By Brigid Morrissey

Ashley is excited about sharing her knowledge of aerial arts with students. Photos by Sunni Wigginton 

My English teachers said you should never start a piece of writing with the phrase, “Webster’s Dictionary defines the word…” Well, in this case, I can’t help it. When I think of aerial arts, ‘awe’ is the only word I can use to describe my emotional response. I typed ‘awe’ into Google, and within seconds the Web regurgitated a definition: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

My eyes were immediately drawn to the word “fear.” Aerial arts is often linked with fear, and for good reason. For example, silks is a form of aerial art where artists perform acrobatics such as climbs, wraps, and drops while holding themselves up several feet in the air with a special fabric. But now, thanks to people like Ashley Wallace, the art form is starting to shed its former reputation. It is now becoming more of a mainstream form of exercise.

Ashley is one of the faculty members at Suspend, a facility off Washington St. in Louisville that teaches aerial arts and cirque fitness. Some of the classes offered include aerial yoga, aerial hoop, rope, static trapeze, and the previously mentioned aerial silks. The classes cater to men and women of all ages and skill levels. “Anyone can circus,” Ashley says. “Classes are so simple.”

Photo 1: Crossback Straddle;  Photo 2: Open Wrap to Vertical Splits. Both moves are taught in her aerial classes. 

Ashley contributes that simplicity to the business model that co-owners (or co-grand poobahs, as they call themselves) Anne Miller and Meg Wallace have implemented. Ashley first got connected to Suspend when she met Meg at Louisville Turners, where they used to train. “The mission at Suspend is to make it accessible to anybody who is interested,” Ashley says. “I believe in their business model and their message to make it for everyone.”

The first encounter Ashley had with silks was when she went to a circus to see some friends perform. She was 23 and started training within the month. “I had to figure out how I could do that,” she says. Her background in athletics was helpful. She was involved in flag football until she was 18 and also played basketball and softball growing up, but getting her two front teeth knocked out by a rogue softball was enough of a push to hang up the cleats and pursue theater.

Learning aerial arts is achievable for anyone who wants to do it. 

Performing arts led her to the University of Kentucky for her undergraduate degree in theater. For two years between the end of undergrad and the start of graduate school, she toured with children’s theater in the New York area. “I prefer Shakespeare, but I look so young that I’ve always been cast in children’s roles,” Ashley says.

Her opportunity finally came in grad school at the University of Louisville when Shakespeare’s The Tempest was chosen as the fall production. Ashley was cast as the nymph, a spirit-like character, because she could express the otherworldly character attributes with her newfound hobby: silks.

The role turned out to be more difficult than she had anticipated. For each performance, Ashley would have to pull off climbs, wraps, and drops for two and a half hours. To put things in perspective, an average aerial performance lasts about four minutes. But, this lesson she learned the hard way led to her thesis, A Lesson in Strength and Stamina in Theatre, and eventually in 2014 to her M.F.A. in performance. She earned a terminal degree, which is the highest achievement in that area.

That also means she can teach. For the past two years, Ashley has been an adjunct professor at Indiana University Southeast. She also works at StageOne Family Theatre as an education associate. Performance experience coincides with her teaching career. “A lot of people think that if you just string moves together, then you’ll have a good performance,” she says. “But that’s not the case. Performing has taught me variance and move sequence.”

And now, her skills have translated to her job at Suspend teaching silks, intro to aerials, and youth intro to aerials. “I want to harbor that love and inspiration,” Ashley says. “It takes the mundane out of everyday life and gives you something to look forward to.”

Jen Goodell, who is also a student at Suspend, painted these pieces.