WHAT IS ACROBATIC DANCE AND IS IT SAFE? – A GUIDE FOR PARENTS

By Heidi Williams / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)

If your dancer isn’t already in an Acro Dance program, I’m sure they’ve asked you about joining one due to the heightened popularity of the Acrobatic dance style in recent years. As an Acro dancer myself, as well as having roughly 18 years of experience as a teaching professional I have seen classes slowly become more in demand, and with the demand see more parents needing answers to questions about what exactly their child is learning in these lessons.

Acrobatic Dance or Acro is a style of dance that combines nearly any style of dance, but usually lyrical, contemporary, or jazz with acrobatic skills and tricks. It is safe when skills are taught incrementally and with an Acrobatic Teacher certified in safe training practices.

Acro Dance has continued to achieve heightened popularity in recent years, no doubt a result of the increase of televised dance competitions, astonishing Cirque du Soleil productions, as well as floods of social media how-tos and trick challenges. And since I am an Acro teaching professional, I have lots of helpful information for you that will hopefully answer all your questions in regards to Acro Dance.  So, first off, let’s tackle the basics: What exactly is Acro Dance?

Written by Heidi Williams and Edited By Samantha Bellerose

WHAT IS ACRO DANCE? – An indepth explanation

Acro Dance combines dance techniques with acrobatic elements, fusing them together choreographically so they are artistically intertwined and smoothly executed. Acro Dance is generally considered to have three main elements: strength, balance, and flexibility. Other elements that are often seen in Acro Dance include some or all of the following: contortion, limbering, partnering and/or group work, lifts, tumbling, and some form of classical dance technique.

Acro can be fused with a variety of dance styles including, but not limited to contemporary, modern, lyrical, jazz, hip hop, and theatrical dance. Often you might see some elements of Acro Dance included in a dance routine, but this doesn’t make it an Acro dance.

Most adjudicators of competitive Acro routines expect to see a 50/50 ratio –the dance should include 50% dance technique and 50% Acro elements.

ACRO DANCE ORIGINS – A Brief History

It’s difficult to definitively say when and where Acrobatics first began, but there is evidence of Acrobatics being performed as far back as in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, as well as in Ancient China, Japan, and India. It seems the role Acrobatics played varied from culture to culture. Acro seems to have been used for a variety of purposes including as performance art, a tool for healing the body and spirit, in physical training, preparation for war, and much more throughout history. This is why you see many variations of Acro even today –Acro Yoga, Acrosport, Acro Dance, Aerial Acrobatics, Acro Gym, etc.

1800’s

In North America, Acrobatic dance began to emerge in the 1800s but gained larger audiences on stages in the early 1900s during the American Vaudeville era, which featured acrobatic acts like The Crackerjacks, the Watermelon Trust Acrobats, and many more. Acro in this era was often mixed with comedic acts, circus stunts, singing, etc.

1900’s

Acro has come a long way since then and has gained much more recognition since the late 1980’s early 1990’s for being an art form rather than a vaudeville sideshow or comedic act through the popularity of Cirque Du Soleil, who travel the world with their mesmerizing, artistic and extremely entertaining human circus.

2000’s

More recently acrobatics has infiltrated many genres of dance which has been most evident at dance competitions. Over the years, to get an edge over fellow competitors dancers would perform increasingly difficult acrobatic tricks within their dance routines. Over time, the line between whether a routine was actually a dance routine or too full of tricks became increasingly blurred and the need for a separate section in competitions was created to accommodate this new style of dance and to preserve the integrity of other styles such as jazz and contemporary.

The Future….

As time goes on and knowledge increases, acro dancers continue to refine their technique and push their abilities to new heights. Perhaps, it’s simply in human nature to want to defy gravity, reach maximum agility, and accomplish amazing physical feats. Maybe it’s part of what makes us human, the quest to push our limits and accomplish great physical feats –the possibility of being better, becoming more.

IS ACRO DANCE SAFE?

The desire and effort towards pushing our limits and further our skills is a positive one, and as long as dancers pursue their Acro Dance goals with mindfulness, wisdom, and knowledge, under the direction of a trained professional it is completely safe.

However, that safety is compromised if they demand from their bodies more than it is currently ready for, or they try to skip ahead to skills they aren’t prepared to attempt –in which case they put themselves at risk of getting injured. Quite often dancers see a cool trick in a routine, and they say, “I want to do that!” That’s great to want to achieve new moves and new skills. The problem arises when they aren’t willing to do the work needed to safely acquire said skills (i.e. progressions, strengthening, conditioning, stretching, etc.), and/or they aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to safely progress.

I’ve had parents ask for 4 private lessons for their child so they can “get their aerial,” but the child couldn’t actually do a cartwheel yet. It is unrealistic expectations such as these that set dancers up for injury and disappointment.

These days we are used to getting everything we want and need fast, at drive-thru like speed. If we need it faster, we can throw more money at it and expect results. When it comes to physical skills and athletic skills, there is no shortcut to succeeding safely.

