Behind the Curtain

Acrobatic dance for Beginners

Everything you need to know about Acrobatic Dance and why it's a favorite at Cirque du Soleil.

Introduction to Acrobatic Dance

Ever been a spectator at a Cirque du Soleil performance and found yourself feeling utterly moved and captivated by the dramatic, dreamy, and enchanting performances unfolding before you? If so, then you’ve likely been swayed by Acrobatic Dance.

This is a style of dance that takes center stage in so many of our performances. From its intricate footwork to intimate partner moves, Acro Dance is a dynamic style of performance that has the power to take audiences’ breath away. But what is it about these acrobatic moves that set it apart from other dance styles?

In this article, we’ll tell you all about Acrobatic Dance, exploring its Vaudevillian origins and unraveling why it's a favorite of many Cirque du Soleil dancers and acrobats. Keep reading to learn all the ins and outs of this spellbinding acrobatic dance performance so you can impress your plus one the next time you set foot under the Big Top.

What is Acrobatic Dance?

But what is Acro Dance, exactly? What do you get when classical dance techniques meet acrobatic movements? A style of dance known as Acro Dance, a highly popular style of dance that harmoniously blends ballet, jazz, and contemporary techniques with moves straight out of a gymnastics routine, like backflips or handstands. The outcome is a captivating and exhilarating mode of self-expression that requires extreme grace as well as strength, flexibility, and coordination from its performers. Fans of Cirque du Soleil shows are no strangers to Acro Dance —it’s a common fixture on many of our stages and often regarded as a fan favorite.

Historical Background of Acrobatic Arts

Emergence in the 1900s in North America

To know more about Acrobatic Dance, and how it became such a mainstream phenomenon in the dance world, let’s first take a deeper look at how it came to be.

Acrobatic dance first emerged at the turn of the 20th century, with roots tracing back to the Vaudeville style of performance. Back then, a Vaudeville performance featured a little bit of everything: like a talent show, any given performance might feature all sorts of styles of performance such as burlesque, juggling acts, singers, magicians, acrobats, and dancers. Unsurprisingly, as acrobats and dancers were performing alongside one another night after night, the two disciplines began to merge and eventually, the earliest iterations of Acro Dance took shape.

While there’s no one dancer officially credited with pioneering this form of dance, two key figures emerge as important historical figures in bringing it to life. First, Sherman Coates, who was a dancer in the popular dance troupe The Watermelon Trust between 1900 and 1912. Coates’ name is often associated with bringing Acro Dance to the masses in those early days.

Another trailblazer of the era is a dancer named Tommy Woods. Much like Coates, Woods was a vaudeville performer that began to push boundaries by incorporating dance movement with gravity-defying acrobatics. In fact, Woods is one of the first dancers documented to have ever incorporated flips in his dance routine.

Suffice to say, audiences marveled at the ingenuity and were instantly hooked.

Acrobatic Arts and Modern Acro Dance

While the Vaudeville style of performance is more or less a thing of the past, Acro Dance has remained, evolving into a more contemporary form of dance with widespread popularity. When it first appeared, Acro Dance was groundbreaking, challenging the status quo and defying all expectations. Today’s Modern Acro Dance has broad appeal and features its own unique characteristics and movements. Modern Acro Dance incorporates elements of jazz dance and ballet with jumps and tricks aplenty, leaning heavy on the artistic expression. It’s a fiercely popular choice for young dancers interested in transforming their passion into a profession.

Core Components of Acrobatic Dance

Five Divisions of Acro Dance

Every Acro Dance routine combines these five components:

  • First, flexibility is vital as Acro Dance performances involve a wide range of movement, including feats like cartwheels, rolls, and somersaults. Not only does flexibility facilitate these movements, but it reduces any potential for injury, too.
  • Strength matters in Acro Dance, too, as the movement style requires significant upper and lower body strength to achieve some of the most awe-inspiring acrobatic and aerial tricks. Without strength, dancers wouldn’t be able to hoist their partners up above their heads, either!
  • Balance is an integral part of the style, as it's needed to carry out some stunts while limiting the risk of falling.
  • Without limbering, Acro Dance routines won't have a leg to stand on! Limbering incorporates cardio, strength, and stretching exercises designed to enhance a dancer's strength and flexibility. A wonderful example of this skillset can be seen in the Trickster’s performance on KOOZA, as the main character, the artist cast needs to embody these elements to measure up. This component is essential, as it prevents muscle strain during particularly strenuous movements.

Last, and certainly not least, comes tumbling. This Acro Dance technique borrows heavily from gymnastics routines by incorporating tumbling skills like handstands, rolls, cartwheels, and more.

Acrobatic Dance vs. Gymnastics

While the two disciplines both weave in various acrobatic movements, that's about where the similarities end.

Many key differences distinguish these two art forms in the great Acrobatic Dance vs. Gymnastics debate.

