Dan and Jenna Applegarth

I love airsteps.  They were one of the first things that inspired me.  It was one of the first things I was good at in dancing, and there is something very satisfying about the roar of a crowd when you hit a big trick and everyone goes wild.  But there is the flip side too.  Aerials are dangerous.  Every single time you do one, there is a new floor surface to deal with, new timing, a new set of assumptions and variables to deal with.  Every partner is different, and when you add the element of performing on stage or to live music, it can be a lot of variables.  Practicing well is essential. Knowing how to communicate in the moment is critical, and adequate preparation is key.
This is a blog about my experiences and techniques that I use, it’s not intended to replace professional coaching, spotters, nor is it intended to be universal.  Every body, every person, every situation, every partnership is different.  Caveat emptor.  Do your own research and verify what works for you.  If you have any doubts about anything, ask for help and by all means always err on the side of safety.  No single move or competition is important enough to risk injury or death. Just the same way that a new dancer can’t learn how to lead a complex pattern from video alone, there is a knowledge base that you need for aerials that is best learned one-on-one, with someone who has been down the road before.
At the end, I’ve included a bonus aerial lexicon with lots of important swing aerials and the names _I_ use for them. I use this for a reference, it’s not a complete learning tool.
 

It’s ok not to practice / include aerials

First off, I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to do aerials.  They are not necessary to create beautiful, accurate or virtuosic pictures of jazz music.  There are many other equally technical, equally impressive ways to move to music.  Aerials have a historical context in our dance, and are fun (for some) and impressive for the lay-audience.  They are just one subset of words in a huge lexicon of expression.  The risk-to-reward ratio is high, so please progress carefully and within your own comfort zone.
 
In addition there are many movements that are tricks, but not quite aerials, and they can have the same effect.  Bottom line, be comfortable.

Where aerials are ok

Chances are if you are the kind of person that reads swing dance blogs, you already know this, but it’s worth saying:  Aerials are great for choreographed performances, some competition contexts, and in jam circles where you have adequate room and are dancing with a person you’ve practiced aerials with before.
They are not for the social floor or for any situation where the flyer might not be aware that they are going to be flying.  If you are a venue promoter or teacher you might come across enthusiastic new dancers who try aerials on the social floor without training, preparation, or seemingly any regard to the life and limb of anyone including themselves.  Some people take a very stern stance on this, and I advocate that as well, but if possible to do so in such a way that doesn’t drive these new, enthusiastic dancers away.  Try to use the moment where you speak with them as an opportunity to turn this enthusiasm into a new dancer who is still just as interested in dancing, but just with more appropriate rules around airsteps and tricks.  Blame the insurance policy, or tell them that they are really good and other people might try to copy them and hurt themselves, or what have you, but I urge you to keep their enthusiasm and joie de vivre intact if at all possible.

Dan and Natalia

Terms I use

  • Base:  The person supporting a flip or trick. A “lead” in most contexts.
  • Flyer:  The person who is actually flipping, flyings, dropping or their feet are leaving the floor.
  • Prep: The beginning of a trick, without the actual flip, or landing, etc.  Preps may come in stages, and vary in terms of what is a “prep”. The point of them is to master the timing and connection of an aerial
  • Going over:  The confirmation that we as a couple are going to complete a trick in it’s entirety, without hesitation or plans to abort.
  • Spotter: An assistant or two, actively keeping the flyer safe, who should watch the preps and ideally know the trick and it’s common pitfalls well. I now have spotters always touch the flyer for the entirety of the air step unless the trick has already been completed successfully at least 5 times in a row.
   

