Stocking Stuffers for Circus Enthusiasts

Do you have someone in your life that does circus? Does their hobby brink on obsession? If you do, then this article will help you with your holiday shopping. The article is separated into types of circus folks to help guide the buying, but honestly many aerialists fall into multiple (or all) categories. Links have been included, but Born to Fly is receiving no proceeds for including them from the vendors of the items. Many were picked intentionally, but many are just quick looks via Amazon.  We’re just trying to make your holiday shopping SIMPLE as PIE! Enjoy!

The Aerial Addict

Let us begin with a more general group and move into some more specific types of practitioners. The Aerial Addict can be new to the circus, or a long-time enthusiast, but they have a burning passion for aerial and all things circus. When regular muggle things are turned into circus things, their heart soar and squeals may occur. Below is a fun list of things that you can give to help this soul rep their circus love loud and proud:


Circus tanks
Leggings/leg warmers
Water bottle/coffee mugs
iTunes/music gift card
Training notebook
Circus coloring books

These gifts are a great way to infuse circus into the everyday aspects of life. I know when I see these little things around I have found my people. These items are available in the rabbit hole that is Etsy but also fun things to creatively customize on your own for a more personal gift.

The Aches and Pains Athlete

This is our hardcore aerial addict! They are always striving to accomplish difficult things and working hard, resulting in all the muscle soreness that can be achieved by an individual. Along with aches, other pains often manifest from apparatuses “kisses” in the form of bruises, burns, or partial calluses. This person is dedicated to their work, but less so in their rest. The best gifts for this type of aerialist provide ouch assistance by helping them recover from their constant training. Consider the following:


o Tiger Balm
o Salonpas patches
o Tegaderm
o Bath bombs/Epsom salts
o Elbow sleeves
o Ankle booties
o Wrist wraps

Tiger balm or any type of muscle cream is great for larger areas of tenderness if an individual can’t make it home to soak their weary body in a hot bath with the relief of a bath bomb or Epsom salts for recovery. I, personally, love Salonpas patches. These are a great help for those “trouble spots” that haunt many aerialists. These give a constant tingle to a small area for a longer period. I have a spot on my upper trapezius that gets angry some days, but if I throw a patch on there, it relaxes up and doesn’t inhibit my training. Tegaderm is useful for more aggressive abrasions and scrapes that occur. These are far more helpful than Band-Aids because they stay on during high-intensity fitness activities. Ankle booties, elbow sleeves, and wrist wraps are all gear to wear during training for those painful skills these intense athletes strive for: ankle hangs, elbow circles, reverse flag, etc.

The Tool Gathering Guru

This aerialist has all the training accessories a person could ever need! Their apparatus alone will not suffice and various things get purchased to assist in developing that hard to target muscle for strengthening or flexibility. For these individuals, consider the following:


Peanut/Lacrosse balls
Resistance bands/loops
Yoga blocks
Back Warmer
Finger extensor strengtheners (rubber bands, live strong bracelets, etc)
Grip strengtheners
Rosin spray/powder/grip aids

While many of these can be purchased at a general fitness store, some of these are more obscure, like the peanut. If the aerialist your love is primarily a flyer, they might need to balance out their grip with finger extensor condition. If they are a handstands fanatic or hand-to-hand acro enthusiast, consider the reverse and give grip strengtheners. Many aerialists can be picky about their grip aids. Chalk, powder rosin, rosin spray, dry hands, dew point, etc. Invest here with a little caution, but if you know their grip aid of choice, then it’s an easy investment to include in a stocking and will get used happily.

