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. 






Burnout — Can’t come up with a cooler title since I’m burned out

This past summer, burnout started trending as the lastest thing to come out about. It was happening in epidemic. Young youtubers everywhere were coming on their channels to talk about their burnout. A classic conundrum: “This is all I’ve ever wanted. Why am I so unhappy?”

It made it to the youtube channel of Philip DeFranco, which is a channel that my husband loves watching, which is, in turn, what brought it to my attention. In his video, Philip DeFranco talks about how it’s everywhere but he wasn’t experiencing it himself, which was good to know. He talked instead about how to avoid it. I appreciate his advice, and have some of my own to share, which I’ll jump in with shortly here. I’m going to half admit to burnout myself. I will say that I suffer from burnout in some areas, but have hit a resurge in other areas. Here’s my story and my two cents on the subject. I feel it’s an important topic to address for any artist, young or old.

I wouldn’t be surprised if burnout was inevitable for any artist of any type anywhere. According to this article here, there are three main types of burnout. I see them as (1) burnout due to overload, (2) burnout feeling lack of purpose/relevancy — lack of moving forward with what used to be your dream, and (3) burnout caused by lack of motivation to do what you know you need to do. I’m going to clump all three of these together.

For my own burnout example, I started this blog about 9 years ago. I started this blog in order to share topics I was passionate about in the aerial arts. I have written on many subjects over the years and have been so rewarded by the results and the community who has supported my writings. (Here’s the story of one woman who’s life course was influened because of one of my blogs! )

I’ve given a lot through these blogs and I feel like there’s just fumes left now. I feel complete burnout and exhaustion just even thinking of writing one more blog! I get a bit fuzzy when I sit down to try to write. I feel the fear questions rising: Will I still be relevant? Can I put coherent words together and match the standards of my previous blogs? Do I have the same energy? Is anyone even reading these anymore? Am I still fresh or am I really just old news?


Social media puts the pressure on every artist to compare. It’s a numbers game. Who has the most likes? The most followers? Well, THEY must be the best. And I am not the best because my comments, my followers and numbers are low. That means I am not as valued. And the silly thing is that you feel the effects of this no matter how big your numbers get. Big and small Instagramers, etc, all suffer from the social media life-sucking powers. In fact, the larger the numbers, the more pressure you get!


I recently started a private Instagram channel where I am letting only a few aerial friends follow me where I get out all my ranting and life-processing that needs to happen but I don’t want to go full social media with. The fact that it’s just for friends and family makes me feel really ok when there’s isn’t over 1,000 views! I feel like I can more appropriately share my balanced life which includes the ups and the downs, while just sharing the ups on my more public pages. This is something I’ve enjoyed doing to find balance within my social media sharing.


Here’s what one friend recently wrote to me, “Lately I’ve been feeling super bla about circus. Like, uninspired. I see all these videos with super strong, super flexible people, and it’s like ‘I just don’t fit that mold…..& I don’t know that I want to.’ It’s not a self-deprecating thing….it’s a lack of care. I’m just not sure what my goals would be in an Instagram industry. I don’t have any desire to try to be status quo, and I just don’t feel any excitement around circus anymore. No one here seems inspired to create weirdness; so it’s just me making art happen for other people. It’s just…..bla.”

Man, how I can relate to that! It’s ironic that one of the major suggestions to avoid burnout is to have creative outlets. Us artists doubly suffer when our burnout is coming from our creative outlet and we don’t have back-ups handy. Who has time to pick up another hobby when I’m overworked as it is? Arh!

Often times, we love aerial so much, we make it our job. We start performing or teaching or start a studio. That means that we are doing aerial all the time. And while we love it, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, where it becomes a bad thing. Even if we love doing aerial 24/7, it’s just not sustainable. Everyone needs breaks. Everyone also needs refreshment from other sources.

The thing that was first on my list to avoid burnout is identify what was causing me burnout and stop that immediately for the safety of my mental health. For me, that was blogging. I like blogging, and I feel that it was a necessary part of my job in order to get the word out about my books, my video library, and to get people to understand me, but I had to dramatically cut back. I felt — and still feel — that blogs are necessary to drive traffic and awareness to my resources. But, if I writing a blog than I am not writing a book. And for me, books are what I really want to do. There, I have surprisingly not felt any burnout. I feel driven like you wouldn’t believe. I feel the clock ticking and all I want to do is finish my books before I die — there are a lot of them!


Blogging helps to keep me connected to the general aerial community. It helps me to have a voice, and by stopping the blogs, I feel like I’ve pulled some sort of plug. And in fact, I have. But it needed to be done. I am doing my best to find contributing writers and others who can blog here instead (know anyone? how would you like to blog here?!), but it has been hard, so the number of blogs released has decreased dramatically. Our growth has been slow. I haven’t gotten as much attention or shares on social media, and I’ve had to let all that go. I have identified what I want to do, and I must keep my eye on the prize. It’s when you start looking at the runner next to you that lose sight of the finish line. Don’t look around you. Just keep your eyes focused on your next step. What do you want to do? Where does your energy most thrive? You must do that. Nothing else. You cannot do it all. Eventually, there will be parts that need to fall away. If you can, hire people to pick up those parts. If you cannot, just let those parts go. Focus on where you feel driven. That is your calling.


There are going to be times when you don’t feel driven at all. In terms of creating new aerial works, I’ve dried up. I used to love creating new work, but I’m done. It’s not a hunger I have to feed anymore.

I bet you can relate to that point of not feeling motivated anymore. The truth is, when the dry spell comes upon you, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can read all the cliches and inspirational quotes on the internet, but it’s not going to change. At least not today. So, you might as well own it. Trying to summon enthusiasm is like trying to get my 3 year old to stop crying. Sometimes, you just have to let the tantrum out. Only it’s even harder when your tantrum is that you feel— nothing!

