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Right! I Mean, Left! I Mean… Oh, Crap. Direction in Aerial Instruction

Jenna Kidney Squisher“Now, move towards the free leg. No, the free leg. NO, THE FREE %$*&#! LEG!!!!!”

“Bring your leg behind you. That’s in front of you.”

“OK, now reach your right hand down…. your other right…”

Conversations like this can be heard in every circus studio across the globe! It’s not just you. 😉 So, how do you make reliable sense of directions given in the air? Why do we get so darned stubborn about our understanding of orientation? See below. No, scroll down. OK – scroll up. Ugh – just keep reading.

The Student’s Challenge

When you’re learning a new move, particularly if it’s a brand new one, or if you’re new to circus, the whole process can  seem Entirely Overwhelming. Here are a few things that may help.

  • Work the position low and slow. If you are a student who routinely tries to place new things up high (*climbs up to the top* “OK, now what do I do?”), I want you to seriously rethink that choice. Not only is it a safety issue, but a) I don’t like hollering instructions up 15 feet, and b) you miss out on having the benefit of my hands to guide you through the move.
  • Stop, listen, and think. We often just want to move and try stuff, but if you stop for a second, really listen to what your coach is saying, and think it though, you’ll have better results (Hint: think more zen tortoise than chimpanzee on meth). One thing that helps me tremendously when I’m trying to master a new move is repeating the coach’s words back to myself. “Bring tails to poles, and key to the wrapped side”, “move towards the free leg, and continue the rotation”. You get the idea. Sometimes, just saying it out loud deciphers it in your brain.
  • Take the time to get familiar with your teacher’s particular orientation vocabulary. It’s kind of like learning a foreign language! It’s likely that you’ll hear key phrases again and again – once you’ve cracked the code, you’ll be fluent in this teacher’s “aerial-ese”.
  • Perception can be crazy subjective. BUT, some things are always the same! The front of your body is always the front of your body. Towards the floor is always the same direction (unless you are living in an alternate reality, in which case please disregard). This is more of that stopping and thinking business – just because you’re upside down doesn’t mean the floor becomes the ceiling or your front becomes your back!

The Teacher’s Challenge

Every student learns and hears things differently, so it’s a helluva challenge to come up with instructions that make sense to most of them, let alone all of them. A lot of verbal cuing is trial and error as you seek to find “magic phrases”, but here are a few things I’ve found helpful.

  • I personally shy away from directions of right and left, mainly because of the sheer chaos that ensues when they need to switch sides. I prefer using body or silk landmarks (“towards your free leg” or poles/tails).
  • If you are using a phrase repeatedly that’s just not getting the desired result, no matter how logical it is, the problem probably isn’t the student. 😉 True confession: I struggle with this so much! I find myself just saying the same thing over and over (and louder and LOUDER) as if I could just yell it into their bodies. Le sigh. The more ways we have to explain things, the better the chance they’ll understand.
  • The “tag” method. If it’s a particularly weird wrap with lots of go-here-then-go-there-and-wrap-this-and-flex-that, I position my hand so that the student has to tag my hand with the specified body part, thus (ideally) leading them through the move. Doesn’t work every time, but it can help.


Question time! Students – what verbal cuing do you find most useful? What frustrates you the most? Teachers – same question! What have you found that is particularly helpful in regards to direction? Where do you struggle? Post your comments below – let’s get a great conversation going!!!! Love and pull-ups, Laura




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13 comments on “Right! I Mean, Left! I Mean… Oh, Crap. Direction in Aerial Instruction”

  1. Daffodil Reply

    I actually like “other left!” as a correction because it immediately tells me what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it. What frustrates me more is corrections that don’t actually tell me what I’m doing wrong, like “leg all the way up”. If that was part of the teacher’s original instructions, chances are good that my leg already is “all the way up” as best I can tell. Either the teacher’s idea of “all the way up” is somewhere different than what I’m imagining, or my leg is not actually where I think it is and I can’t tell. Is my leg bent? Dipping behind the pole instead of parallel to it? Should it be piked further?

    I’m not sure why some teachers seem to shy away from describing what students are doing wrong – if they assume the students already know, or are trying to ‘stay positive’ by not pointing it out directly – but it’s usually more frustrating than helpful. Especially if I’m making the same mistake repeatedly, tell me so I can fix it!

    A lot of people underestimate how difficult teaching is. My deepest thanks to all the excellent teachers I’ve had, I would not be an aerialist without you!

  2. Kate O'Neill Reply

    There’s a saying in our school, “Stop doing what I’m not telling you to do.” Our teachers are very good at trying to find the right language to describe what is happening and it’s very like what you are describing…using the equipment and body parts for orientation. Floor, ceiling, front and back are all helpful. My challenges are always first time upside down moves. My brain processes veeeeeerrrrrrrrrry slowly when I’m upside down…add non-dominant side and I’m an idiot. So, I like the advice: do it low. I enjoy your articles!
    p.s. Daffodil is right about ‘other left’!

