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07/25/2001 - Updated 03:46 PM ET

Aerial dance sweeps the nation

By Molly Thomas, USA

Attached to a rope between a cliff and the Lost Aero Spire in Yosemite National Park, Amelia Rudolph begins to untie the knot that is holding her on the rigging system 2,800 feet in the air. As the knot comes free, Amelia falls through the air to be rescued by the second rigging system. At that moment, Rudolph says she briefly gets nauseated and her nerves nearly get the best of her. Then she begins to dance.

Suspended, she rolls in her harness turning upsidedown and spinning in different directions. She gestures with her hands and head, moving within her own interpretation of a swift, a small bird known for its rapid flight and shrill screams.

Experienced mountain climber - and dancer. As the founder and artistic director of Project Bandaloop, an aerial dance company that combines dancers with climbers and riggers, Rudolph describes her career as invigorating because it allows her to do things she couldn't do anywhere else.

"Aerial dance is movement generated by the cross-pollination of dance, climbing, and aerial work," Rudolph says. "The dance sense of it comes in with the artistry, the connection of one movement to the next. When I fly out into the air off of the tenth story of a building and I am suspended for 10 seconds, that is just beautiful movement to watch."

Aerial dance is a new trend catching on in the dance world, especially in the western United States. This week, aerial dance companies from around the country are gathering in Boulder, CO to share ideas, learn new techniques, develop new apparatus and perform at the annual Aerial Dance Festival. Nancy Smith, the founder and artistic director of Frequent Flyers Productions, formed in 1988, is coordinating the event.

"I think that aerial dance is just now starting to appeal to a bigger public," Smith said. "The art form brings in people from all walks of life who are taking aerial dance in many different directions. The festival is a chance for us to bring all of those ideas together."

Aerial —or vertical —dance has been around since the 1970s. The idea that forms the foundation is that of taking dance elements into the air using special apparatus.

One of the best known pioneers in the art form is 67-year-old Terry Sendgraff, a dancer who began working with the low-flying trapeze in 1975. Sendgraff wanted to bring something new to choreography. In a birthday performance for family and friends, Sendgraff incorporated trapeze work into her dancing. With that performance, Sendgraff kicked off the unique combination of circus art with dance that has taken 25 years to gain substantial popularity.

"Aerial work has been around in the circus for a long time," Sendgraff said. "But aerial dance is different because it brings an internal passion to the performance. Flying and moving in the air has always been something symbolic for the dance world, but now it is real."

At first, Sendgraff met opposition from traditional members of the dance community.

"People were reluctant to take me seriously at first," Sendgraff said. "They claimed it wasn't dance, but I was serious and stuck with it. In the end, it made me very happy to see that people found enjoyment from watching me perform."

As Sendgraff continued in her pursuit, she became the inventor of the single-point trapeze, an apparatus where the two ropes of the trapeze connect to a single attachment point, allowing an element of spinning as well as swinging.

Sendgraff inspired many people to take to the air developing and utilizing new apparatus like climbing walls, steel poles and flying boxes and discs, as well as take aerial dance into different environments.

Orts Theater of Dance, a company that originally began as a modern dance company 17 years ago, is taking its aerial dance form overseas. The company has performed in Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, British Islands and St. Petersburg, Russia. Anne Bunker, the artistic director for O-T-O Theater of Dance, says she believes it is important to open the world up to aerial dance.

"I think we should bring the art form into countries that are now emerging into contemporary dance and expose them to aerial dance," Bunker says. "We teach these countries through extensive workshops so that the form can eventually become international."

For Rudolph and Project Bandaloop, one foot is inside the concerting world and one is inside the climbing world. While they continue to perform in rigged theaters, the company enjoys celebrating natural spaces as well.

"One of the most exciting performances we ever did was a vertical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet out of the 23rd story of a skyscraper in Houston," Rudolph says. "We were 350 feet in the air with the Houston Symphony below us and 40,000 people watching. It was magical, and it had quite an impact on people."

When trying new equipment and techniques, safety is always an issue. Project Bandaloop uses a system of three checks to make sure its dancers are safely secured. According to Rudolph, the biggest problem is human error.

At the same Houston skyscraper show one of Bandaloop's dancers got through the first two checks without anyone noticing her harness was fastened incorrectly. A rigger caught the mistake on the third and final check before she was suspended.

"We go into this field with the philosophy that the way to be the most safe is to assume that something will go wrong," Rudolph says.

Despite the risks involved and the struggle to get their art recognized, Rudolph and the other aerial dancers are continuing to practice their art from the tops of mountains to skyscrapers with theaters in between.