The Budding Performer

This individual has found their expressive stage through the circus life! Signing up for every studio showcase, auditioning for every aerial slot available, this soul is meant to run away and join the circus. Taking classes is a mere tip of the iceberg for their expressive heart. Performing comes with its own list of special things and here is a good start for gifting to your circus ham:

Budding Performer

False eyelashes
Face jewels
E6000 Fabrifuse (non-toxic)
Nude Fishnets
Makeup remover
Facial masks

Things that make them dazzle are key! I love using false lashes when I perform, but I’m terrible with putting them on and mess up the glue EVERY time, so I personally use magnetic falsies. Full DISCLOSURE: I am a brand ambassador for the ones linked, but am not being paid to recommend them. I will, however, share my discount code for anyone that wants to try them (MCKELL10). Rhinestones are also their own animal. Swarovski and Preciosa are the best, but glass DMC is a more budget-friendly option while maintaining decent quality. Also, since performers often have fabulous makeup on all the time, a great skin care regimen can be crucial, along with items that help maintain their beautiful faces.

The Equipment Accumulator

This individual might also be referred to as a Circus Investor. Attending classes is not enough, they want their own apparatus, they probably own a portable aerial rig, they scope out ceiling beams and carabiners with a lusty hunger in their eyes. For these folks, I recommend giving these wonderful gifts:

Equipment Accumulator

Athletic tape
Hollow blocks
Carabiner keepers
Etching tool

If the circus love of your life is an equipment accumulator, beware, they are the most expensive circus artists to support. While many of these items might *fit* in a stocking, they can range significantly in price. When my husband gave me a stainless-steel Rock Exotica swivel, I swooned! Partially because it’s beautiful and spins forever, but also because it was a $200 investment, I hadn’t let myself make for ages. I do highly recommend giving the gift of an etching tool for any equipment hoarding circus dragons that love their shiny toys. Etching tools are inexpensive, but help promote long-term equipment marking and inventory management. (Is it obvious that this in my clan?)

In a very short period, this list has become very long.  Personally, I belong to most of the groups listed above and have some experience with most of the things listed.  Others (like rhinestones) I took the feedback from other glorious friends I have that use them.  Hopefully, it includes a few things that will be helpful when picking up goodies for your passionate aerial friends.  Do you have other favorites, not on this list?  Do you have a specific brand you swear by that we missed?  Comment and tell us what they are!


Groping in the Dark Part 2: A Case for Open Gym

This is a continuation of the previous post about the important of self-practice for students. Blog by McKell Anderson.

3 – Familiarity VS Mastery

Have you ever practiced aerial to a specific playlist? To the point where when one song ends that you know what song is going to play next? Or have you ever read a passage in a book so many times that when you get a few words in that you remember what it is all about? You don’t have it memorized and can’t recite it when the book is closed, but you recognize it.

Recognizing input isn’t the same as learning and is a far cry from Mastery. Often, recognizing what is happening can make us feel like “we already know” something, and the brain turns off. How does this relate to aerial? Have you ever started watching an instructor demonstrate something you are familiar with and stopped paying as close of attention? Or have you done a warm-up or conditioning drill so many times that you think you are a pro, only to have the instructor come around and tell you to zip up your core?

When asked to do the “hip key drill” at the beginning of class, you (or your student) fan kick like a dream with perfect execution. From the ground AND from the air! Later, when lost attempting the sequence in class, the help provided is to “find the hip key again” to restart. This tip is met with wide eyes of confusion, and the instructor must offer step by step instruction to get there successfully. This would be a sign of familiarity with one entry to a hip key, but light years away from the true understanding of the wrap and how it relates to other things.

How does one get beyond familiarity and take the next step to mastery? The book addresses many ways, but one crucial thing is this: stop repeating the same drills over and over again! Mass-practice of the same exercise will not lead to mastery, just like rereading text doesn’t lead to better recall. (I wish I had known that when I was in college.) This creates a familiarity that lets you feel good about your practice when your execution is not improving to the degree that you perceive. This leads to a thought that can be haunting:
Perceiving your practice as having gone well is often a symptom of familiarity and not mastery.

4 – Variety is the Spice of Circus Life

There are things we can do to help prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of familiarity. Learning and practice should involve varied approaches. One of the most significant issues with training is that sometimes we do the SAME drills for the skills we are learning. Lack in variation diminishes our ability to establish extensive connections mentally and physically, which results in a very shallow depth of understanding.