  3. Dede Reply

    I love this! I actually made a shirt that says “your other left hand”.
    This is an ongoing process for me, I feel like I am always finding different ways to communicate the same correction. Though I also get louder and louder when calling out the same useless correction sometimes. It’s comical. Teaching is an art form that is not learned from a book.

  4. Rebecca Reply

    I sometimes asked students to identify the body part/tail first, Which leg is closest to the ground?” “My left, this one” “Good, now swing it high and knee hook….” That way we all know which bit should be moving where. At ground level, SUCH a critical point.

  5. Jeff Reply

    First, my teacher is great at talking through something while demonstrating; also, an amazing physical feat( example, a slow hip key roll up while talking. Another thing that helps is hearing about and seeing connections to other moves. Sometimes the teacher will even do stuff in the warm up and then relate it to something new we are learning.

    Of course being talked thought something also helps but then it is really on you to try to listen while doing it and remember, so I think this is a double- edged sword. You cannot always have someone there telling you the entire thing.

    Finally, my teacher suggested this and I found that it helps. In class I try to write down the names of things, so I am not just saying, “that thing we did after the …” Then later on I try to write down the whole process in words, like what was said in class.

    Last comment, as a student I have also found that I cannot expect to get everything at once, so it is really amazing when two weeks later she is correcting stuff on another level; kind of like try it, it’s okay now you can do it better. This way you don’t get bad habits but you don’t get so frustrated that you cannot possibly ever get it. This really helps littl by littl perfecting something and building on it, instead of just saying I give up.

  6. Jane Reply

    I actually hate it when a coach avoids using left and right to tell you which body parts I am using. I have horrible spatial awareness but good body awareness and sense of left and right in my body, so telling me to use my left hand or right leg will always makes more sense than “the bottom hand”, or the “leg towards the ground” etc. that said from teaching I know that is not true for everyone!

    • Lewitwer Reply

      Jane – most teachers shy away from it because it’s nigh impossible to figure out! 🙂 Students are often reversed, rotating, upside down, etc, and it’s just not the most practical way of conveying the info.

  7. Aerial Hoopla Reply

    I prefer the hands on approach. Sometimes, when I’m upside down and lose all sense of direction, the only thing that helps is when the instructor or spotter touches the hand or leg that I am supposed to use.

    • Ximena Reply

      You’re totally right about the hands-on approach, but even that doesn’t work sometimes! I can’t count the number of times I’ve had my hand on a part of their body saying “This hand that I’m touching, this hand, put it over here by my other hand” and they just WON’T. They’ll fight the cue tooth and nail. And what’s funny is that I as a student have done this myself! I KNOW BETTER and I STILL sometimes do this.

  8. Ximena Reply

    I once had a student who kept going back instead of front (or whatever). It turned out that the difficulty was that while I, and most of the other people around us, were using front/forward relative to our bodies, (as in, your front is always in front OF YOU), he was viewing those directions as absolute, like cardinal points that don’t change. In other words, he was trying to orient himself relative to the room. “Front” for him was whatever direction he was facing when he started, in this case the south wall of the room. So when he inverted, that was behind him…but he was still thinking of “forward” as being south.

    Ever since then, I add a little vocabulary lesson to the warm-ups. In addition to pike, flex, tuck, etc, I tell them to do a few hokey-pokey like maneuvers “Point forward. Now point backward. Now put your foot in front. Now put your foot behind. Okay, now TURN AROUND. Now point forward.” Turning them around 180 simulates the situation when you’re inverted. Most people will point in front of them (away from the center of the circle) but one or two may point toward the direction that was “front” before (i.e. they’re now pointing over their shoulder at me). It identifies people who tend toward absolute orientations and we can straighten out what we mean before we get in the air.

  9. Black Acrobat Reply

    As an instructor I like to tell my students, “the side where the fabric is” instead of “left” or “right”. Or, “the hand under your knee”, and, “hips turn down to the floor then up to the ceiling”. Teaching in 360 degrees is a challenge and a joy*

    • Lewitwer Reply

      Keibpoli, you are AMAZING at verbal cuing! I remember teaching a private while you taught a class behind me, and knowing exactly the move you were teaching without even having to turn around! 🙂

  10. Deanna Reply

    What frustrates me the most when I’m learning is when someone comes up under me and throws the tails around my body into correct placement for me. It confuses me because then I have no idea what just happened or how to replicate it later. I prefer to struggle through the “use your hand closer to the pole. The other one, the inside one by the pole. Okay now put that tail–no the other tail–put it across your body. The other way. No only once.” I know it can be an aggravating conversation for the teacher when everything I try is opposite but I still prefer it because then I understand what’s going on by the end at least, and I get to really feel what it ends up doing.

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