Flying Somewhere New: Introducing the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts, in Conversation with Joanna Haigood

By Heather Desaulniers

January 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
An aerial dancer practicing in the new Center for Dance and Aerial Arts
Center for Dance at Aerial Arts
Photo Courtesy of Zaccho Dance Theatre

My relationship with heights is not a good one. I’m no fan; we’ve never been friends; and I would even characterize our co-existence as mildly contentious. For me, the ground is good; a safe place that is steady, solid and dependable.

Considering my fear of heights, you might think that even watching aerial dance would make me pretty nervous. But quite the opposite is true. I marvel at this unique genre. Maybe because picturing myself in that situation is tough, but more likely, it is because aerial dance is just truly amazing. Performers flying through the air, cycling through innovative choreography and defining new planes in space. And I am not alone in my admiration.

Aerial dance is literally and figuratively on the rise – it is hot and exciting; thrilling and dynamic. Though part of the contemporary dance scene for some time now, lately, it feels like the genre has been gaining extra momentum. Here in the Bay Area, we have aerial companies whose works are exclusively dedicated to aerial practice. At the same time, non-aerial choreographers are also starting to dip their toe into the aerial pool, creating multi-disciplined compositions that utilize aerial elements in the context of a larger work. With this growing community of practitioners and fans, aerial dance is experiencing a real boom.

What better time for the discipline to have its own, local dedicated resource. A place where beginners, enthusiasts and professionals alike can come together. Zaccho Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Joanna Haigood, studio manager/programming coordinator Sandia Langlois and the entire Zaccho family have turned this hypothetical into a reality. In September, they officially launched the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts, housed within the Zaccho Studio in San Francisco’s Bayview District.

Aerial dance and the aerial arts first became part of Haigood’s story in the mid-to late-1970s, when she was studying dance and choreography in college. In that formative period, she became fascinated with “making dances that were more dimensional and sculptural; work that came off the floor and described the space in a different way.” After spending time in both New York City and at the London School of Contemporary Dance, Haigood arrived on the West Coast, settling in the Bay Area to continue her artistic explorations. More than three decades have passed, and Haigood’s time in San Francisco has birthed a fruitful, creative and multi-faceted performing arts career, including the co-founding of Zaccho Dance Theatre. Haigood also established the Zaccho Studio, which she describes as “a magical place to work – a unique and beautiful space with gorgeous light and an open feeling.” That studio has not only built a vibrant youth dance education program but also fostered deep relationships with the surrounding Bayview/Hunters Point community. Success can be measured by many things but one is longevity. Today, each of these endeavors is still going strong.

Though it began more than thirty years ago, the bond between Haigood, aerial dance and the aerial arts community continues to grow, develop and deepen. Currently, she has big questions with respect to the discipline: “where is the field right now; where is it going; how can we bring the aerial community together; how can we focus on both skill building and how those skills are applied; how can the current vocabulary be stretched?” Issues of choreographic discovery, community engagement, attention to safety and negotiating physicality are of utmost importance, “are there different ways to explore compositional questions and exchange ideas about this particular form; is there a way to bridge the gap between the circus arts and aerial dance, looking at what each has to offer, and mining the principles of both practices so that we can expand what we can do in art-making?”

With such paramount puzzles at play, there did seem to be a logical next step – the creation of a place where aerial artists of all levels could come to experiment, work and learn. Haigood and Langlois dove right into ideas for this new project, researching current models and visiting existing schools. The newly formed Center for Dance and Aerial Arts is the result of their significant efforts. Haigood shares, “we hope that the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts will connect the community in new and exciting ways: taking classes, exploring the technique and composition and having in depth conversations on how to push the work forward.”

A new enterprise always brings with it exciting changes and development opportunities. And the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts is no exception. Most important was the curriculum – it needed to be re-designed, updated and diversified. Up until now, the majority (though not all) of Zaccho Studio programming was centered around youth. Aerial workshops for adults had happened but only intermittently. And so, it was crucial for Haigood and Langlois to establish a consistent adult class schedule. Of course, these programs will continue to evolve and develop over time as the Center grows and changes. But even two months in, numerous adult classes are up and running: aerial skills, aerial act creation, aerial dance composition, and an already popular aerial yoga class. As working with youth has always been and continues to be a focus at Zaccho, classes for teens have also been incorporated into the Center’s curriculum. Teen Aerial Kite is a terrific example. Taught by Chelsea O’Brian, this creative and unique class mixes new movement syntax with fabrics, hoops and a cloud swing.

The Center for Dance and Aerial Arts’ formalization also brought some logistic changes. The teaching staff needed to grow to cover the expanded class schedule. Along with Haigood, Langlois and O’Brian, some esteemed aerial artists and dance teachers have joined the faculty, including Heidi Button, Chloe Axelrod and Gregory Dawson. The studio infrastructure also received some upgrades. Equipment-wise, a new 60×60 floor of crash pad mats was installed, and the creation/construction of unique aerial apparatus is on going.

Then of course, is the issue of safety. With aerial work, safety considerations are huge, and the opening of the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts meant that all safety equipment was given due scrutiny. But aerial safety is not only about having safe equipment; it is also about teaching safe practices to all aerial practitioners and participants. While Haigood sees the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts as a place to take class and cultivate new material, it is equally a place for students and artists to think, learn and be trained in aerial safety. It is imperative that everyone knows how to use their chosen apparatus in the correct manner, “aerial work can be dangerous, especially when equipment use and rigging has been poorly handled, but with proper attention and training in safety measures, aerial practice is actually about lowering the risk.”

So with that in mind, let’s get back to my fear of heights.

Haigood shared something with me that I think is deeply profound, “there are reasons to why we have fear, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it!” Very true. Maybe it is about time for this writer to take a chance and move out of her comfort zone. What better place to do that than in an aerial class at the new Center for Dance and Aerial Arts.

For more information about the Center for Dance and Aerial Arts and all programs at Zaccho Studio, please visit

This article appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.