Aerials: When “Can’t” Becomes “Can”

(Also highly relevant to dance, btw.)

I’ll start with a caveat.

As we are very fond of saying at the studio:

  1. Bodies are different.
  2. Bodies are weird.

…Which is a long way of saying that “Can’t” is okay.

As a dancer, gymnast, and equestrian, I’ve experienced a lot of that “No such thing as can’t” conditioning — I still wrestle with it frequently, though for me, it’s usually on a mental-health level or a neurological-weirdness level rather than on a physical-performance level.

Aerials have taught me that, really, the proportions of my body — which are great for dance and for most things in aerials — make some skills really hard, even potentially impossible. It’s also teaching me that, you know, that’s probably okay.

I haven’t hit a skill yet that’s really, truly impossible, but I can tell you that T-rex arms make doing a half-Russian out of a half-mill pretty freaking hard. I may or may not ever find a way to make it happen smoothly; I may have to work on it until my body finds its own special way of doing it.

That’s okay, though. Half-mill into half-Russian is one skill out of a zillion. There are other skills I can use instead.

That’s not quite a true can’t, but it’s an indication that part of me is willing to move towards a world where can’t is as okay for me as it is for other people.

We’re allowed to have can’ts. In fact, we probably should have can’ts. If we were all equally good at everything all the time, maybe there wouldn’t be room to appreciate artists, spectacular surgeons, and for those people who are amazingly gifted in the realms of the heart.

There’s some real truth to the idea that the shadows allow us to appreciate the light (and vice-versa), and while some of the can’ts in our lives hurt too much to think about them this way, others sting a lot less when we come to see them that way. (That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s wrong to fight to overcome your own personal can’ts. Probably the middle road, some of each, is the healthiest approach.)

Basically, everyone has a can’t somewhere, and that’s okay.


That being said, there is something I love so very, very much about aerials, and it’s this.

Every now and then, there’s this magical moment when something that used to be a can’t suddenly transforms into a can.

Of course, that’s not really how it happens.

What really happens is that you practice that skill, or other skills that train the same muscles and build related neural pathways, and then a moment arrives when, Boom! It all comes together, and it seems like a miracle.

Or, like, maybe it just is a miracle. Empiricism is great and all, but it isn’t everything.

Anyway, I had one of those moments today in mixed-apparatus class. We were doing vine climb to crescent moon (here’s an image [opens in new tab]).

This, by the way, is one of the skills that are more challenging for me because of the way I’m built. The last time I tried it, my body basically didn’t “get it,” and I haven’t done it since (not on purpose; it’s just how things have shaken out).

Today, it just happened brilliantly, beautifully. I was able to sail right into crescent moon effortlessly (and did a straight-leg variation that apparently impressed the hell out of everyone; I’m going to have to get a picture of this).

I haven’t really practiced these skills; I’ve just practiced related skills enough that it came together today — and that felt amazing.

Suddenly, this thing that used to be a can’t had magically become a can.

And that felt so good.

This is one of the things I love most about aerials (and about dance). I love those moments when things that felt like I would just never, ever be able to do them magically transform into things I can do and do well.

Those moments only happen, of course, if you stick with it — and I think that this may well be the greatest lesson that aerials and dance can teach us.

When we experience those moments in which can’t becomes can, we begin to think of ourselves differently. We begin to regard ourselves as people who are capable; as people who succeed.

Likewise, we watch other people experience that same transformation, and we begin to see them the same way.

We learn to feel this way in spite of our can’ts; in spite of those other areas in our life in which we continue to be less than able.

If we are fortunate, we learn to see past those areas; we learn to see that they are not barriers to a kind of overall can.

For what it’s worth, I think this is the same knowledge that good support services for people with disabilities imparts.

I used to think of myself more as someone who couldn’t: someone whose neurology stood in the way of success. A lot of parts of day-to-day life are hard for me in ways that can be really frustrating and even demoralizing, and for a long time I internalized the hell out of that. I felt like I had to fight with everything in me to wrestle that set of can’ts into the ground; to be as “normal” as possible, no matter the cost.

Dance and aerials have taught me that my strengths lie elsewhere — and that they’re considerable.

They’ve taught me to regard myself as someone who is profoundly capable, but in ways that are maybe kind of different and not entirely compatible with the usual 9-to-5 (or 6:30, or 8:30) world.

They’ve taught me that those ways of being capable are good, and valuable, and actually pretty awesome.

That opportunity should be available to everyone.

Not that everyone has to reach it through aerials or dance — some people reach it through math, or the study of history, or organizing (seriously, this is probably the most under-appreciated gift in the whole of the Western world), or homemaking, or knitting, or bringing people together, or through an uncanny ability to navigate the difficult waters of the human heart.

I hope that, in time, we’ll grow into a culture that appreciates every one of these gifts (and all the others that I haven’t listed; we’d be here for the rest of forever if I tried).

One of Denis’ great gifts in working with his clients (adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities) is helping them transform their can’ts into cans; helping them reach their moments of can.

He believes in people with a kind of unshakable faith, and he helps them believe in themselves.

I have seen aerials do the same thing for so many people now — so many people come in saying, Oh, I’ll never be able to do that or I’m too weak or (as I once said) I don’t have the upper-body strength for that.

As our trainers are so fond of saying, “That’s why you come to aerials class.”

That, and to reveal the vast treasury of your undiscovered can.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2016/05/24, in aerials, balllet, life, mitzvot and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As someone who was naturally flexible and strong in younger years and who is now feeling the limitations of a middle-aged body, I might have a different perspective but I still can relate. Often, there are ways to work around my “can’ts” (this might be easier for flamenco dancers than for ballet dancers, but I really don’t know), and sometimes I just have to take things a little slower and put in some extra work.

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