Donna DeVerniero celebrated her 62nd birthday earlier this month hanging upside down from a 20-foot silk cloth suspended from the ceiling.
It’s this baby boomer’s way of running off and joining the circus – or at least pretending to while getting an intense core and upper body workout as she flips upside down like a fearless child.
“My first class when I went upside down I was hooked,” DeVerniero said while taking a break from a class at Spokane Aerial Performance Arts, the only gym in the area that focuses on the sport of aerial, which has roots in the circus arts and is familiar to people thanks to Cirque du Soleil.
Owner Sherrie Martin said the rush of upside-down moves grips students every time, especially older people who haven’t seen an inverted view of the world for a long time. That’s why the gym recently started offering a class for women older than 50. Her students include nearly 20 people older than 55, including a 77-year-old woman.
“How many years since you’ve been upside down,” Martin said, laughing. “Like when you were 10?”
A lifetime gymnast and sports fanatic, Martin, who is a track coach at Lewis and Clark High School, opened the gym in 2011 after inadvertently signing up for a silk class instead of a gymnastics lesson while visiting San Francisco. She wanted to bring the beautiful art – and workout – to her hometown.
At 55, Martin said she is the strongest she’s been in her life. Besides teaching aerial silks, Martin also performs with a partner on an aerial hoop known as Lyra and can work the trapeze.
But aerial is not easy to master, especially if you are older and have no background in gymnastics or circus arts. When DeVerniero first began she felt pathetic yet empowered all at the same time. Every class she made a small breakthrough in skill and strength.
“I’m just improving with age,” DeVerniero said.
She didn’t embrace any fitness activity until she began taking ballroom dancing. That inspired her to become a fitness trainer at age 46. She now works with elderly clients and loves everything fitness.
“In high school I was least likely to be involved in anything fitness related,” DeVerniero said. “I’d skip PE classes and I was always the last one picked for the team.”
Today this perky blonde is fit with defined arms and able to do 10 perfect pushups without much effort. When she started the basic instruction class she wore elbow pads to do plank exercises and modified them by using her knees. Now she easily climbs hand-over-hand up the black silk cloth using her legs as leverage. She waved from the top of the ceiling and giggled. Then she gracefully slid down to the floor, controlling her speed with her hands.
She’s ecstatic. It’s the first time she was able to descend in a smooth, controlled motion without getting rope burns in her hands. DeVerniero has worked for a year to master this basic skill. The women in the class cheered.
There is total support no matter the skill level or age. It’s an individual adventure as students learn climbs, wraps and drops. The art element makes everybody’s experience different.
DeVerniero and Peggy Sue Moran, 56, have been in the beginning classes for two years, slowly building their strength, especially the grip in their hands. When they first started, their hands ached from working weak muscles.
Although they can’t do advanced aerial tricks, they still enjoy the challenge and the benefits.
“We are here long term,” Moran said.
A longtime runner, Moran tumbled while running in the snow the other week. She thinks her new-found upper body strength and flexibility helped her avoid more severe injury than a scraped elbow and sore ankle.
She notices it in everyday tasks too like opening jars, shoveling snow or buying a case of water at Costco.
“I couldn’t pick those up to save my life,” Moran said. “Now I have no problem and I can lift them into the trunk of the car.”
That’s one of the gym’s major goals is to help people achieve upper body fitness, especially for the 50-plus crowd.
“It’s no fun to go to the gym and lift weights,” Martin said. “This is fun.”
And it’s always different and has a large dose of creativity. Aerial silk is almost an art form, with how people wrap the colorful silks – around their arms, legs and body. Martin also insists it produces happiness. You can’t help but feel happy when you are working with the silks, she said.
Another benefit is exercise for the brain because aerial silk skills require you to use both sides of the body. While suspended in the air, it’s often difficult to distinguish your right from your left.
Spokane Aerial entertains at local events and parties and can do a variety of performances from aerial silk and hoops to acrobatics and fire dancing. For fun, the school participated in the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
So how do aerial silks work? The gym rigs colorful silks – gold, red, purple, green, blue – which are actually elastic polyester cloth, from the ceiling trusses. Martin got certified in Ireland – where circus is serious business – to do the technical riggings. Every six months, the riggings are inspected by a professional theater rigger. The floor beneath the colorful strands of silks, also known as tissu, is covered with cushion mats. Safety is top priority, Martin said.
People always ask about falls, especially because performers don’t use safety harnesses that could tangle and get in the way of the wrap tricks. There are no helmets.
Martin said falling is not an option. Falls can kill. That’s why students start on the floor or using hammocks and build core and upper body strength in addition to grip strength. Students do get tired or hung up but there are safety procedures in place to help anyone in trouble.
“In some ways it’s self-limiting,” Martin said. “If you don’t have the strength, you can’t get up there.”