Though acrobatic dance and gymnastics require a high level of technique and athleticism, Acro Dance is considered a form of art about self-expression rather than competition.

Acrobatic dance is a harmony of softer, lyrical-like moves drawing from dance whereas gymnastics tends to be graded on precision—moves are less fluid, more meticulous.

While so much of a stunt-heavy gymnastics routine uses equipment like a balance beam, uneven bars, rings, and other features, acrobatic dancers typically impress through lifts, partners, and choreographed movements with minimal equipment required.

To outsiders, the two practices may bear striking resemblances to one another—and, even at times, feature some of the same techniques—at the end of the day, the two are not the same. While both require extreme athleticism to successfully execute, one type of performance is about artistic expression, and the other, though it may incorporate acrobatic elements, is about skill and execution.

Professional Training in Acrobatic Dance

For anyone interested in developing their acrobatic dance skills or for experienced performers looking to train in a new domain, professional training is non-negotiable.

Acrobatic Arts Syllabus

Finding a certified professional is the first step towards progressing along your Acro Dance path. Put your trust in a reputable dance studio and teacher, because Acro Dance’s contortion moves can put safety at risk.

Generally, your instructor will start by showing their students the basics and encouraging tons of practice. No expert instructor will have students performing impressive tricks right off the bat, so if you’re hoping to be a world-class acrobatic dancer performing in a Cirque du Soleil show, hang tight. It can take years to learn and master the art form.

Though it might take some time for skills to develop, a few bumps and bruises later and you'll be performing alongside a Cirque du Soleil troupe in no time.

Benefits of Acrobatic Dance Training

From aspiring dancers to seasoned pros alike, acrobatic dance training has numerous benefits. This discipline trains dancers to conduct various movements, requiring a certain level of strength and endurance. Because of that, practicing Acro Dance regularly can only help improve both these areas. Lifts and hoisting one's partner over their head will undoubtedly help build and condition muscle.

Bonus points: The stretches required to pull off an Acro Dance routine, which requires the body to stretch and contort in impressive ways, can help improve flexibility while protecting the dancer's muscles.

Stress relief is also a significant part of it. Physical activity can help improve one's overall mental health and well-being, and the challenge of moving one's body in almost unthinkable ways, along with having an avenue to express oneself, will undoubtedly have myriad benefits on an individual's well-being.

Sure, the physical and wellness benefits are a perk, but improving one's flexibility, balance, and coordination is helpful in all aspects of life, not just for the performers among us.

Apparel and Equipment for Acrobatic Dance

The most important piece of equipment every Acro Dance performer need? Their body. The second most important? We’ll tell you.

Acro Shoes and Foot Thongs

Because Acro Dance is often performed on unforgiving hard surfaces like stages or hard surfaces like dancefloors, most dancers opt to go barefoot. Some, however, prefer the security and grip a leather-crafted ballet slipper affords.

But such may not be the case for every dancer. Others tend to favor the comfort and freedom-of-movement provided with specialized gear called foot thongs. These barely-there layers of fabric loop through the toes, providing just enough grip to prevent any dancer from slipping and sliding on stage.

Ultimately, the footwear that an Acro Dance performer chooses must prioritize their comfort and confidence in executing movements without having to worry about slipping and sliding in front of the audience.

Clothing for Acrobatic Dance

Much like footwear, acrobatic dance demands snug, fitted attire, such as a leotard or bodysuit to facilitate unrestricted movement. Regardless of look and feel, stretchable fabrics are essential, as the outfit shouldn’t hinder the body from performing impressive feats.

Often, Cirque du Soleil performances feature elaborate and colorful costumes that suit a particular theme in the show. But we ensure that our costumes are aesthetically pleasing without ever catching onto another body or catching on another garment of clothing.

Acrobatic Dance in the Modern Era

Influence of Media

Though Acro Dance has a storied history, its popularity has reached new heights in recent years.

The trendy dance style has become pervasive, thanks to its exposure on primetime TV shows like Dance Moms, America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars—all of which have contributed to the genre’s mainstream success.

Furthermore, the international success of Cirque du Soleil has shone a spotlight on the art of Acro Dance. It’s truly a ubiquitous phenomenon, and it's easy to understand why this game-changing dance technique has earned its place as one of the world’s most sought-after forms of dance.

Every day, audiences are finding new ways to engage with Acro Dance. Thank TikTok for bringing Acro Dance to the masses—oftentimes, dances that incorporate elements of Acro Dance go viral on the platform.

Why Dancers Love Acrobatic Arts

Though there are far too many reasons to list why many dancers love to perform acrobatic dance, we'll narrow it down to just a few of the main ones.

Not only does the performance take audiences' breath away, but the very act itself is steeped with health benefits: this form of dance celebrates the body and self-expression, but the practice also helps build upper and lower body strength, core strength, balance, and flexibility. Though learning Acro Dance techniques is no walk in the park, the myriad benefits make it all worthwhile.