In the book, a study that was done tested a person’s ability to throw a ball into a bucket that was three feet away. The participants were separated into two groups. Group 1 practiced throwing balls into a container that was three feet away, just like the test would require them to do. Group 2 practiced throwing balls into a container at different distances, but never the three-foot distance needed for the test. After the practices, which group performed better on the test? Group 2. Even though the first group was doing the EXACT motion that the test would measure, their execution was not as good as the group with variety in their practice.

Sarah Scribbles Comic

Thanks Sarah Andersen for the comic.

A considerable benefit of variety in training is that it develops problem-solving abilities. For any aerialist that has ever gotten stuck in the air, being able to troubleshoot is an extremely critical skill. If you have learned ten different ways to get into a hip key through variability in training, then the ability to recognize different paths to save yourself in the air is more readily at hand and in the muscle memory of the body.

This past summer I participated in the Born To Fly Teacher Training for Level 1 Silks. The week of training was very intense and sometimes a bit overwhelming. I remember us going over invert progressions for HOURS. There was a list of different drills that boggled my mind, and at the time I thought, “Do we REALLY need to do all of these?” However, when I read the section in Make It Stick about the importance of variety, I realized those invert drills are not meant to all be done together when learning how to invert but are a benefit in providing different ways to do similar things over time. The various exercises doled out bit by bit will benefit an aerialist more than the same four drills done during warm up every single week when it comes to developing inversion strength.

Some subconscious repetition I have seen with training happens when you choose where in the room you like to train and what apparatus to use. In a class, students often find their way to a specific spot in the room and never leave it. Even though six apparatuses are hanging, they never leave THE ONE. Different environmental spacing and different equipment help develop better skills. Another example from the book was when a hockey team started performing their passing drills on different areas of the ice rink in practice, and the overall cohesiveness in the gameplay improved. It seems like a no-brainer, but when we practice, we tend to all congregate to the same area we usually do. Change which points you train on in the room, try the stretchy fabric, the braided rope, the big 38” lyra, or the un-taped trapeze bar. The difference in how things feel is vital to learn.

Variety in timing is also a great tool. Not only does this help with spaced retrieval for better learning, but this also helps with execution at different energy levels. Do you always train hard skills at the beginning of practice? Just after warm up? If you only condition how to do inverts at the beginning of class, then what will happen when you need to execute one at the end of a difficult routine when your body is VERY fatigued? Choosing different times during your practice to try skills can help make you into the best aerialist you can be. Don’t be afraid to do conditioning at the end of class or training.

Open Gym Practice is a Must

To get better at anything in life, practice is a key component. We now know that what happens in class is not “practice.” That is the time that new information is going in. We need time for the brain to process and assimilate that information in our minds. After our lesson, we need to get up in the air again later to review. For a lot of aerial students, aside from the weekly classes, not much additional practice happens. This approach removes the element needed for the recall of the things done in class to make them a more permanent part of a student’s repertoire.

 Pony Poison Comic

Thanks Pony Poison for the comic.

If the studio you attend has an open gym, make sure you take the time to participate regularly. This is the time to get the things out of your head and truly learn them. Practicing A LOT is not as important as practicing effectively. Here are some tips for effective good open gym practices:

1. Do not train alone for safety and helpful group problem-solving.
2. Make open gym training follow a different pattern than standard class structure.
3. Try different conditioning exercises or try them on a new apparatus.
4. Don’t forget about your “other side.”
5. Choose to review skills that are not fresh in your mind and harder to recall.
6. Review any forgotten things low and slow before moving up.
7. Try to connect skills, even if you fail.
8. Let yourself get frustrated, but don’t fall apart over it.
9. Do not let someone teach you something new; this is remembering time!
10. Write down any questions or things you couldn’t figure out for your instructor.