When I start feeling burnout (or it’s sibling, de-motivation) I go with it. I do nothing. For me, that’s the best thing I can do. Here’s three reasons why:

(1) Burnout is exhaustion of the mind. My mind needs to rest. Doing another thing on the to-do list will only make matters worst. Rest is the best thing I can do to help recuperation take place.

(2) I get perspective by doing something else. Rest is really just a change of activity from one thing to another. And when we do something different, we get a new perspective on everything. For example, “resting” can be going for a walk or coloring or reading a book, etc. All these time-wasters are really going to allow me to circle back to the things that matter in life. Not the number of likes on my facebook page or how many subscribers I have to my website (which feel like they drive my annual salary which is terrifying when it’s not enough).

(3) After a while, I typically get bored with doing these other activities, so then I ask myself, “I’m bored, can I go do something for my business now?”
My brain: “Sure Rebekah. What would you like to do?”
And then I think about what I really want to do — not what I feel I need to do to make anyone else happy. I go then to do the thing that would bring me the most fulfillment. In fact, that’s exactly how this blog came to be. Ta-da!!

I have been working on writing for my latest manual for three straight weeks now — 10 hours everyday. But, today, I was feeling a little burned from it and couldn’t get the motivation to get productive work done. So, I lay myself down on the floor after cleaning it a little (which always helps me think), and I thought about what I really want to do. That’s what drives me to do things. If I’m not driven, it won’t be quality. So, I have to wait for drive to come, and then I let it steer me. I have often joked that I wrote my first 6 books out of boredom. The rest I wrote because I needed to feed my family.

“I love these hours when I really can’t work..
love it when i have the real excuse,
because the rest of the time I just don’t stop…

without any decisions, I just slow down!!!!
connect to the way i feel,
and do anything that comes to my mind and makes me feel like doing it.
From eating an ice cream to listening to music
or doing my own lovely things
that are stuck in my mind for a while with no time to do them….

so these hours become full of living in harmony…

yohoooooo…. LET’S STOP WORKING.”
– anonymous person on the internet

Disclaimer: Everything I say must be taken with a grain of salt. There is something to be said for discipline of the mind as well. If I just wandered around all day everyday until motivation struck me, I’d never get anything done! I often don’t feel like working, but once I’m working, I get right into it. It’s important to not let the large daunting tasks ever stop you from getting started. I have a long list of things to do before I die, and I have no qualms about getting started on that list! I’m more-so addressing the days where it’s gone too far. It enters the realm of burnout.


In a way, what I am doing is embracing myself wherever I am at. And I think that’s important. I think often times, we get down on ourself for not feeling excited. We feel like we don’t even have the right to complain about it when we are living the dream of getting to do something we love! But, don’t feel guilty. All that is a waste of time and even more distracting you away from the goal. Just let yourself feel. Embrace it. Give it a hug. Say, “Oh, I love you, my de-motivated, tired self. Let’s go have coffee together. Do want to try something you’ll really suck at? Let’s try playing the piano today.” And then, you’ll be ready to go back to aerial cuz that’s something you’re actually talented at. (And if you’re a really talented professional piano player, then how did you come to be reading my blog?)

If you push a toddler, they will fight back and say no. When we are all grown up and no longer have our parents pushing us around, we get an even tougher person pushing us around — ourselves. And we push back. De-motivation and burnout is ourselves pushing back. We are throwing an inner tantrum when we get tired of giving to one thing. We have to let the tantrum ride its course. Take a break. Let it go. When its passed, say, “Are you ready to play now?” Good, because I have some fun ideas.


When you let out the emotion, even if its the truth that you have no emotion, you will find release. All these youtubers that were “coming out” about how they were burning out were publically demonstrating healthy mental health behavior. While we don’t need to share everything on social media, it is healthy to express what we are going through. Maybe that’s the inspiration for your next piece, eh? Paint this picture: You start to climb the rope, but don’t because you are not interested. It just doesn’t appeal to you. So you go sit down on the chair. But you keep thinking about that rope. Maybe you’ll go try to climb it again. Well, it’s really hard and just doesn’t appeal to you that much. Or does it? Only you know how the piece will end!

Don’t ever let the fear of the piece not being interesting or cool or relevant stop you from the creative process. If it is relevant to you, it is likely relevant to one other person. Stop playing the numbers game. Be inspired by what Ruth St. Denis had to say:

“I have performed for thousands when they found me exotic, the vogue, daring, but I have danced, at any give time, for about ten people… They were the ones that left the theater forever different from the way they were when they came in. All of my long, long life, I have danced for those ten.”

I’m going to shrink that down even more. I have danced my whole long life for an audience of ONE. I dance to connect with the divine in my own way. I feel the spiritual calling of the dance, the worship of God, the listening to the inner spirit when moving. It’s really for me. I hope that my work can have influence and can help others and can be shared, but even I were on an island alone, my life’s work would not change. I must do what I must do.

“Dance for yourself. If someone understands, good. If not, no matter. Go right on doing what interests you, and do it until it stops interesting you.” –Louis Horst

Rebekah Leach is the creator and founder of Born to Fly Curriculum. She has published 11 manuals (and counting) on the art of how to fly in the air. She lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with her husband and two beautiful children who continually remind her how to really enjoy life! She strongly believes in the philosophy that we are all builders of something, and that something needs to be building you up; otherwise it will turn around and destroy you. Anything built with human hands alone is not worth building. Anything built with the purposes of God at the very center (love) is always worth building.