Flying High

While not exactly Cirque du Soleil, Wilmington’s Ascend Flow Arts helps build students’ conditioning and confidence

Ascend Flow Arts occupies a small, unassuming building at 10 Meco Circle in Wilmington, a few turns off Maryland Avenue. It’s obscure, known only to a select few. But for those determined to learn the aerial arts, Ascend offers a unique opportunity to improve their physical fitness and mental well-being, as well as join a dedicated group of supportive hobbyists and performers.

It was founded five years ago by Brianna Wendt, a 29-year-old dynamo who directs all activities, ensures Ascend is at the forefront of aerial arts safety, knows her students by name, and often handles the front desk herself. The students and her instructors make her long days worthwhile, she says. “I love knowing when I come to work, I’m surrounded by beautiful people.”

Wendt prefers to use the term “aerial arts” to describe her passion. It’s simple, and it encompasses the activities offered. The main three “aerials” are the silks, hoops, and trapeze, and all three apparatuses hang from the ceiling. The silks allow performers to twist, flip and roll in knots of their own making, while the adventurous can build controlled “drops,” where the student rapidly unrolls in the silk and catches herself in a knot or wrap lower in the fabric. Hoops focus more on using muscle for suspension, and trapeze requires skills closer to the spinning and swinging motions of Olympic gymnastics.

A fourth class, which doesn’t necessarily fall under the aerial arts, is Acro Yoga, a ground-based fusion of yoga and aerial arts principles.

Marketing Challenge

Kristina Milionta, Ascend Flow Arts staff member, performs with aerial silks.

Wendt admits the term “aerial arts” has problems, since it’s not something anyone ever thinks to Google. It’s that lack of searchability and a common vernacular that forms one of the main difficulties of marketing her business. When she tries to explain her studio to people, she says, “No one has a clue what I’m talking about most of the time.”

She’ll sometimes fall back on “a version of Cirque du Soleil,” since a lot of the equipment used in those performances can be found in her studio. But, she says, “It’s hard to compare yourself to something like that,” noting that most people get intimidated at the mention of the world-famous act.

Wendt herself is an example of the value the aerial arts can bring to someone’s life.

“When I was younger, I was just depressed. I never moved, and movement is amazing for your mental health,” she says. Her introduction to what is now her vocation came late in her time at Middletown High School. She saw aerial arts acts on TV and knew they were something she wanted to pursue. It took a few years, but she began taking classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. At an hour’s drive, it was the closest school she could find.

In her early 20s, after a few years of training, she became an instructor. She bought a 20x24x24-foot wooden outdoor rig with one rigging point that could comfortably accommodate 10 students and set it up in the backyard of her Wilmington home. It worked for a while, but she soon found her students wanted more. Mainly, they wanted to spend more time practicing and wanted to bring friends for classes.

“My students begged me to get a [bigger] place,” she says, citing their complaints of losing hard-earned strength over winter breaks, when Wendt had to break down her outdoor rig and put it in storage.

She went looking for a location and found a surprisingly cut-throat leasing world. Buildings with the square footage, heights, and open space necessary for an aerial arts studio are rare, and landlords demanded steep monthly rents, 15-plus years of commitment, or both.

She searched for nine months before finding the building on Meco Circle. “I ran across this place and met the owner. He’s actually my neighbor,” Wendt says. “I’m really glad I found him because [our lease] is very low risk. I love this place.”

Gathering Students

Wendt depends largely on word of mouth to get students in the door. Jackelyn Maloney, now an instructor, first heard about Ascend from two friends. A yoga instructor, Maloney wanted to try a class right away, but her job had her working odd hours.

After a year of scheduling conflicts, Maloney found a day off and signed up for her first class in fabric and hoops. “I felt that I’d gotten so much out of the first session, I kept committing,” Maloney says. “Eventually, I wound up doing a few [classes] and ended up teaching. I really felt a wonderful pull into this community and art form.”

Unanimously, Ascend Flow Arts students say they experience skyrocketing confidence. “I have gotten so much stronger physically and mentally,” says Maloney. “I see how empowering it is when something clicks. It makes me so excited as a teacher and a peer.”

While students and instructors spread the word about the unique fitness class that strengthened them emotionally as well as physically, some students have come to Ascend through the internet.

Staffer Jen Kroon performs on static trapeze.