To clarify, I don’t think there is anything wrong with skill sharing (item #9), but that when it comes to learning retention, using open gym for skill sharing undermines our goal. The whole point is to add training time around the need for retrieval of skills without an instructor there to make it too easy. Plan additional training opportunities for skill sharing.
For studios and instructors, open gym is often a sensitive topic. Rules need to be established to make this type of practice a safe environment and not a liability risk. Here are some suggestions for ensuring that happens:

1. Have staff members present for supervision and emergencies, not instruction.
2. Require crash pad use for all apparatuses in open gym.
3. Wait to lower in equipment (or however your studio brings them out) until after enough time or warm up has elapsed.
4. Create a designated cell phone area that is not directly next to an apparatus but close enough for filming.
5. Display a list of any open gym restricted skills.
6. Provide “open gym homework” during regular weekly classes.
7. Ensure class time incorporates training on troubleshooting when stuck.
8. Pull apparatuses up (or however your studio puts them away) before open gym is over to provide cool down time without aerial temptations.

Many of these things are commonly part of studio open gym rules. I would encourage studios to designate a cell phone area for the sake that watching a video and immediately hopping onto an apparatus to do it isn’t a long-term learning skill. The student should have at least a little walk to forget and must recall the video content. Also, it is appropriate to decide dangerous skills are too risky for open practice environments without the appropriate instructor. Teachers providing homework can help encourage open gym attendance.

While taking time to practice skills away from an instructor can be scary and overwhelming, for the teacher as much as the student, studies show this learning strategy is sound. Ensure your learning methods are prepared to support a way for information to go into your mind and a way of getting that information back out. Without this balance, the frustration of forgetting will be your enemy instead of your guide.


McKell Anderson is currently working as Rebekah Leach’s right hand woman, creating blogs, fun newsletters, photo editing, and doing all the good stuff to make this curriculum project an aerial dream-come-true. 

The Importance of Groping in the Dark: Part I

A 2-part blog by McKell Anderson.

When it comes to the aerial and circus industry, there is a giant push for safety, which is terrific! A big thing that has come up is training without an instructor is not a safe practice, specifically when attempting to learn things from the interweb. While I agree that having a qualified coach is essential to a safe aerial career, I think we place too little emphasis on the importance of practicing aerial WITHOUT your instructor.

Wait… What?!
Is she suggesting that we let beginning aerialists do ANYTHING unsupervised?!  That is crazy! Unacceptable!  This is nonsense!  People are going to DIE!

Take a deep breath, stay calm, and read all the way to the end before you write this off as rubbish.

Have you ever had a student (or are you the student) that can execute 90% of what has been taught in class, but then has the memory of a goldfish when asked to perform a skill weeks later?  Or have you ever sent an instructor a video saying, “Can we learn this in class pretty please?!” to get a reply from your kind, patient, wonderful instructor saying, “We have done this skill at least a dozen times in class before.”  There is a vast difference between learning skills in class and remembering them later.  I think this is a particularly common issue with complicated wraps used in more advanced skills.

Comic by Pony Poison
Comic by Pony Poison

This phenomenon is not unique to aerials. There is actual research to why stuff falls out of our brains and what we can do to prevent it. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel shed new light on how learning works from a variety of empirical studies done over the past decade.

SPOILER: People think they are learning and retaining well when they are not.

Going through this book has completely changed my approach to learning and teaching. If you do not have time to read it on your own, here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom that apply to aerial practice.

1. The true direction of learning
2. The importance of the struggle
3. The difference between content familiarity and subject mastery
4. The importance of practice variations

1 – Better Out than In!

“The single biggest idea is that we tend to focus on trying to get new learning into the brain and we do that through repetitive reading and practice. But what research tells us is that learning really happens when we try to get new knowledge and skills out of the brain.” – Make It Stick

Qualified coaches are the best source for putting good aerial knowledge into students’ heads through lesson plans, spotting, and supervised execution. The knowledge going into the brain, while an irrevocably important part of the process, is not where learning happens. Without a situation for an individual to recall the data input and turn it back into the output, long-term retention of learning does NOT occur.  If you spend three hours on Instagram watching videos, but never get up and try any of them, did you learn anything from all your aerial research endeavors? In this information age in which we live, getting information into our heads is all too easy. The learning is in the retrieval of the information you took in. You would have to watch it AND DO it.