Partner consent

If two people are agree to fight, it’s called a martial arts match.  If only one person agrees to that fight, it’s called assault.  You wouldn’t kiss someone without their consent, and aerials are the same.  You must respect the body autonomy of another individual.  Maybe you just did an aerial 9 times.  If your partner doesn’t feel like doing the 10th repetition, don’t push them.  If the preparations before a flip don’t feel right, don’t move ahead.  Long practices can lead to low blood sugar, wavering mental focus or just a bad “feeling”.
Make sure that you take your time to confirm each and every repetition so that everyone (base, flyer, spotter(s)) are on the same page. Aerials are not “lead/follow”, they are verbally queued each and every time. While there is an element of leading, and an element of following in the sense that you use those tools in addition to other applicable skills, all airsteps are verbally queued. Even in a performance, I try to remind my partner that the aerial is coming up, and we are “going”, or “prep” in rehearsal.
 

Conditioning for aerials

If you are new to aerials, you’ll want to make sure that your new aerial vocabulary doesn’t outpace your body’s ability to handle the stresses that the explosive, weight supported moves put on it.   Everyone’s body is different, so if you aren’t sure of where you need to go for your own person fitness, you should consult with a professional.  I’ll share with you a few things I do.
 
  1. Throwing weights.  I like to practice throwing weights across my yard.  Obviously this is something you should be extremely careful if you attempt a similar conditioning exercise.  Weightlifting, as in slow, controlled reps are a great thing for your body, but they don’t give you the explosive power I want.  Start small.  I was inspired by watching Serena and Venus Williams throwing tennis rackets to help their serve.  I concentrate on using the ground, and powering from the legs. Kettlebell training would be a great equivalent.
  2. Yoga.  I like to keep my connective tissues flexible and strong, even when they are in stressful positions.  I think of it like my “rubber bands”, and I want them to be able to stretch a long distance without snapping.  It also helps remind me to breathe and helps me to recover from aerials sessions.
  3. Plyometrics. I can’t say enough good things about plyometrics.  From single leg jumps, box jumps, lateral jumps, you are able to build strength and fast-twitch muscle fiber.  There are thousands of videos about plyometrics on youtube. I would recommend starting small and building.  You shouldn’t be limping around the following day after a plyo session, I just use them to enhance jumping ability.
  4. Jogging.  It’s not for everyone, I get that.  I know a lot of people hate it or can’t do it, and it’s certainly not a deal breaker if you’re not a runner.  The things I like about running is that it’s free, it makes you happy (endorphins!) and it will give you stamina for long practices. Treadmills can reduce the stress on joints, but the uneven surfaces outdoors can do a lot to strengthen stabilizers and smaller muscles.
  5. Core strengthening exercises. A strong core is essential for aerials.  I like planks for this, and there are many other great exercises which I won’t get into here, but you can easily search for different, challenging ways to strengthen your core.  Anything that helps you pull your legs to your chest is powerful.
  6.  Basic tumbling.  Doing cartwheels, handstands, etc can be really helpful for proprioception (understanding where you are in space) as well as understanding the shapes made by aerials.
  7. Falling technique: Falling down is unavoidable when you work on airsteps. Knowing how to break a fall, how to roll out of a fall, and how to tuck head and tailbone can be the difference between being a little sore the next day and leaving practice with a life altering injury. If you have played competitive sports or trained in martial arts, you may already know how to do this but if you don’t, you should seek the proper training before you begin to work on airsteps without a coach and definitely before you begin coaching others.

Warmup

Photo by Logan Chinn

Warming up is a must.  Outside of miscommunication, lack of adequate warm-up is the biggest cause of preventable injuries, in my experience.  Science and trends always change around this, so please do your own research, but what I generally do is begin with a warmup. I use simple things like jogging, jumping jacks, plyometrics (like above), push ups, and arm circles.  Nothing fancy, just getting blood flowing.  Next I do some light stretches, keeping in mind that I’m stretching to warm up, not stretching to gain new flexibility.  I’ve read studies like this one that say that if you stretch to the point of building your flexibility, you will reduce your strength during that session.
 
I often also do light stretches during aerials practice just to check in with my body and see if anything feels overstressed or in need of a break.

