Expert Advice for Beginning Acro

  • February 3, 2017
  • by Chelsea Thomas

For young dancers looking to stay competitive in today’s industry, there is an increasing need to diversify stylistically and to learn acrobatics. These gymnastic feats can add a “wow” factor to choreography when incorporated and blended into movement appropriately and with artistic discernment. This is why so many dancers turn to acro when attempting to spice up their routines.

However, not all acro training is equal. And for some, they never take formal acro training at all. They merely force their bodies to do a move based on something they saw in a viral YouTube video, a popular Instagram post, or another competitor’s astonishing routine. Without sounding too drastic, this must be emphasized: this is dangerous!

Rather, let’s consider healthy ways dancers can incorporate acro into their dance training. What do safe acro practices look like? Why are these important? How does one make sure that their acro moves are being blended well into their choreography? Here, we turn our ears to professionals like expert trainer Mandy Yip of Acrobatic Arts, award-winning fight choreographer Emmanuel Brown, and dance teacher and gymnastics coach Kara Methven.

Eagle Grip Bra Top and ShortsFirst, build strength!

Mandy Yip, one of the forefront authorities on safe acro, travels the world training and certifying teachers through her organization Acrobatic Arts. On where to begin, she said, “Dancers who are introducing their bodies to acrobatics need to first concentrate on developing the strength and flexibility required. All too often, dancers want to jump right into the ‘tricks’ without properly preparing the body.”

Emmanuel Brown, a champion martial artist, acrobat, singer and dancer who played Spider-man and Electro in the original Broadway cast of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, agreed that building strength is critical.

He said, “Many dancers have the flexibility, but don’t have the physical strength necessary to pull off acrobatics.” As he teaches at Broadway Dance Center in the Children and Teens Program, he strives to emphasize correct conditioning.

Thinking practically, Yip added, “Where should they start? It’s not glamorous… but dancers who are really serious about becoming fantastic AcroDancers should start with perfecting planks, square splits, sit-ups, the cobra and other strength and flexibility exercises.”

Second, follow healthy progressions!

Yip emphasizes proper progressions in her trainings for many reasons – one being that it’s a major factor in injury prevention. Too many dancers are forcing their bodies into positions, tricks or stretches that they’re simply not ready for, causing tears, sprains and worse.

Yip said, “Once a strong foundation has been established, dancers should follow progressions to work up to the big tricks, while maintaining their strength and flexibility training. Pre-cartwheels turn into cartwheels, one hand cartwheels, flying cartwheels, pop cartwheels and then, eventually, aerials. Skipping steps can actually have negative effects on training. It is dangerous and can cause a student to regress instead of advance.”

Kara Methven, who started her career 11 years ago as a gymnastics coach, now teaches ballet and tumble/acro for two Georgia studios – CK Danceworks and Southern Dance Precision. Having been a competitive gymnast herself growing up, she knows the importance of progressions.

She said, “I am a firm believer in following progressions. I have many students come to me only interested in learning aerials and back handsprings. However, all of my students are required to start with the most basic skills, like cartwheels, and progress through many other skills before getting to back handsprings and aerials.”

“I think most injuries occur when students are allowed to skip skills in order to try and get a more difficult skill quicker,” she added.

Yip’s curriculum produced through Acrobatic Arts “clearly defines the 28 progressions required at each level to move safely from one level to the next.” Its syllabus seeks to insure that dancers are “developing in a balanced manner, over the five skill categories (flexibility, strength, balance, limbering and tumbling), as well as both left and right body.”

Yip summarized, “Perfect the correct techniques with the simpler skills and apply that technique as you progress into more difficult skills.”

Front Aerial LeotardThird, fully commit!

Brown emphasizes to his young students that commitment is mandatory. Commitment and focus are basic safety principles that all dancers should live by, especially when attempting bigger, new acrobatic moves.

He said all dancers should “fully commit when doing acrobatics and to pay attention to details.” He added that dancers should use their full body (not just, say, their legs) when executing a move.

Fourth, maintain proper form no matter what!

Sometimes the simplest moves get rushed or overlooked once dancers progress to harder steps. This is not only bad for competitive dancers’ scores, but it’s also plain unsafe.

On this, Methven said, “My students will tell you that I am a stickler for straight legs, pointed toes, straight arms, and proper body positions in their tumbling. This is not only because I don’t want them to put sloppy acrobatics on stage, but also because it reduces the risk of injury.”

Fifth, avoid common mistakes!

Yip said a mistake she sees dancers doing often is “developing acro on only one side of the body – the ‘good side.’”

She said, “This is so dangerous and causes long-term chronic injuries that are very difficult to recover from. All skills should be equally developed on both the right and left side of the body. My dancers understand that we won’t move on to the next progression until the current skill has been mastered on both sides.”

Brown shared a couple of common mistakes he often sees: “A big one is not bending their knees before jumping. Another one is that I see dancers attacking their acro with the softness of a lyrical dance move. Acrobatics requires more explosive energy than many dance moves.”

Sixth, master the skill of choreographic discernment! 

It’s worth noting: Not all of your dance routines have to show off every single one of your tricks. Yes, it’s neat that you can do that round off or that back handspring – but is it adding to the choreographic message? All too often, especially in the competition scene, routines become too much about the acro and too little about the artistry.

Yip said, “True AcroDance seamlessly combines dance with Acro; the audience should never see the ‘tricks’ coming. Dancers should maintain musicality, emotional connection with the audience, and fluidity of movement. Absolute mastery of the skills is required in order for dancers to accomplish this. When a dancer is concentrating on just landing the aerial (for example), it is very difficult to maintain artistry. However, if the aerial is truly effortless, the dancer can stay connected to their art while performing it.”

To address this dilemma, Brown suggests teachers have their dancerspractice a dance movement that is similar in nature to the acrobatic move that they want and then just eventually change over to the acrobatic one.”

And finally, be an equipment snob!

Methven said, “Lastly, I think it’s important to have an adequate amount of mats to keep students safe while learning new skills. This can get expensive for studio owners but I think it’s necessary and something studio owners should consider before starting an acro/tumbling program.”

Student dancers and their parents should insist that their studio and its acro classes have necessary equipment – for one, thick, high-quality mats.

And speaking of necessary equipment – make sure you are dressed in appropriate attire while practicing acro! Ideally, dancers should be wearing form fitting, comfortable and cover-some biketards. However, long-sleeve leotards or those high-neckline, vault back leotards are also great. Capezio offers many gymnastics leotard and bra top options, all of which flatter the silhouette while alluding strength and athletic prowess.

Article produced by Dance Informa.

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