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Up in the Air


By Miriam Landru

One of the most popular fitness crazes within the last five years is not a three-hour drive to Charlotte, but just a few miles east in downtown Fayetteville. That craze is aerial fitness, which is acrobatics in the air performed on silks, trapeze and ropes among other apparatuses.

            What became Air Born Aerial Fitness first began in Fayetteville around 2007 when Lindsey Lindberg, a “strongwoman” and Guinness World Record holder known for ripping phone books and bending cast iron frying pans began holding small “word of mouth” classes at The Climbing Place.

Zahra Harvey moved to Fayetteville in 1999 from Clearwater, Florida. At first, Fayetteville was just a stopover to Asheville for the performing arts fiend, but she soon found her niche in the growing city at the beginning of our downtown’s renaissance.

Looking for some new skills to incorporate into her workouts, Zahra stumbled across the strongwoman’s classes at The Climbing Place. “I had seen aerial acrobatics before, saw it on TV, and I thought ‘man that is something I would really like to do.’ I’m really into fitness but I am also really into performing. I was a theatre geek in school…. But singing and dancing was never something I excelled that… but I had strength and agility, so to me, aerial acrobatics seemed like the perfect mix.”

Zahra excelled in the small aerial fitness classes Lindsey held at the rock climbing gym. So much, that she was asked to join her as an instructor. “Lindsey took me on, so I was helping her teach classes.”

In 2010, Harvey took the silks by command. “That’s when Air Born Aerial Fitness launched. Before, it was a much more informal thing,” she explained. And at the beginning of 2015, aerial yoga was incorporated into their class repertoire thanks to long time student turned teacher, Crystal Butler. Butler began taking aerial acrobatics classes when she lived in Phoenix, Arizona because of a Groupon. “They were advertising a flying trapeze class. I thought it would be a good thing to do for our family to bond. I really enjoyed it… and was happy to know it wasn’t just a ‘bucket list’ kinda thing,” she shared.

After the Butler family moved to North Carolina, Crystal discovered the aerial fitness business. “I started attending Zahra’s classes five years ago.” She began researching more about aerial acrobatics and the different ways you can practice the art. “I discovered aerial yoga. I had taken a lot of yoga classes, so this peaked my interest. I am now certified to teach,” she said. Crystal, who likes the more rigorous forms of yoga like Vinyasa and Ashtanga, was drawn to this new way to practice which Yoga Journal has called one of the fastest growing ways to get fit in the United States.

With the variety of classes at Air Born and the peaked interest from the community, the new challenge is finding a facility to house this growing business. While they have loved The Climbing Place’s hospitality over the past six years, it’s time to move into their own digs. “When we started we had just two silks, now we have so many apparatuses, such as countless silks, hammocks, multiple trapeze and chains all used to practice aerial arts,” said Zahra. Multiple apparatus leads to multiple clientele. Thus, Air Born Aerial Arts must go forth and grow and expand.

Even though the downtown aerial arts business is growing, their focus is still all about quality, not quantity. “We have grown to ten classes a week. Most classes max out at five people. Classes must be small so students can receive individual attention,” explained Zahra. “I do not want to run a business where my students don’t feel safe and we want our students to feel safe with the instructor.” The danger is there in this art and business if one is not properly trained. “We have mats, but no rope or net that will catch you. It can be dangerous and you got to have eyes on you so that’s why we max our classes out at five participants,” said Zahra.

            Air Born Aerial Arts is not just training in the gym, they perform too when there are opportunities and schedules allow. Their performance troupe has been seen around the Market House on Fourth Friday and at different events around town, in the past for Sustainable Sandhills and Fayetteville Young Professionals. “We are always coming up with new challenges, crazy workouts. We also travel as much as we can. We travel to other places where they have workshops: Vermont, Charlotte and Florida. We enjoy going to workshops and taking classes from different aerial schools,” said Zahra.

Speaking of schedules, Zahra herself has quite the grueling one as a Captain with the Fayetteville Fire Department and Crystal as well, who is a full-time mother of four. “I work ten 24-hour shifts a month with the fire department, but our classes are always covered. This is in part thanks to Crystal and another fabulous instructor, Rainey Hardiman, who also runs our kids program. Between the two of them, our business never suffers,” explained Zahra.

To the outsider, the business of the aerial arts may seem largely feminine. But, when asked if men ever took classes, I was met with a resounding “YES.”

“Men come when they’re challenged by a girlfriend or spouse. Maybe there will be a couple in the rock climbing gym and they’ll see us on the silks and one will say ‘I want to try that.’ Some men think it is very much a female sport and it is not. If you look online or if you go see a Cirque du Soleil show, you will see that there are definitely male performers and they are definitely FIT,” said Zahra. “And they’re capable of doing really cool tricks,” added Crystal. So, there’s definitely a masculine side to aerial arts. “Men who take our classes start YouTubing and seeing all the cool things they can do. Then they’re sold and know it’s not just a feminine sport,” explained Zahra.

            The full-time firefighter and the full-time mother agree that sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day. “Any business owner will tell you that,” said Zahra. But both work hard at their passions and duties in and outside of the aerial arts.

            “When we finally get into their own space, we will be able to offer so much more. This city needs more. We have a small group performers and artists from the dance schools and the theatres, but they’re dedicated,” shared Zahra. “We want to contribute to the artistic side of Fayetteville with our business.”