Aerial Dragons Defy Gravity in Tampa

Third-generation Circus Performer and Aerial Arts Entrepreneur Jessica Watson is taking her craft and her students to new heights several times a week in North Hyde Park through her recently launched school Aerial Dragons.

Aerial art is that part of the circus where you are looking up, holding your breath, praying the performers are wearing invisible parachutes. Think Cirque du Soleil, think trapeze, think pretzel.

It turns out backyards are to aerial entrepreneurs as garages are to high-tech start-ups.  

This is mainly due to the fact that the equipment necessary to suspend these outrageously flexible beings peek above the rooftops.

The two structures that grace Watson's tiny backyard a few blocks west of the Straz Center are a 22-foot steel rig from which lengths of durable chartreuse lycra flow, and an adjustable aluminum 14-footer which holds a large ring or a static trapeze.

Suspended In Class

"This is called the chiffon, the fabric, the silks,'' Watson explains to her students in their first task during class: Climb the 22 feet of fabric to the top of the rig. She demonstrates how to wrap the fabric precisely around one's feet. "We always wrap inside, then out,'' she says. She does this, then quickly, with the greatest of ease slithers up. Coming down, she warns, "you must "walk yourself hand over hand. If you slide, you can get rope burn.''

Watson gently guides her pupils to manipulate the silks into stirrups, exuding a knowledgeable, patience vibe. She is very encouraging and her students are downright evangelical about her classes.

"It's like an addiction,'' says Jordan Tremel. "It's so cool how your body changes.''  

Several students echoed this, remarking on the upper body strength necessary to master the poses and their delight in their newfound strength and flexibility. They are a supportive group, often cheering for one another after a milestone is achieved in class.

Aerial Dragons Student Latraia Savage enthuses, "If I am off work, I will be here!'', even as she struggled to mount the fabrics.

"Everyone has the potential,'' comments Jennifer Morgan, a freelance hairstylist, who started classes earlier this year and now not only can do the splits, but can do them upside down hanging by her feet wound in the fabric while suspending another student swing-like with her outstretched arms.

Kaley Gay, a yoga instructor, says aerialist "is such an elegant way to work the body and once you get there you feel powerful and beautiful!'' Of Watson, she says, "She's phenomenal, super patient.''

Growing Up With The Circus

Watson grew up training -- "15 years, nothing but circus - five hours a day, six days a week'' -- at the Sailor Circus Academy in Sarasota. The Academy is America's oldest youth circus, known as "The Greatest 'Little' Show on Earth'' and now part of the Circus Arts Conservatory. Watson, always encouraged by her trapeze-artist mother, who was also a coach at the school, has performed widely, including once in South Korea where she dangled from a hot air balloon, maintaining herself upside down for 15 minutes.  

Studying theater, advertising and public relations on academic scholarship, she managed to bring the circus with her to the University of Central Florida, where she created UCF Circus Spectacular productions. After graduation, she taught for several years at a Clearwater dance studio, coaching aerial arts and building up the circus practice and student base there. On her own time, she started training a small group of women, forming a troupe of six "Aerial Dragons'' ready to book performances.
Word of mouth travels quickly and demand for her unusual workout was heating up among friends and acquaintances.

"So many people are interested and want to perform,'' she says. "It is so different from a regular workout. They've just fallen in love with it.''

Meanwhile Aerial Dragons was starting to get requests for performances. She realized she could coordinate those herself. Though she still has a day job at a restaurant, she made the big step in January to go out on her own, and dedicate herself to a school of her own, albeit in her backyard for now. In June, the school officially became an LLC. And in August, she is attending the American Circus Educators Conference in Montreal.

Ready To Soar

Watson offers 90-minute beginner to advanced aerial training, contortion and conditioning classes as well as private lessons. She is working on developing full-scale routines for her Aerial Dragons troupe, which performed at the Gasparilla Music Festival and the Yogi Festival.

Expansion beyond the backyard does pose some challenges, not the least of which is finding affordable space for her studio with the necessary ceiling height. She is looking forward to working with kids again once this is in place and she envisions sharing the space with yoga classes and other wellness and health endeavors to defray costs.

Like any startup she is contemplating the logistics of growth and is piecing together her business plan and how to finance it.

"We really have to sit down and figure it out. It's happening really fast!''

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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