Doesn’t doing things in class count as learning?

The short answer: No. Why not? Our in-class time is a valuable opportunity for exposure to new information but without strategic lesson design, not the place for retrieval. You recall the information too close to when it was learned. Timing is essential, and there has not been enough time for it to be moved from short-term storage in the brain to long-term storage in the brain. There needs to be enough time for the information to be processed in your fantastic head. The consolidation of new information can result in varying levels of remembering, and the ability to recall skills from long-term storage is the place where learning happens. As an aerialist you need to attend class, take in the lesson and try the skills with your instructor, sleep on it, forget it a bit, then TRY IT AGAIN to maximize learning.

2 – All Aboard the Struggle Bus!

One of the side effects of waiting long enough to forget before practicing a skill again is that it makes it hard. The longer the time that elapses, the harder it gets usually. Wait too long, and you must start all over with the data input. Unfortunately, the struggle is the process that produces the benefit you want.

“It’s a funny thing, but we, especially those of us who are in the teaching profession, think that the more clear and simple we can make new knowledge, the better it’ll be learned and remembered. As learners, when it’s clear, we think, boy, that’s great. I get that.

“In fact it’s the opposite that is true, that when you have to struggle with the new knowledge a little bit, if you hear a lecture that’s very clear but it goes in a different sequence than the text you read, and you have to think about how to reconcile those — that way of engaging with the material enables you to get it to stick.” – Make It Stick

This is a difficult concept for me to swallow because of who I am as a person. I LOVE mapping things out in clear, concise ways. When a progression is organized linearly I get a satisfaction that I cannot describe! When teaching, I love having a lesson planned that sensibly guides students to their destination with as much ease as possible. I do not want them to get discouraged, be upset, or get confused. If I see a student struggling, I try to immediately step in to help. I want it to be simple, and the idea that I have been shortchanging students by making it TOO easy is giving me an identity crisis. I want students to succeed; however, short-term success can come at the expense of long-term learning.

Why is struggling important? This is where the book got very detailed into the functions of the brain, which I will botch if I try to break it down. The central concept describes how the brain retrieves memories and ideas. When we struggle and take the time to pull things out of deep forgotten places, it changes where and how the brain stores those ideas. When I thought about the aerial concepts that I understand like the back of my hand, I realized it was because I sat down and mapped out the theory on my own. I was given the pieces, but by assimilating them into the big picture is what embedded those concepts. This never resulted in my crying in class because it was hard, but the struggle of connecting things outside of class drove them into my mind forever.

Embrace the struggle. If you are in class learning a new skill, try to connect it to other things you know. Try to create relationships in the information that are not being PROVIDED for you. If you are a teacher, make a lesson plan that includes areas where students have to problem solve or remember. Since reading the book, I have made a habit of making students do what was taught the previous week without me saying or showing it again. This action alone has resulted in considerable improvements in student skill retention from week to week. The first week I tried it, it was ROUGH. It took almost ten minutes of precious class time for students to remember the full sequence. During the discussion, I wanted to jump up and show it to them quickly about a hundred times. The process of them figuring it out made it a sequence they haven’t forgotten since that recall exercise.

I made it through my identity crisis, but it wasn’t by abandoning all the lesson plans or careful progressions. I still use those when I teach and try to construct those as I learn. To facilitate more effortful learning, I now try to create opportunities for problem-solving. Sometimes I will show the final pose and give the class time to try and find different ways there, make them create a way to mimic it on the ground, or with a partner. Simple difficulty can be added by having them ask you questions about the skill WITHOUT actually speaking. Now I use my structure to show clear steps, but only after encouraging opportunities to make connections first. When the answers are provided after, the ‘AHA!’ seems a bit more resonant.

There is most definitely a balance between beneficial struggle and leaving class in tears. I challenge all aerialists to make sure that each practice involves a chunk of time where a battle is felt to a reasonable degree. Try a new way to get into something, even if it doesn’t work. Embrace frustration as your long-term learning companion.


Keep reading on our next blog post for points 3 & 4.