You may recognize the name Michele Frances as one of the trainers who has been working with Erin Ball, who was featured in our last blog. Michele is a multi award winning professional aerial coach & performer, Physical Therapist, Certified Pilates Instructor, and strength training specialist. Last year, she worked as a contract aerial coach for Cirque Du Soleil during the summer Kooza run in Austin, Texas. Michele was also nominated and voted “Best Silks Instructor of The Year” and “Best Silks Choreographer” by Miss Texas Pole Star in 2013 and 2014. Here is some seasoned advice about what it takes to make it as an elite coach.
It all started a little over 12 years ago. I had been working as a traveling Physical Therapist in Seattle, WA after moving there from San Francisco. By myself. Suffering from a broken heart (yep, I got dumped), I was doing everything I could to keep myself busy and not dwell. One morning at work a close co-worker at the hospital casually mentioned that she went on a date to a spectacular dinner theater show over the weekend (I believe it was Teatro Zinzanni), and she said: “Michele, I cannot explain it. I just kept thinking of you. You would have loved it. There were dancers on the ceiling swinging around and acrobats. The costumes where amazing”.
Way back then I did not even know what the term “aerial” meant, and I told her “that’s funny because I always wanted to try trapeze!” (visualizing traditional flying trapeze in my head). So, during my lunch break that day I googled “Trapeze lessons Seattle” and found my first aerial coach, Lara Paxton (founder of The Aerialistas & Circus Contraption). I called the number, assuming I would have to wait awhile to sign up but she said, “yeah, just show up tonight”. So I did, and many aspiring aerial students and professionals know this feeling; my life changed forever. I spent countless hours and lots of money learning in that funky old circus warehouse/airplane hanger for years to come. Over the next decade and beyond I traveled the country to learn from coaches at NECCA, Colorado, Chicago and San Francisco. By 2006 I had my own studio space where I offered physical therapy, Pilates and aerial lessons all under one roof. I also taught regular classes at my Seattle aerial home, Versatile Arts. These days-in 2016-you can usually find me teaching classes at my southern aerial home, Sky Candy, as well offering aerial workshops in cities across the United States.
Working as an aerial coach provides the perfect way for me to meld my background in physical therapy, kinesology, neurodynamics, Pilates, and injury prevention with my aerial skills. Having this extensive knowledge base of anatomy, arthrokinematics, and efficiency of movement has allowed me to help my students, and myself to achieve new skills that seemed out of reach. As an aerial coach I’d say my passion can be summed up in a handful of words: empowerment, nuance nerding, humor, and adaption.
On a daily basis I witness the empowerment that aerial practice gives students, and it is a privilege to help them reach new goals. I love working with all levels and I specialize in coaching intermediate to advanced/professional students in silks, corde lisse, and single/double point sling. Having the strength to demonstrate skills in super slow motion, break down explanations for positional engagement, and provide visual/mental metaphors for body position comes from both physical and creative places within myself. These abilities as a coach allows me to customize tools and drills for students to unlock their current limitations.
For one example, I currently have a level 1 silks student who had been struggling with short arm holds for many months when I met her. After 5 weekly sessions during her first series with me, she was able to hold a short arm, hollow body hold for over 10 seconds. She achieved this by working on 4 different ground drills that I had customized for her. The look on her face when she realized that she was still holding after a few seconds was priceless. Being able to empower her with not just a new skill, but also tools to be involved with her own progress is invaluable to us both. Here is an example of a drill that that focuses on the core engagement and shoulder/elbow mechanics that I developed for those students who are struggling with inversions:
Many of my students work full time for a living, and some of them have really tough jobs. Aerial classes are their escape, and for some their major social outlet and their source of joy. Watching a student’s demeanor, face and spirit literally change from run down and dragging to sparkling and excited within an hour long lesson is thrilling, infectious and so motivating. It’s like watching a plant that is starved for water and sunlight spring to life. I see aerial as a never-ending process, regardless of level. As a coach and a dedicated life long student I get to enjoy empowering my students and clients, and I get to feel that empowerment myself when reaching those small victories in my own practice. I’m pretty sure this internal feeling of empowerment is how the aerial addiction begins for all of us!