Health benefits, self-expression, and social skills development are all reasons dancers are drawn to this impressive art form.

Acrobatic Dance in Popular Culture

Acrobatic Dance's Roots in Chinese Dance

Today's modern Acro Dance is a far cry from its vaudeville beginnings. Like many different dance genres, it draws inspiration from other popular forms. One such example is the influence of traditional Chinese dance on Acro Dance. Much like acrobatic dancing, traditional Chinese dance is highly theatrical and poetic. Audiences will find similarities in this form of dance and gymnastics, flexibility, strength, and artistic performance.

Chinese acrobatics have existed for centuries. During war, soldiers were trained in acrobatic techniques to improve their mobility during combat. Over time, the movements evolved and became more fluid and sophisticated, leading to its rise in dynastic China, becoming one of the more popular performance styles. Since then, this dance form has been a welcome companion to musical theatre performances like opera.

Acrobatic Dance's Rise through Cirque du Soleil

Since its inception in the 1980s, Cirque du Soleil has helped innovate what a night at the circus means. By crafting impressive performances built around themes and storytelling, Cirque du Soleil relies on the language of movement to convey a vibe, a feeling, and a story.

A significant part of any Cirque du Soleil performance is the Acro Dance element. Cirque du Soleil regularly recruits some of the most talented performers in the world, making the fusing of dance styles and acrobatic techniques all the more compelling.

As Cirque du Soleil rose in popularity, touring the world and becoming a household name on an international scale, so too did this mesmerizing art form. Through high production values and a commitment to storytelling today, Acro Dance is as much a part of the mainstream entertainment industry as other aspects of the circus, shining a light on a beautiful art form of dance that captivates audiences worldwide.

Acrobatic Dance for Beginners

Getting Started with Acrobatic Dance

Much like any form of dance, Acro Dance requires a solid foundation and background in dance or gymnastics. But like anything, practice makes perfect, and incorporating just a few elements of the art form into the routine can turn any dance performance into an acrobatic spectacle.

For beginners, there are some basic stunts and moves that beginners may wish to try to include into their routine, such as forward rolls, cartwheels, bridges, handstands, shoulder bends, and beyond. These movements are all inherent elements to an acrobatic dance routine, so if you're looking to get started in the medium, learning these foundational skills and then practicing and perfecting them is a great way for any dancer looking to dip their toes.

Acrobatic Dance Techniques and Skills

It's All About Balance and Control

In dance, balance and control provide a solid base to pull off impressive movements.

Flexibility and Extension

Those high kicks and splits you see dancers pull off? It’s all a testament to their extreme flexibility, resulting from workouts that include hip flexor workouts and stability ball training, to name a few. The result contributes to the allure of every Acro Dance routine you see.

Tumbling and Floor Work

When you see a dance performance, chances are you'll witness some mighty impressive tumbling and floor work. Tumbling encompasses somersaults, front flips, and rolls, all of which demand a certain amount of strength, flexibility, and spatial awareness.

Partner Work and Lifts

Many Acro Dance routines are a joint effort, typically featuring two or more dancers performing synchronized movements while interacting with one another to convey a story's meaning. With partner work, timing and communication are paramount, mainly when choreography typically includes actions such as mirroring, counterbalance, and lifts.

Similarly, lifts require one dancer to hoist another above their head—a graceful move that demands strength. A properly executed lift leaves audiences in awe. The lifting dancer is sometimes called "the base," while their partner is called the "flier."

In addition to Acro Dance, you'll see lifts in many popular styles of choreography, such as contemporary dance, ballroom dance, and ballet.

Transitions and Flow

Flexible dancers achieve visually appealing positions and transitions, adding a level of grace and fluidity to their routines as they transition from one move to the next. This creates a seamless effect, enhancing the overall visual impact of the performance.

FAQs about Acrobatic Dance

All in all, acrobatic dance is an impressive art form enriched with a narrative element, setting it apart from a gymnastics routine.

What makes it different from gymnastics?

Unlike gymnastics, Acro Dance is about artistic expression. Though some of the movements may resemble one another, just remember that Acro Dance isn't competitive by nature—it's a discipline that relies on gymnastics-like movement to tell a story.

Who are some names and influences that have helped make Acrobatic Dance so popular?

From turn-of-the-century dancers like Tommy Woods and Sherman Coates, Acro Dance has been popularized by the inventive team at Cirque du Soleil, bringing this style of choreography to the fore.

Where can I see Acro Dance in action?

Most Cirque du Soleil performances feature some Acro Dance in action—so if you're looking to catch this expressive and captivating art form out in the wild, look no further than our complete list of shows to find acrobatic dancers doing their thing. It's sure to be the experience of a lifetime.

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