here’s a more in-depth look at hip anatomy:
For an article that Michele recommends about hip anatomy, click here.
CN: Injury can take a big psychological toll on an aerial student or performer. What advice do you have for recovering, not just from a physical one, but a mental one as well?
MF: I know it can just be devastating when you’re told that you can’t climb and can’t go into the air. The best advice I can give is that there is still so much that you can do. What a great time to work on your middle split or on some core exercises to help with directional changes, if you’re working on directional changes with your drops. There is so much that you can do on the floor, whether it’s flexibility-wise, core stabilization, hip strengthening, it just depends on what part of you that is injured. Injury can be a chance for opportunity. Find a weak link that you’re able to work on out of the air.
CN: Can you share a favorite story about a patient and aerialist that you have worked with?
MF: I can think of two. One of them is good friend of mine, Beverly Sobelman who owns Versatile Arts in Seattle. About ten years ago, she was working on reverse hip circles on trapeze and she fell off and she bonked her head really hard. She was really dizzy for days and had intense vertigo. I work with vestibular rehabilitation, which is a discipline within the umbrella of physical therapy. I have been trained to work with the inner ear, the mechanics of the inner ear and balance. When Beverly had smacked her head, she had unknowingly dislodged some of the crystals in her inner ear, which are supposed to live in the part of the inner ear that tells you if you’re moving up or down. Unfortunately, some of the crystals had dislodged into one of the ear canals, which provides the information about spinning or turning. So, when she would roll in bed, that little loose crystal would roll through the wrong part of her ear and it would make her feel the sensation that she was spinning. She came to see me, and I figured out what ear it was, and through a series of head movements, I was able to get the crystal to go back to the right place. So she just had to not lie completely flat for three days and then it was secured. It’s called benign proximal positional vertigo (BPPV), and that’s what Bev had from falling backwards off the trapeze. It’s one of those things that she felt so debilitated by, and then in ten minutes I was able to put it back. So, that’s one of my favorite stories.
The other story is a person that I only know virtually, but I have been working with her since the end of last year, and that’s Erin Ball. She had to go through a series of surgeries for frostbite, which required bilateral leg amputation. We were talking back and forth online, and she asked me if I would feel comfortable helping her with some online coaching. She was already a pretty well versed aerialist before her accident, and I had ways of working with people long distance. It has been such a cool experience to work with her because it really is the ultimate blending of my knowledge of physical therapy, kinesiology, mechanics, and aerial. I was able to show her a way to hang from both of her knees; I showed her this loop, basically an S-lock, where she could hang. She performed her first piece post-accident for Circus Sessions 2016. Working with her has been the highlight of my career, both my aerial career and my physical therapy career.
Take a look at Erin Ball’s Circus Session performance:
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