Clarity of naming

Dan and Gaby, Sonny Newman’s

Because Lindy Hop has (rightfully) avoided most attempts to codify or formalize the movements that make up our dance, there are different names for the same moves.  A good example of this is the classic “around the back” lift.  It’s been called a Frankie flip, a supergirl, a lamppost and a Lindy flip.  Probably a few other things too.
If you have more than one partner, you need to be especially mindful of this.  You absolutely need to have the same naming conventions for your tricks as your partner has.  When in doubt, watch a youtube video together and confirm that you’re talking about the same thing.  Stick with the name, and reenforce it frequently.  Make sure the name you pick doesn’t sound too much like another aerial.  For instance, I say “Lindy Flip” and “Veloz”, not “Lindy Flip” and “Lindy Backflip”, because in the heat of the moment, the latter is too easy to confuse.

Classifications of aerials

I use 5 classifications of aerials. Not all aerials fall into these categories cleanly, it’s just a guide to help you decide if the aerial you are about to work on is too difficult for you right now.  Never try a category “4” without a solid base of 1, 2’s and 3’s under your belt.
1 ) The flyer’s feet leave the ground but don’t go over their head. There is no “flip”.
2) The flyers feet go over their head, but 100% of this motion is supported and controlled by the base.
3) The move conforms to the shape of a flip, but is significantly supported at either take off or landing by the base.
4) The partners start apart and the ending is such that the flyer has to find their feet on their own.
5) The aerial or trick defies these categories, and maybe is hard to spot as well. The aerial may require exceptional strength or agility to complete. The Kaye flip or Idlewild might be good examples. (see Aerial Lexicon at bottom)
 

Finding aerial practice space

Rain City Rhythm by Anita Holladay, Folklife 2017, Dan and Rebecca Lucero

One of the best ways to stay safe while doing aerials is to find an appropriate place to practice them.  Gymnastics facilities are ideal. They are suited to every manner of training.
The other type of venue I’ve recently used is Parkour gyms.  They don’t always have quite as much equipment as a traditional gymnastics gym in terms of soft landing areas, but they’re often quite good.
The keyword you are looking for on their website is “open gym”. This is the time of week that you can go in and practice on your own. Call ahead and see what the requirements are.
Next to that, parks are good, especially ones with both grass and sand.
The important thing to remember is that the dance stage is not springy, so when you move from spring floors and air ticks to solid ground or dance floor, you will need to begin with preps and jumps all over again.

Timing, Teamwork and Technique

The three “T”s. Timing, teamwork, and technique.  Pretty much every error can come back to these three items.

Dan and Kay Hjielte, Photo Logan Chinn

Timing covers a lot of things in dance.  Maybe just about everything.  With aerials, I specifically refer to prep timings
There are three common ones.
1) Rock step go (1,2 take off 3)
2) Badoom preps (& 1, take off 2) 3) Rock step, hop down (1, 2 & 3 take off 4) Make sure you are using the same one as your partner.  One count off won’t feel too bad on a spring floor, but it feels terrible on a stage. More than a count, timing is about feeling in sync with the person you’re dancing with.
Teamwork: As previously stated, spotters, bases and flyers need to all be on the same page about whether a repetition is a prep a full over, or some other incremental piece. One common mistake I see is that spotters watch the aerial, but do not touch the flyer.  I always advocate for spotters touching the flyer as they go into the prep.  Not only is it an active confirmation of communication, the fact is that if the aerial goes south, you’ll never be able to react quickly enough to help them if you aren’t already touching them.
Technique: There’s no universal technique that applies to every aerial, but here are some common technique flaws you can look out for:
  1. The base raising up on the toes and thus being unstable.
  2. Flyers relaxing core and turning a backflip into a backbend.
  3. Flyers letting arms relax behind the head where there is no strength.
  4. Base and flyer not taking adequate time to make the preps feel like a dance move.  The entrance to a prep should always feel fluid and comfortable, like any other dance move.
  5. Bases being overly passive, i.e. not sharing the work.
  6. Closing eyes during flips.
  7. Not providing enough negative resistance, in other words, you always want to set the flyer down as lightly as they were picked up.
  8. Trying to “stick” landings, instead of landing softly through toes, ankles, knees, perhaps even adding a double bounce.
It’s a lot easier to err on the side of safety and work towards an aerial than to recover from injury.  When in doubt, do more preps

