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Steamboat Springs dancers fly high with aerial choreographer

Renowned instructor presents lesson at Perry-Mansfield

— Ten-year-old Makala Lowe spent two hours of her Sunday suspended in mid-air, sailing aloft on a thick canvas sling strung from the rafters of the Steinberg Pavilion at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

After Makala finished a two-minute solo comprising the twists, turns and wraps she learned during the previous two hours, aerial dance instructor Janet Taisey Craft had a few notes for her.

"There were these moments when your focus just left you," Craft told her with admiration. "And there was just this joy of flight that you could see."

Makala and her mother, Jen, a local African dance instructor, were two of 16 participants in a public workshop on aerial dance Sunday. Local dancer Jennie Lay organized the workshop, which cashes in on the rare opportunity to work with one of the leaders in aerial dance while she is teaching at Perry-Mansfield.

Craft began working with ropes and fabric in the 1980s, fusing her modern choreography background with a desire to explore varying planes of movement and stretch the boundaries of traditional dance.

"It's about playing; it's about improvising," Craft told the group at the start of the workshop. "It's not an intellectual act."

Craft had three canvas slings stationed around the studio, allowing students to take turns exploring the fluidity of movement offered by the swinging, spinning props.

The students watched one another, gasping and smiling at the flow and lines their friends produced.

The motion of aerial dance is fluid, but the prop can seem at times like a hindrance between dancer and movement. But as the workshop went on, those moments of clarity — when the dancer worked with the sling as a partner in a duet rather than as an obstacle — became more frequent. So did smiles and gasps of comprehension.

"It's really fun," Makala said. "It feels so cool because you're spinning and swinging around and doing all this stuff off the ground."

Melissa Calhoon said she had tried many styles of dance during her life, but this was the first time she had ever flown.

"It's great to work with an object like this, one that's so loose and you have so little control over. It's just playful and fun," she said.

Craft used simple directions when teaching each technique.

She would simply explain the "start and stop," or "pendulum," then allow the students to play and explore.

Courtney Anderson, who previously has taken aerial dance classes, said she couldn't help reverting to her favorite move: lying horizontal on the sling, curling up into a little ball and using the momentum to gracefully spin.

Aerial dance, as the students discovered, is not unlike the movement of swinging on a jungle gym or playing on a swing set.

"It feels like you're a kid again," Anderson said.

The Steamboat community will have another chance to experience dance in flight when the Perry-Mansfield Pre-Professional Intensive dance program culminates with "An Evening of Dance" the weekend of July 21.

For the fourth year, Craft will choreograph an aerial piece with Perry-Mansfield students for the show. This year's piece will be a series of solos and duets telling the stories of five Beatles songs.

Though the audience won't be up in the slings for those performances, Craft said a great aerial dance takes the observers on a flight.

"We always hope the audience leaves with the sense that they flew, as well," she said.

— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com