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Aerial arts flying high in the Sea to Sky

'I describe it as this feeling of weightlessness in space – it's an adrenaline rush’: aerial artist.
Aerial arts — particularly the art of "silks," which sees (usually women) performers hanging, twirling and contorting on a long silk band suspended from rigging high in the air — has been growing in popularity in the Sea to Sky.

This is largely due to the ambition of one woman who has — sometimes stubbornly — persevered in her ambition to share her love of the art form.

"I describe it as this feeling of weightlessness in space – it's an adrenaline rush,” she said.  “I was pretty much hooked from the first time I tried it. I just kind of fell down this circus rabbit hole, so to speak."

As a dancer with a law degree teaching at a kids' camp in Pennsylvania, Dani Duncan was thrown into the ring when she was transferred to the trapeze department and found herself learning high flying tricks. She was instantly hooked, and after a brief return to her native Ireland, where she taught silks for a short time, she booked a one-way ticket to the West Coast and landed in Whistler with not much more of a plan than to spend a single season. She did, however, have her silks.

"I only brought one suitcase, and a large portion of it was taken up by this large silk," Duncan told The Chief. "I literally just showed up like a newb with a suitcase, and now I have this crazy business and started this aerial community; it's kind of funny how things worked out. It definitely wasn't part of the plan."

Duncan started Treeline Aerial in 2015, teaching silks to a handful of children and adults at Whistler Gymnastics. Since then, it's grown to over 160 students per week who come to her new studio space to learn circus arts like silks, aerial hoops, aerial straps and even aerial yoga.

For her, the journey from teaching silks in Ireland to bringing it here to the Sea to Sky has been about making the art form more accessible for everyone. And she couldn't be in a better place because it's taking off with leaps and bounds.

"It's just really evolved in the whole corridor," she said. "People are now really into silks, and they're rigging from all different kinds of creative spots, and obviously, we have a really nice backdrop anywhere you go in the Sea to Sky. I think I kind of started a chain reaction, but it's amazing to see. We've had so much support from the community."

This support can be seen in the local events and festivals that are hiring Duncan and her team to perform, and in some local climbing shops that have started stocking hardware compatible with silks rigging.

Part of this popularity can also be attributed to the value of circus arts as a cross-training activity for other local sports like climbing and mountain biking.

Duncan thinks a lot of those athletes find respite from competition when they practice something more creative.

"There's always that competitive edge when you're doing these sports in the Sea to Sky, but I find when you're in the creative realm, it's a lot more supportive and expressive, and people aren't there to compete against you — they want you to succeed. We find everybody cheering everybody else on. It's really positive, and it kind of breeds success."

Finding space to fly

Finding a permanent home for her business has been a challenge from the start, with space issues, skeptical potential landlords, and most recently, a global pandemic standing in her way.

"A lot of landlords, when you approach them and say you want to hang from the rafters, they don't even think you're serious. I had a bit of a barrier with that because a lot of commercial landlords were male, and they just thought that my business was just climbing curtains, or ribbon twirling, or all these weird things. They'd be like, ‘I don't know if that's a legitimate business.’ It was really frustrating. I got a lot of rejection, but it definitely made me more determined to persevere."

Persevere she did, and has now found a permanent home for her studio in Function Junction in Whistler.

After running a branch of Treeline Aerial at the Squamish Dance Centre until they essentially ran out of space, Duncan had to shutter the Squamish branch of her business in 2020 when the District updated its Business Park Zoning as part of the 2020 Zoning Bylaw Update to align zoning with the municipality’s Official Community Plan policies.

The move prevented new recreational businesses from opening in the Business Park. Because of the particular height and building code requirements for Treeline Aerial, the only spaces appropriate are large warehouse spaces, which fall under the bylaw.

"I'm definitely determined to get back into Squamish . . . it was disappointing for sure, to have a lot of momentum in Squamish and to just lose that based on not being able to get into the commercial area....It's been a real barrier for me to get back into Squamish," Duncan said, adding it has meant Squamish folks have to commute to Whistler.

She said she has also seen people practicing in ways that are not necessarily as safe as they would be in a proper aerial space.

The District of Squamish noted that Zoning Bylaws apply generally to an area of the community, and it is very difficult with this “general” approach to meet the specific needs of every business in every location. 

“Zoning Bylaws inevitably accommodate some uses and prohibit others. The District’s intent with the 2020 Zoning Bylaw Update was to maximize the potential for local employment, and encouraging further recreational uses in the Business Park was not consistent with that objective,” reads a statement from The District’s Rachel Boguski.

 “The District remains focused on supporting the growth and well-being of existing businesses while attracting new employment to Squamish to support our growing population and workforce. By ensuring the right mix of employment land uses we can add both diversity and resiliency to our employment base and economy.”

Aerialist Louise Robinson, who teaches at Treeline and herself commutes to Whistler to practice and work, agrees that there is a bit of a "DIY" element of aerial arts that seems to be emerging with its popularity, as can be evidenced by social media accounts featuring amateur adventure aerialists hanging from unlikely places.

This can encourage dangerous practices, she says.

"I feel like the performance art is now turning into an adventure sport, which it isn't really . . . it's not realistic. It's making people think that that's what aerial silks is. And in my opinion, it's not. It's a performance art first, and fitness second."

Already an actor and a performer who works mostly with kids, Robinson came to the art later than most and says that it changed her life.  

"It just turns into something that you can't ignore. It's one of those things that, once you do, you just love it so much, and then you just try everything in your power to do it as much as you can. I started doing this when I was already over the age of 30. I'm the fittest and healthiest that I've ever been."

Beyond the impressive levels of fitness that circus and aerial arts can help those practicing it achieve, there is also a strong sense of community involvement, centred around a welcoming, supportive environment.

No one knows this better than Whistler-born-and-raised Melissa Manuel, who has studied circus arts all over the world and now teaches aerial in Saudi Arabia.

In her studio, she sees firsthand how circus arts can empower people from all walks of life.

"With circus, it doesn't have to be pretty," she said. "It can be ugly, and that's the beautiful part of performing, is that you can perform in so many different ways, and you can train in so many different ways, and so many different aspects. It doesn't matter how old you are, what you look like, what your body type is. It really is for everybody. And I think that's why it attracts such a diverse population because it is so different. There are no rules."

On a recent return to the Sea to Sky, Manuel was "really excited" to see how aerial arts have exploded here and in other parts of Canada. Unlike similar activities like dance and gymnastics, there is no specific body type or age that is required to succeed in circus arts, she explains.

"Europe has had circus arts as a part of their culture for so long, whereas Canada really hasn't, except in Montreal, and in a really small community in Montreal. Seeing it really move into allowing laypeople, or even kids, to take part in it as a recreational option is so exciting for me to see because it's such a rich community and it's vibrant and it offers something that no other sport does . . . an opportunity to be anybody that you want to be."