By Laurel Brauns for the Bulletin Special Projects
Aerial arts instructor and business owner Kendall Knowles is a strong woman. At 35, she looks like a mix of a yogi and a rock climber, with muscled arms covered with tattoos, a slim figure, blond hair, and flexibility that most 14-year-olds would envy. As she does a series of splits and stretches during our interview at her studio, Central Oregon Aerial Arts on Bend’s east side, she tells the story of the teaching and performance business that she started five years ago in the art of aerial silk dancing, which looks like a combination of yoga, climbing, and acrobatics as performers ascend and descend long banners of fabric.
The term “aerial arts” is an umbrella for many different circus-oriented activities; others use trapezes, hanging hoops, and hammocks. Performers typically work on equipment that is suspended from strong beams. Silk performers wrap colored fabric made from polyester, Lycra, and spandex around their bodies to support themselves while demonstrating splits, upside-down maneuvers, and a whole host of other physical feats designed to leave the audience in awe. The sport has been surging for the last five years through public exposure at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, and performances at music festivals, and because of the fitness craze.
“A good visual image of the sport is dancing in the air,” Knowles said. “It demonstrates both strength and flexibility.”
Inside the studio, in an industrial district in southeast Bend off American Lane, the ceilings are abnormally high. The artistic sport requires performers to climb many yards into the air on fabric that hangs from the ceiling using a combination of climbing-inspired equipment such as carabiners, a swivel that allows the dancers to spin in the air during their shows, and a belay device called a Rescue 8. Knowles safety-checks the equipment at least once a week, and she admits that replacing it is her biggest expense. A simple setup for a solo aerialist runs $400–$500. Safety is a big issue, since performers are suspended off the ground using the strength of their arms and a series of wraps with the silks to hold them in place. The beams supporting the dancers must be both high and strong, able to sustain weights of up to 3,000 pounds.
“It’s a way to get slim, flexible, and gain confidence,” Knowles said. “Lots of people lose weight from it and their confidence shoots through the roof.”
A Bend local, Knowles attended Mountain View High School and was a professional rock climber in her teens. She traveled to Italy and Amsterdam to compete in international competitions before moving on to the University of Nevada at Reno, where she studied painting and health ecology and developed a passion for circus activities through her proximity to the nearby Burning Man Festival.
After graduating, she became passionate about acting and was in a burlesque troupe in Reno for eight years, but the aerial arts kept calling, and she eventually attended teacher trainings in silks in both Portland and San Francisco. She moved back to Bend to be the head aerial arts instructor for the Bend Circus Center and, after a friendly split, started her own program in 2013 in conjunction with Gotta Dance Studio & Company in Bend. A year and a half ago, she finally procured her own space.
Knowles offers a series of classes for all levels of students, beginning with Level I, in which the group learns simple drops and wraps. Once they reach Level II, students start performing publicly. The highest goal is to audition for Knowles’s professional performance troupe, Aura, which regularly has paid gigs ranging from fundraisers to business functions to local music festivals. Students are offered only one chance to audition and may not be accepted.
“Being a part of the troupe, you are expected to do your part,” Knowles said. “We are a team once we start performing together professionally.”
In the past, Aura has been featured at events like a fundraiser for Realms Middle School, various conferences at the Riverhouse Convention Center, the St. Charles Hospital annual Saints Gala, the Women’s Health Convention, the Bend Chamber of Commerce Awards, SHARC’s Turf Tunes music series in Sunriver, and the Oregon High Desert Classics hunter/jumper competition. They have an upcoming performance scheduled at Bend’s Pride Festival in Drake Park on June 23.
While the majority of Knowles’s students are women, some of the best aerial artists that she has seen have been men. Unfortunately, many men have a perception that the sport is more akin to ballet, so she has a difficult time attracting guys into the studio.
Fifteen-year-old Amberly Schreiner-wood is a sophomore at Summit High School who has been practicing silks for four and a half years. She likes the fact that she puts in the hard work and then gets to shine during performances.
“It’s a combination of dance, movement, and acting,” said Schreinerwood, describing a recent piece she performed with troupe member Matea Gesuale to the ABBA song “Take a Chance on Me.”
Gesuale is a seventh-grade student at Realms Middle School who also enjoys the aspect of working hard and finally getting to show off her efforts.
“I like seeing people’s faces and their expression when I’m up there and when I’m done,” Gesuale added. “They are wowed and excited and it makes me happy.”
For both Gesuale and Schreinerwood, silks are their primary extracurricular activity. They attend practice for two hours on Sundays and an hour and a half Thursday evenings. They both help teach Saturday classes, and Schreinerwood comes in Wednesday evenings to teach as well. Both plan to continue performing after high school.
Bella Phillips and Rachel Wallace are students in the prep Aura troupe, which trains toward eventual professional performance; they also put in many hours a week to accomplish their goals.
“After practice, I always feel like I’ve accomplished something,” Phillips said. “It makes my body feel stronger, and I like performing all dressed up.”
Wallace speaks of the feeling of community she finds in being part of a close-knit group of aerialists in a choreographed act.
“We always want to be the best for each other,” Wallace said. “It feels like family because we have really close relationships with one another.”
Central Oregon Aerial Arts is a studio for aerial dancers and acrobats dedicated to building strength and performing with elegance. Open to students of all levels, the activity builds fitness, flexibility, and confidence in the atmosphere of an artistic company. Aura performs throughout Central Oregon—and whether you catch them at a music festival, a gala, or the High Desert Horse Classics, the art of dancing in the air is truly a sight to behold.