As a physical therapist for over 16 years I am a certifiable anatomy nerd. I coach every single one of my students as if they will be performers. This keeps a tight watch on form, efficiency and technique. I strive to break down every skill and fundamental building block even further down to the fine elements and muscular/joint nuances for engagement and proper position. I’m passionate about approaching everything from fundamentals to high level release skills & dynamic beats piece by piece. Dissecting these details associated with each skill including balance, grip position, rotation engagement, weight transfer and so on enables me to help students unlock where they may be blocked with regards to a new tough skill or transition.
After over a decade of training and teaching this way, I find it not only promotes the best possible form for each student’s current ability, it also makes my students more creative in the long run. This continuous approach has allowed me to find “new” ways of transitioning in and out of otherwise traditional or “old” skills. Focusing on the nuances trains the brain and body about wraps and breaks theory. I spend most days “nerding out” on how different transitions can be created, modified, and even be applied to another apparatus. Nuance nerding is also how I approach aerial choreography. Melting unique transitions from one skill into another and finding dynamic movement from static positions motivates me to create, and breaks me out of what is expected.
Even at my seasoned age, I still don’t know much about life, but I can tell you that if someone takes themselves too seriously, they probably will not get too far. Enjoy yourself, and learn to laugh at yourself. Find the funny in everything!! That’s how I HAVE to approach life, because that’s just me. I’m a very serious and picky coach (that’s what I’m paid for). However, my students usually leave with silly mnemonics or visuals for remembering and understanding drills, skills or sequences. I often hear “I’m never going to forget this now” if I offer a funny story, term or visual go to with an instruction. I just took a quick facebook poll today, and many of my current students and others from years past chimed in with the some of the “Michele-emisms” that they still use to remember things like: “napkin ring”, “jackie chan”, “kiss my grits”, “butt plunger”, “milking the cow”, “the tickle”, “no bread loaf”, “Michael Jackson leg”, “candy dish” and so many more. These silly sayings give automatic, clear visuals for physical tasks to everyone involved- even several years later. Humor my friends is effective, and for some as necessary as air.
This a very exciting one for me, and I feel like it’s going to be bigger and more popular over the next few years. One of the most rewarding career experiences I have had recently is coaching a student in Canada. Erin Ball is an experienced aerialist who now uses bilateral lower leg prosthetics. She trained in aerial arts and acrobatics for sometime before an unexpected event left her with both of her legs amputated below the knee. Truth is Erin Ball is a ball of fire!! Working with Erin has really given me the chance to blend my physical therapy background with my aerial coaching skills. Helping her go back to some silks skills that she thought she might not do again and teaching her new ones (with and WITHOUT her legs on) has literally brought me to tears with excitement. Adapting an aerial apparatus and approach to accommodate for a physical limitation, age, weight/size, blindness, and more brings me right back to that first word: Empowerment. Being able to empower these students is the best reward as a coach. Adaptive coaching for adults opens a whole new world of possibilities.
To become a Physical Therapist I followed a predetermined career path that I had set out to complete. This path included years of consecutive college courses, clinical internships and national testing exams. Conversely, I never truly set out to become an aerial coach. My interests, skills, passion and abilities led me to it. It is these personal individualities that drive me to add to my tool box, and consistently grow every session. There is no designed program to become a coach. Sure, there are some solid “aerial teacher training” programs that provide entry level teachers the essential foundations for basic skills and spotting; however, it takes years of experience, continued training, and practice in other related fields of movement (fitness, dance, Pilates, therapy) to truly find YOUR own voice as a coach.
Learn more about Michele Frances at her website, MicheleFrances.com
You can also find her on Facebook at: Facebook.com/michele.frances
All photos in this article are of Michele Frances, except the last one of Erin Ball.
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