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Scaling Circus Heights

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The highs and lows of the Wild Atlantic Way don’t just extend to the cliff edges. Each year, people from around the world gather to train and celebrate aerial dance at County Donegal’s Irish Aerial Dance Fest.
Read on to find out how Jane Lawrenson literally got shown the ropes...


I take a deep breath, focus my mind on the sequence I want my body to follow, and bring my arms across my ribs again. A tug, a pull, a sharp pain through my triceps and across my shoulders and I feel my arms flop down by my sides, powerless as jellied eels. 

It is 6:30pm on Wednesday, day three of the Donegal-based Irish Aerial Dance Fest and if I can’t get my arms to remove my sports bra soon, I’m going to have to shower with it on. 

By definition, aerial dance is a form of modern dance that incorporates an apparatus, usually attached to the ceiling, allowing performers to explore movement in three-dimensions – whether it’s up, down or across. Generally it’s subdivided into ‘vertical’ and ‘supporting’ apparatus. ‘Vertical aerial’ covers dance using rope, fabric or straps (similar to gymnastic rings) and ‘supporting aerial’ uses hoop, trapeze, cube and 
sometimes even climbing harnesses. 

Aerial dance class

After my appetite was whet for all things airborne via a few introductory classes, I signed up. Fast-forward a couple of months and I’m standing in a gym in Letterkenny, County Donegal, about to embark on a five-day aerial training festival. There is a man in front of me clicking his fingers and twisting his body into an array of dance moves as he prances, pirouettes, shimmies and shakes his way across the gym. I watch as person after person follows his choreographed reprise. This is the festival’s daily warm-up and as a non-dancer, this is a little outside my comfort zone. 

The festival is run by Fidget Feet, a performance company that specialise in dance, theatre and aerial, for two circus-filled weeks a year. Focusing on training for performance, it’s no walk in the park. Instead, it’s more of a swing by your arms — usually involving three to four classes daily along with various warm-up and warm-downs. That adds up to a 9am to 6pm training schedule, breaks aside. The aim of the festival is to improve performers’ skills and introduce first-time fliers to the variety of aerial dance. Once the training part of the course ends, some of the more advanced aerialists use the beautiful backdrop of the Wild Atlantic Way to choreograph aerial routines in nature for the public to view.

Trees are rigged on beaches and the beauty and grace of this art form is reflected in the imposing backdrop of the Irish West Coast. 

Aerial aerobics outside

The beauty and grace of these seasoned aerialists comes with a price. “Aerial is pain,” says Shane Holohan, a teacher at the festival and alumni of preeminent Montreal circus school École Nationale de Cirque. “We celebrate everything that someone achieves in aerial because everything is earned. The illusion of ease, of an almost superhero appearance comes from bruising, burning and holes in hands.” Festival-organiser and Donegal-native Chantal McCormick, agrees, “It’s a real journey and it always amazes me the amount of people that try it, and it’s really hard, but something compels them to go back and try it again and again. It’s the achievement. And that’s what’s really important to us as part of the aerial festival. There is a real sense of community.”

Community IS a really important part of the festival. Almost all of the participants live together in student accommodation and nightly dance-offs, fire-breathing displays, trips to the beach and sing-songs are an integral part of the experience. Across sore muscles and blisters, friendships are forged, often involving people from all over the world. Even though the festival is only in its fifth year of existence, word has spread globally; of this year’s 108 attendees, 55 came from overseas, several from as far away as Costa Rica, Australia and the US. 

As the week drew to a close and I packed my bags and said goodbye to the circus, I had learnt a lot. I could hang from a trapeze and perform a few clumsy tricks, I could complete some basic fabric drops and I could badly choreograph an aerial dance routine and execute it with little grace. I had bruises in questionable places and lat muscles some dudes would kill for. But most of all, I had one of the most incredible of weeks. I felt like a superhero – completely remade. Life under the big top ain’t easy but from now on I’ll always harbour secret, star-spangled dreams of running away to the circus.

Discover more of the Wild Atlantic Way's unique take on arts and culture.

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