Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: Lexington aerial silks artist definitely has the hang of it

Aerial silks performer Jessica Johnson of Lexington will be a featured performer at the Living Arts & Science Center's H'Artful of Fun gala.
Aerial silks performer Jessica Johnson of Lexington will be a featured performer at the Living Arts & Science Center's H'Artful of Fun gala. Lexington Herald-Leader

On an icy Thursday afternoon while a lone gymnast tumbles in the confines of Premier Athletics near Lexington's Hamburg area, Jessica Johnson is playing near the ceiling.

With a pair of silk strands, she has hoisted her tiny frame near the lights 25 feet off the floor, already an impressive feat by most people's standards.

But she's about to make that look easy.

Hanging near the rafters, she hooks her leg around one strand while wrapping a lot of both fabric ribbons around her torso. Then, unhooking her ankle, she quickly twirls toward the floor like an unraveling ball of yarn.

And this was a fairly simple task compared to other variations on this theme that Johnson executed during her short practice before teaching classes at Bella Forza Fitness, an aerial silks studio she has run since August.

Attendees at Friday's H'artful of Fun, the annual fundraiser for the Living Arts & Science Center, will get to see Johnson's first public performance in Lexington on the aerial silks, although she hopes performances might become more common in the future.

People might be most familiar with aerial silks through Cirque du Soleil and similar troupes. Or maybe they saw pop singer Pink's acrobatic routine during last Sunday's Grammy Awards or her concert tour last year.

Johnson came to the art and fitness form after years participating in more mainstream athletics, such as long-distance running.

"My whole life I've been an athlete," Johnson says. "I played volleyball and softball, and I've always been very active. And in college, to stay active, I would just run."

After graduating from the University of Kentucky four years ago, she took a teaching job in Cincinnati. A branch of Bella Forza Fitness opened near her Cincinnati home, and she decided to give it a shot.

"I was trying to keep my time occupied because I had gotten injured from running, so I couldn't really run anymore," Johnson says. "I got introduced to aerial fitness, and after the first class, I just fell in love.

"It's probably the most challenging thing I've done in my life, and it's fun, and I can stay in shape in a fun way. The more I researched it and watched YouTube videos and have seen live shows, I thought it was so beautiful and such an amazing art form, I fell in love with it even more."

A combination of athleticism and art, aerial silks has a lot in common with disciplines such as dance, figure skating or the circus in that they require strength and stamina in the service of creating images and telling stories.

For H'Artful of Fun, for which she shares the entertainment bill with the Patrick McNeese Band, Johnson is working up two routines to complement the event's theme, "Nightfall."

"You always want to do some 'wow' moves, like some drops and flexibility moves," Johnson says. "Then, really, it's about inspiration, finding inspiration in the song and the theme of the event.

She says she tried to find music to pair with the "Nightfall" theme and then worked on a story.

"The first piece on the hammock is about the sunset, and the feeling you get when the sun sets," Johnson says. "When I think of the sun setting, I think of leaving work and going home to your family or friends, so it's that feeling of excitement and escaping the 9-to-5."

The second piece, on the longer silks, will be about dreaming, and she plans to end lying out, in mid-air, as if she's sleeping.

"I love choreographing and making everything look effortless when really, it's extremely hard," Johnson says.

Since moving back to Lexington last year, she has transitioned into running her own business and teaching.

"It's all about trusting yourself and trusting your body," Johnson says. "And, of course, you never do anything way up high until you've mastered it from down low to the ground."

In nearly four years practicing aerial silks, she says, she has fallen only once, and that was when she was near the floor, so she did not get hurt.

She got the H'Artful of Fun gig through a Living Arts & Science Center board member who is in one of her classes and asked if Johnson would be interested in performing for the gala.

Classes, she says, are full, from beginners to advance students.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm," Johnson says. "Lexington is very interested in aerial silks."

Now, she hopes the same will be true of aerial silks performance.