Dan and Robin Nunnally

Overspotting

With all the safety in the world, there’s such a thing as overdoing it. The most typical example of this is stepping in to help when there are already two spotters.  There’s only so much room in the radius of a single trick, and you can make things worse if you add a third or fourth spotter.  Obviously there are exceptions, but if you don’t trust that two spotters and a base can support a trick, then I would say that chances are that adequate preparation hasn’t been made, or the spotters are too inexperienced to be in the position they are in.
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t progress to the next step.

Progressing and regressing

Being good at aerials is about gradually building your tricks, and even gradually building up to tricks themselves. Don’t aim to master an aerial in one rehearsal.
When you make changes to aerials or approaches, make them very gradually, and one at a time, so that you can isolate them.  A good example might be throwing more,  tucking more, or landing with your feet farther apart.  Never change more than one thing at a time. If you have a less than desirable repetition, go back to the previous step and rebuild, to see if you can identify the breakdown.

Teaching and Coaching Airsteps

Coaching dancers on tricks and airsteps is an immense responsibility and it should not be taken lightly. As a teacher and/or coach you are responsible for the well being of every single person in your classroom. If someone leaves your class or practice injured, you are partly (if not mostly) responsible for it.
Here are some tips and things to keep in mind:
  1. Always start with basing fundamentals and slowly build trust from there.  Aerials classes should be blocked out to at least 2 hours to allow for warmup, instruction, and to keep things at an unhurried pace.
  2. Don’t teach or coach if you don’t feel ready. If you are put in a position where you need to, seek out outside help. If no one in your city has more experience and can help you, reach out online, there’s a lot of knowledge and willingness to help out there.
  3.  Make sure your students and/or team members understand that some amount of order is necessary to keep everyone safe. Unless everyone in the room is highly experienced with airsteps, if everyone is trying different ones, in every direction, and at different speeds, the results could be catastrophic.
  4.  Have a clear progression for each airstep and give your students/ team members a checklist they can follow. They should know what they need to know, do, or feel comfortable with in order to move onto the next stage of an airstep.
  5.  With a very inexperienced group, personally spot every single couple the first 3 times they do the complete airstep from start to finish.
  6. Trust your experience and stick to your values. As a teacher/coach, you know better than your students/team members and you know when something is and isn’t safe. Sometimes students/ team members will want to push themselves beyond what is safe and it is your responsibility to protect them from their lack of experience while still encouraging them for their enthusiasm.
  7.  Airsteps in performances: Set a deadline for when the airsteps should be reliably performed (no spotters required, safely executed, with clean entrance and exit) before a major performance or competition. 6 weeks should be the absolute minimum. Once that deadline has been set, do not budge. You will be tempted and perhaps persuaded by your team members to give an extension but more often than not, it will be a bad idea.
Spotting without touching isn’t spotting, it’s watching

Final thoughts

Taking an evening off is a lot better than taking 6 months off, should you injure yourself.  I have a couple of rules I use for myself:
1) airsteps are run a minimum of 100 times before putting them out in front of an audience.
2) I never do more than a dozen reps of an airstep in one night.  This makes sure I’m never overdoing one trick.
Treat your partner, yourself, and your body well and you’ll give yourself a good shot at staying safe and injury free.
Many thanks to Natalia Rueda for thoughtful edits and crucial additions, especially the “teaching airsteps” section. Check out her FB page.
Also, a big shout out to Kenny and Delilah, Lindy Ladder, and all the members (current and past) of 23 Skidoo, Rainier Rhythm, Rain City Rhythm and everyone who takes time to share their knowledge in a team or on Youtube. Doing something moderately dangerous and looking out for one another, all in the name of making compelling art has made me some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Of course, much appreciation also goes out to Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Mama Lou Parks Dancers, the Harlem Hot Shots, the Flyin’ Lindy Hoppers and every other group that invented or learned these aerials firsthand from original Lindy Hoppers.   Also, thank you to Lindsay Sobczyk who suggested this great topic.
The lexicon below represents a lot of work on behalf of a lot of people. Enjoy!
 