Social Media and the Acro Skill Safety

I cringe whenever I have a student say, “I watched a how-to video on YouTube,” for several reasons. First, because anybody can make a how-to video, regardless of whether or not they actually know how to do what they’re showing you how to do it correctly. And secondly and most importantly, when you watch a video clip, you’re seeing the culmination of perhaps many years of practice, failures, efforts, etc. The videos often make it seem like all you have to do is X a couple of times, and Y a couple of times, and then you’ve got it! Bing, bang, boom! Then kids get frustrated when they do X and Y, and it goes bing, bang, plop!

There are safe progressions for skill-building that work. The repetition of these progressions builds the necessary strength and/or flexibility required to achieve the skills and reinforces correct and safe muscle memory.

IS ACRO DANCE DIFFERENT THAN GYMNASTICS?

Yes, Acro Dance is different from gymnastics! “Gymnastics is a sport, Acro Dance is an art,” is often the response when that question is posed. Although gymnasts and Acro dancers have a similar set of skills, the two are actually quite different.

Female gymnasts have four rotations they go through in each practice: floor, bars, beam, and vault. Gymnastic floors have coiled springs beneath the matted surface. Acro Dance is often learned in a dance studio with mats, covering a dance floor, and doesn’t use beams, bars, or vaults as part of the training. When gymnasts compete, they have very specific criteria that they are required to meet in each category. Often on floor and beam, they have certain turns that are required, a specific leap or leaps, and a tumbling pass with a specific sequence. Though they have to include some dance elements, it is often very minimal, usually a few poses and arm movements that happen before or after a tumbling pass.

In Acro Dance, the goals are different. Although an Acro dance routine might include many of the same skills as gymnastics, those skills are interwoven throughout the routine with fluidity, musicality and rhythm, and syncopation. In Acro Dance, expression of the music, movement, character, and emotions plays a significant role in their performance, as it does with any other style of dance. When Acro dancers compete, there will often be just as many dance elements in the routine as there are Acro elements, and the two will be threaded together in such a way that there is no pause or preparation before tumbling or Acro skills, but that they flow in and out of the dance steps.

Difference Between Acrobatic Dance and Gymnastics in a Table

ACRO DANCEGYMNASTICS
Rehearsed in a Dance Studio or even a gymnasium on MatsRehearsed in a gym with highly Sprung flooring and apparatus
Performed on a traditional stagePerformed in a gym setting with highly sprung flooring and apparatus
Routines generally contain 50% Dance Elements to 50% Acrobatic ElementsRoutines on beam and floor apparatus contain limited dance components or connections
Generally performed to music, danced to the beat and expression/emotion of the music.Floor routines are performed to music, but generally do not follow the beat – mainly the style (for example the gymnast will do Latin-style dance movements or connections to Latin music).
Acro Dancers wear costumes that might be elaborate but allow them to perform their dance and skills. Female gymnasts generally wear leotards or unitards when performing
Acro Dance can be performed as a troupe, trio, duo, or solo.Gymnasts generally perform solo even when on a team.
Differences between Acro Dance and Gymnastics

Similarities Between Acrobatic Dance and Gymnastics

Some similarities are:

  • Acro dancers and gymnasts can enter competitions and compete.
  • Both perform similar tricks and skills such as cartwheels, aerials, handstands and handsprings.
  • Acro dance has more similarities with Rhthmic Gymnastics where they can perform as a troupe and have more dance elements in their routines as well as musicality.

WHAT ARE SOME SIGNATURE ACROBATIC MOVES IN DANCE?

Some intermediate to advanced Acrobatic moves and tricks that are often seen in dances are:

  • front and back walkovers
  • side aerials
  • front aerials
  • front and back handsprings
  • front headsprings
  • round off back handspring
  • elbow stands
  • chest stands
  • shoulder stands
  • fish rolls
  • fish flops
  • back chest rolls
  • front chest rolls
  • illusions and rolling tinsicas…just to name a few.

ACROBATIC DANCE FOR BEGINNERS

Skills a beginner might learn will depend on factors such as their age, and what their body is strong enough for, but for the most part some basics that will be worked on at the beginning level are bridges, backbends to and from standing, headstands, handstands, cartwheels, forward rolls, backward rolls, splits and progressions that build strength for what will eventually be kick overs.

CAN MY CHILD JUST DO ACRO DANCE CLASSES?

Yes and No! Although the style is called Acro Dance, when learning Acro Dance you usually attend separate classes to learn each technique – Acrobatics and Dance – separately before combining them. So of course they can just do acrobatics classes at a dance school, but you will see from the next section that in an Acro Dance class, very little dance is actually taught. Learning dance technique is usually left to dance classes. But it can be in these dance classes or in choreography lessons for competitions or recitals that the two are combined. So if your child wants to be able to combine the acrobatic skills learned in acro with dance they will really need to do dance technique as well!

WHAT TO EXPECT IN AN ACROBATIC LESSON AT A DANCE STUDIO

WARM-UP:
An Acro Dance lesson will begin with a cardio warmup that will do just that: warm the body and the muscles by getting the heart rate up. This might include things like jumping jacks, burpees, running in place, or mountain climbers. It’s essential to warm the body before we stretch our muscles if we want to make consistent and safe progress in our flexibility goals and avoid injury.