“I poked around online and lo and behold, an aerial studio had opened in my own backyard,” says Kristina Millionta-MacPherson, another instructor. “At the end of the 90-minute [intro] class, I was exhausted, thrilled, and had even done my first drop on trapeze.”

Whole families have discovered Ascend. The Rissolo family turned the intro class into a family outing. “It’s very out of the box,” says Susan Rissolo. “It’s like gymnastics and dance and climbing and weight lifting all rolled into one.”

After the intro class, Rissolo’s daughters, Megan, 12, and Emily, 10, stuck around for more classes and are now on their third six-week session. They love it for different reasons. Megan enjoys the support in class and at practice. “If you need help,” she says, “there’s always someone [around].” Emily takes her lessons to school: “When I bring out the mats at recess, we do ground tricks and I teach new tricks to my friends.”

Millionta-MacPherson found her acrophobia melting away as she became proficient in aerial silks. “I’ve learned all the theory behind [silks] really well,” she says. “Learning those details gives me control over my fear, and as long as I can hold onto something, I’m not afraid of heights anymore.”

Changes are noticeable in the younger students as well. Susan saw new strength in her daughters soon after their first classes. “Our 12-year-old isn’t really into sports,” she says. “[But] after the first class, she decided she had found [hers]. Our 10-year-old has really gotten more confidence and is excited to show off her moves in the kids’ showcase.”

Building an Audience

Ascend’s performance team has also helped spread the word. The team has been featured at a gala for the Kalmar Nyckel, at local renaissance fairs, and at the Ice Cream Festival in Rockwood Park. Wendt says one of her favorite performances was for local blacksmith Ellen Durkan, the owner of Iron Maiden Forge.

“I was looking for local performers to open my [Iron Maiden runway show], and they were perfect,” Durkan says. “I [had already] organized this event, from the metal to having a friend compose and play 50 minutes of original music. I wanted to add something else awesome to the event. It’s always stunning and impressive to watch them. I gave them music and said, ‘do your thing,’ and it was beautiful.”

Ascend also has regular showcases in the home studio. Students get performance opportunities at the end of their classes and there’s interactive theater, with a unique twist on traditional stage plays. “[Interactive theater shows] have a storyline and we try and play with the crowd. We [also] do aerial bartending,” Wendt says. “I have somebody in a hammock or a sling fabric who serves drinks upside down.”

There are plans to start booking more outside performances, particularly weddings. Ascend’s team performed at a former student’s ceremony and Wendt knew having photos from that and other receptions would show off the talents of her performers, the beauty of the aerial arts, and the unique entertainment Ascend brings to upscale events. “Once you get those photos, everybody wants you for their wedding,” Wendt says.

Normally, to find the kind of opportunity Ascend offers, students would have to travel to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. Having a studio like it in a city the size of Wilmington is an anomaly. Yet here it is, bringing more and more people into the aerial arts, a community that’s vibrant, energetic and welcoming.

Current Classes

Adults can test their mettle in the Introduction to Aerials Workshop, a single class that explains the basics of aerial fabric, static trapeze and hoop. Both Wendt and Ascend’s website stress that no experience is necessary for this class.

The other aerial courses are Fabric/Hoop and Fabric/Trapeze, both with four levels of difficulty, each level taking six weeks to complete. Each builds on what comes before it, and, again, no experience is necessary.

On the ground, Acro Yoga is a six-week class that builds strength and communication by fusing yoga and partnered acrobatics. The yoga aspects teach students different poses, while the acrobatics instruction enables them to sequence poses to create flowing stunts. Principles learned here can be used to build aerial skills.

A new offering is Acro Flow. It starts with acrobatic basics like handstands, cartwheels, rolls and splits, then brings in dance techniques to form more acrobatic movement. It promises a bit more active movement than Acro Yoga, as well as more balanced fitness and more emphasis on building muscles needed for aerial work.

No matter the class, Ascend’s instructors ensure that the environment is friendly and supportive. “We have a pretty eclectic student base,” says Millionta-MacPherson. “People you might not otherwise meet become cheerleaders for your progress. Maybe part of it is that when you struggle along with someone and you achieve milestones on your aerial journey, you become part of something special together.”

For more information on joining a class or workshop, visit ascendflowarts.com and use the contact form on Ascend’s site, or call 998-2985.

Upcoming appearances by Ascend Flow Arts students and artists include Ascend’s Cirque Nevermore on Monday, Oct. 15, at the Ascend studio.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.