It’s in the moments when she’s suspended 40 feet above the floor that Laura Atkins feels most grounded.
The outgoing founder and owner of Aerial Athlete dance fitness moves with fluidity and strength as she scales, twists, entwines herself within lengths of shimmering, colored fabric draping from the ceiling of her St. Augustine Shipyard studio.
“It’s kind of like meditating sometimes,” she said. “When you’re in the air and you’re focusing on certain wraps and how to get yourself into certain positions, you have to be so focused that you can’t think about anything else. So, it’s an extremely good, positive form of stress relief.”
For five years, Atkins has taught aerial fabric, also called aerial silks, classes for adults and children in St. Augustine. Since beginning with “one lonely little blue fabric” in a small warehouse off of South Dixie Highway, Aerial Athlete has grown into a “strong community of girls,” with waitlists for her afterschool and summer camp programs.
In the circus-inspired workout, students climb suspended lengths of fabric, reaching 35 to 40 feet, and tie knots around their bodies to suspend themselves into different poses from which they can spin, fall, stretch and dance. In the youth programs, girls as young as nine climb and perform with fearless focus, all from heights liable to make a grown person shiver. Atkins also teaches private lyra, or aerial hoop, classes in which students dance inside of a performance ring resembling a suspended hula hoop.
The studio shares space with Relson Gracie St. Augustine Jiu-Jitsu. Atkins and Phil Cardella co-own both businesses.
Embracing the distinctive challenges and beauty of aerial dance, Atkins strives to make the studio a comfortable, fun place for students to build physical strength and cultivate confidence from a wide range of ability levels.
“Some people get bored at the gym,” she said. “…They get tired of the treadmill. They get tired of work out routines. But with this, there’s always something new to learn. You use your brain and your body. It’s a lot of fun.”
While aerial performance often appears graceful to the viewer, Atkins stresses that it is a serious workout.
“A lot of times when you look at it, it looks gorgeous, beautiful, graceful,” she said. “[It] looks like it’s something that could be kind of simple, but it’s a little shocking when you get in here and you realize how much core and how much back you use … It’s a little more challenging than most people think and it’s a lot of fun.”
Atkins and her students regularly have opportunities to perform their feats throughout the area, as well as in student showcases. Upcoming shows include a performance for St. Augustine Fashion Week, as well as a Spooktackular Student Showcase in the studio at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 4. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
“It is an adrenaline rush,” said Charlotte Clem. “You feel amazing up there, because you’ve never seen people 30 feet in the air doing splits, doing flips, you just feel really cool when you’re up there.”
Clem began aerial fabrics five years ago at a time when, after having a child, she found herself struggling with her self-image.
“I was insecure and I just wasn’t happy with myself,” she said. “Then I started doing this and I was happy, I was around good people, and I started losing weight and getting fit. It was just something amazing for me.”
Now a skilled performer and the studio’s assistant instructor, she enjoys helping others reach personal aerial milestones.
“It’s awesome to know how hard something was for you when you learned it, and [then] to see your student gain so much strength that they [can] do it and feel great about themselves.”
Atkins welcomes anyone interested to stop by and try a free beginner class. Schedules and additional information can be found on the studio’s website at www.aerialathlete.com or its Facebook page.
“You don’t necessarily need to be flexible and you don’t have to have a lot of strength right from the beginning,” Atkins said. “I’m not going to make you go up in the air, flip, spin and do some crazy tricks on your first day. That will come later, with time.”
Sophie Ognienovic, a 15-year-old student at Pedro Menendez High School, has trained with Aerial Athlete for four years. Descending skillfully from the twirling center aerial hoop, she paused an afternoon practice to talk about her experience growing up in the studio.
“It’s really helped me become who I am today,” she said.
Ognienovic remembers how quickly the nervousness she felt when first walking through the door faded away and was replaced with confidence, dexterity and pride in her abilities.
“I love being in the air,” she said, bursting into a bright smile. “It’s so much better than being on the ground.”