STRENGTH & CONDITIONING:
Another necessary thing to expect will be some strength and conditioning – various kinds of pushups, core work, etc. Strength and flexibility go hand in hand. As you increase in flexibility it’s important to simultaneously be building strength, increase control and stability, as well as to avoid injury. Strength training prepares the muscles to support the body’s weight and enables the Acro dancer to sustain positions, holds, and balances.

STRETCHING:
In Acro Dance, stretching all the major muscle groups is very important. We want to stretch everything that we will be using – the wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, abdominals, spine, hips, legs, feet, etc. More time will be spent stretching the back in various ways including, cobra, various types of bridges, and backbends until the spine is limber and ready to work on various skills.

BALANCE:
Most likely there will be a portion of class time devoted to various balances and poses such as handstand, headstand, elbow stand, chest stand, shoulder stand, or transitioning from one balance to another. It takes time to improve in each balance, learning how to stack the body over the balance points, and keeping the muscles integrated and working together as a team.  Much of this time is spent learning how to ease into a balance, as opposed to using momentum, as well as how to stabilize and sustain balance once the correct alignment is achieved.

TECHNIQUE AND SKILL-BUILDING:
This portion of the class may be done at a student’s own mat or traveling across connected mats and will generally include skills that travel, like forward and backward roll variations, bridge walks, inside out bridges, cartwheels, limbers, walkovers, tinsicas, chest rolls, fish flops or combinations of several of these. Other known dance technique will probably be incorporated at this time, especially transitional movements like chasse, pas de bourree, temps leve, sissone, assemble, saut de chat, grand jete, chaine turns pirouettes, pique turns, etc.

TUMBLING:
This portion of class time is spent tumbling, including moves like front and back handsprings, headsprings, round-offs, aerials, tucks, layouts, etc. Often students will be working on their own specific skill sets and goals, and the teacher will give them drills and progressions to help them build strength and get closer to achieving the skill. Sometimes it may require a spot from the teacher. Most of the time, there will be equipment to help with the progressions, and to help create good muscle memory like octagon mats, cheese mats, tumble tracks, and spotting belts.

COOLDOWN AND REFLECTION:
A cool down is important after any dance class so that the body doesn’t go from a racing heart and pumping blood quickly to sitting in a car for a 10-30min ride home straight away! Your teacher should take the class through a series of stretches or movements to ensure the lactic acid produced and the blood that was flooding the extremities to work their hardest gets a chance to flow more consistently and slower around the body. Your teacher may sometimes take this slow down as a chance to review what was learned and covered in the class helping students reflect on their goals and progress and what they need to work on at home.

WHAT SHOES DO YOU WEAR FOR ACRO DANCE? DO YOU NEED SHOES FOR ACRO DANCE?

Generally, Acro Dance is done barefoot, unless the style of dance you are combining the Acro with requires a different shoe. Overall, however, it’s safer to be barefoot while doing Acro Dance in order to avoid slipping. There are times, however, when some sort of foot protection might be needed, like when an Acro dance includes fouette turns, or a la seconde turns.

The old-school response of teachers would be something like, “Well, time to build some calluses,” and that’s not wrong, per se, but we want to make sure that the process of getting there doesn’t harm to foot or cause issues. In this case, here are some options to consider:

SO SHOULD I ENROLL MY DANCER IN ACRO CLASS?

The benefits of taking Acro Dance are long-lasting, and there’s a well-rounded sort of agility that’s acquired that you won’t find in other areas. Acro Dance creates a deeper kinesthetic awareness, a goal-oriented focus, and it forces us to gain control of our bodies so that we can safely see things through. It teaches us that nothing is given, but everything is worked for.

Some skills might take years to accomplish and master, but it’s the process that’s enjoyable, and it’s the progress that keeps us going. Acro Dance is sort of the culmination of all our goals and efforts as a dancer. Not only can we gracefully flit across the stage in a series of ballet movements, but we can suddenly change levels, and bend our bodies in impressive ways, and execute powerful aerial efforts.

Yet, on the very basic level, we are doing what has been done for centuries among humans –seeking to expand our abilities, challenge our bodies, and accomplish amazing physical feats. Mostly, Acro Dance teaches us to be conquerors of our fears and hesitations, when we discover how much we are capable of when we first decide to try.

LOOKING FOR MORE INFO ON ACRO DANCE PROGRAMS?

Here are some helpful sites for more information about Acro Dance and what a well-rounded Acro program looks like.

Acrobatic Arts or Acrobatique

About the Author

Heidi Williams

Heidi Anna Williams has over 17 years of professional experience as a dance instructor, educator, coach, and choreographer. In addition to her training in the dance dept. at WMU, she has received instruction from many of the industry’s top choreographers/teachers and trained frequently in LA, California. Her choreography has been awarded frequently on both regional and national levels, often winning national titles. In addition to being nominated for Best Choreography, several of her pieces were chosen to be performed at Disney in Orlando, Florida.