By Florence Derrick
I’m suspended a metre above the ground and panic is setting in.
Not because I’m afraid of falling – it’s not that high, let’s be honest – but because I’m not sure I’ll have time to unravel myself from these silks before I completely lose the circulation in my toes.
Having sacked off traditional exercise to try London’s more exciting fitness offerings, I’m halfway through an aerial silks class and attempting my first suspended pose.
It’s all much harder than it looks. Even the first, most basic task I’m given – grabbing onto the silks and dangling with my whole body weight held in my hands – feels nigh-on impossible due to minimal upper body strength.
“You’re gripping way too hard,” my teacher Daisy says, observing my white knuckles and palms that have turned fire-engine red only five minutes in.
It’s hard not to, given there’s nothing keeping me from tumbling to the crash mat but my grip and dubious core strength.
But the first thing you learn in aerial silks class is to relax outside of your comfort zone – and wrapping a silk rope around your hands or feet tightly enough to stop you hurtling to the ground is definitely uncomfortable.
“At first you have to re-train your brain to do things you haven’t done since you were a kid in the playground, like being upside down,” says Daisy, who got into aerial arts in 2014 and quit her job to join the circus school a few months later.
“I mean, I’m scared of heights – you never completely lose the fear.
“When you do, that’s when stupid accidents happen.”
But the drop-in class at Flying Fantastic, a specialist aerial fitness school under the railway arches in Union Street, Southwark (10 minutes on the Tube from Canary Wharf) is anything but scary.
There’s five of us in the mixed-ability class.
Two have been practising aerial silks for a couple of years already – one is mid-level, and there’s another beginner, like me.
It strikes me how supportive and collaborative the class is, with newbies seeing what they’ll be able to achieve when they progress – we’re talking climbing several metres into the air, wrapped in fabric which then unravels as the performer spirals downwards, halting just short of the floor – and everyone helping each other manipulate their silks and muscles into the correct positions.
“What attracts people to aerial fitness is that it’s really fun,” Daisy says.
“It’s a workout but it’s also mental exercise.
“You don’t realise how much effort you’re putting in until the next day when you ache.”
Circus-inspired classes are part of a growing trend for alternative exercise that’s been sweeping over the capital over the last few years.
Are Londoners, like me, trading in the treadmill for good?
“There’s a certain apathy that’s been growing over the years towards gyms,” says Flying Fantastic founder Chris Wigan, who discovered aerial fitness while living in Buenos Aires and opened his school in London on his return, after spotting a niche.
“People in London are so time-poor. If you’ve only got time for one class, you’ve got to make it count.
“Boutique fitness operators have been given a great platform by class aggregators and things like Move GB.
“They’ve given businesses like ours massive visibility.”
That’s a view echoed by the class members, who are looking for forms of exercise that put fun before personal bests.
“I’m a thrill seeker and I enjoy a challenge,” says Erin, who’s on her fifth aerial silks class.
“Going to the gym is just so boring. Your only challenge is the number of reps you can do.
“For me, this is really mentally engaging because you’re always thinking of all your muscles, how they are engaging, where the silks are. It’s freeing.”
Paired with such total escapism, the fitness element creeps up on you.
While the teachers claim that you can burn more calories from 90 minutes in the silks than in a spin class, I’m so focused on staying airborne I forget I’m even exercising.
Determined to master at least one aerial pose before the class is up, I wrap the silks tightly around my feet and step up into the air once more, blocking out my toes’ screams of protest.
Extending my legs forwards, I tighten my core, lean back and curve down into an arch. My head and arms stretch towards the ground as my toes hold the stabilising silk in place.
It feels rewardingly elegant – until I try to reverse the process to get down, and end up tangled in fabric.
Though I don’t leave feeling worn out, I’ll feel it tomorrow, when I’ll wake up with cramps in my fingers, stiff shoulders and aches in arm muscles I didn’t even know existed.
I’m reminded of Erin’s parting comment, stepping out onto the sunset-lit cobbles of Union Street after the class: “I really don’t mind feeling like I can’t move the next day,” she says.
“All I want is to get over the soreness so I can do the next class.”
I might have only learnt the ropes for one pose so far – but I totally agree with her.
New customers can take three classes for £45. Classes start at £16 for off-peak times when booking 10 together.
Go to flyingfantastic.co.uk