Aerial Lexicon

NameSamplesDifficultyAlternate Names / Notes
Ace in the holeKevin and Juan4/5AKA Handstand down the back
Acid dropUS Open4
Assisted KipCamp Hollywood2/3
Attack of the Flying SquirrelWhitey's Lindy HoppersILHC1
Back to back rollHarlem Hot ShotsHellzapoppin'2/3The first Aerial!
The AlyceGrand National5Unsure about name
Base Front FlipULHS4/5
Big WheelKenny and Delilah A variation4AKA Butt flip
The Blue OutlawKenny and Sara Planas

PDBA
2AKA Duck and Dive
The BoatULHS ULHS1Is this an aerial?
California Routine Exit MoveHarlem Hot Shots1/2
CandlestickWhite's Lindy Hoppers1
The ChairClass recap1
The Charleston BackflipYoutube1
Cradle to blue outlawSpirit Moves2/3
Dive RollCamp Hollywood1/2
The Dive ThroughNatalie and Yuval4
Double Blue OutlawMama Lou Parks ULHS5
The Hip RollSpirit Moves1/2AKA Kaye dip
The Fallback v1After Seben1
The FlailSpirit Moves
The FlyLindy Ladder, Kenny & Abeth 5
Flyer Front FlipMama Lou Parks ULHS4
Frankie ThrowHarlem Hot Shots2/3Supergirl, Lamppost, Lindy Flip
Frida Fip23 Skidoo 23 Skidoo4
Frog JumpBruce and Jane1Jersey Jump
Hat TrickULHS3
Horse23 Skidoo Rainier Rhythm3
The IdlewildIdlewild movie5
The Juan and KevinCamp Hollywood5
Kaye FlipLindy Ladder Groovie Movie4/5
Kaye Vegas Combo23 Skidoo5
Kick in the pantsKenny & Jesse1
KnickerbocherHarlem Hot Shots2
LeapfrogULHS1/2
MaharajaHal & Betty1/2The Merry go round
(Al) Minns FlipULHS Hellzapoppin3/4
MonstersDay at the Races1/2
Moon FlipRain City Rhythm1
Over the headRainier Rhythm Lindy Ladder3/4AKA Popover
The PancakeWhitey's Lindy Hoppers2AKA Rollup
The Record SpinYoutube2
Reverse RollupCamp Hollywood4
Roll-up with backflip23 Skidoo4
Roll up with over the headLindy Focus
The Shake Around23 Skidoo!
Hellzapoppin'
1/2
Shoulder RollULHS3/4
Skidoowild23 Skidoo Kenny & Heather5
SkydancerULHS1
Skye FlipULHS

Beantown
2/3
The SnatchHellzapoppin' ULHS2
SpitwadBeantown1/2
Split KickILHCRussian Kick, Tandem Popup
Squat FlipWhitey's Lindy Hoppers3
The Stack23 Skidoo!1/2
Sugar HillRainier Rhythm Whitey's Lindy Hoppers2
Tandem CanonballBeantown2
The SunshineHarlem Hot Shots Whitey's Lindy Hoppers4
The Swedish MeatballKenny and Sara Planis
Thread the needleWhitey's Lindy Hoppers Priorities on Parade1/2
The TreehouseHellzapoppin' Kenny and Delilah1Shaking Change
Trip FlipCamp Hollywood3/4
Vegas Flip23 Skidoo2/3
Veloz FlipGroovie Movie3/4Lindy Backflip
The WheelbarrowRussian Swing Dance Championships1/2