50 over 50 interviewees – Fran Sperling – Aerialist, Choreographer & Coach

  1. Tell us more about yourself. What do you do and how long you’ve been working in this industry?

I’m an aerialist, a coach and choreographer. I’ve been performing in the circus industry since the ‘80s. I started out as the top-mounter of a female acrobatic duo Acrobrats. Karen Gersch, who co-founded Acrobrats, posted an ad seeking a new partner. So I auditioned, and discovered circus! I’d been dancing at that time and taking acrobatic classes at Broadway Dance Center and Sutton Gym.

I co-created acts with Karen for 17 years, we performed in the US and abroad. There was only one aerial teacher in NYC at that time – Irina Gold. Karen had a loft on the Bowery, and Irina used to train students there. Karen and I had a great time working with the Big Apple Circus, International Circus Festivals, shows for Lincoln Center, and a lot of corporate events. I eventually went on to study and train aerial in NYC and San Francisco. When Karen and I split up, I started performing solo, and with new partners.

Over the years, I’ve performed trapeze, lyra, silks, Spanish web, and aerial net. I love duo work. I’ve had the fortune to travel and perform in some stunningly beautiful venues, along with many other amazing circus and dance folks. One of my favourite venues to perform in was the Beurs van Berlage (Old Stock Exchange building) in Amsterdam.

In 2007, I thought about bringing aerial into the fitness world. Chris Harrison had just created an Aerial Yoga program. Then in January 2008, I created Skybody System Aerial Fitness and implemented it into Reebok Sports Club/NY. It offered a blend of Aerial Yoga, Aerial Dance, and Aerial Fitness. I brought in a swinging trapeze too! Good morning America, TV Guide Network, Live with Regis and Kelly, Pix 11 News, and many national magazines and local newspapers hailed the program a success. This inspired other fitness studios to offer aerial fitness as part of their programming.

Currently, I teach at some of the aerial studios in Manhattan (at Body & Pole and Om Factory), train and teach privates at Circus Warehouse, and perform when a project sounds interesting to me. I also choreograph aerial work for dance companies and individual dancers, bring my 18.5 ft portable aerial rig to gigs and to Tompkins Square Park for the annual Dance Parade. I continue to support the now thriving NYC aerial community.

  1. Who did you want to be when you were a kid?

I didn’t have any specific person or persona. What I wanted to be was a dancer.

What struck me as particularly incredible was what I read when I got a hold of non-identifying information about my birth mother. I was in my 20’s back then. I was adopted and apparently, my birth mother was a ballerina. There is something to be said about genes!

  1. What was your ‘punch in the stomach’ or when did you first realise that this is going to become your career?

My career choices have often come as a result of serendipity. Having some talent and skills didn’t hurt either.

A dancer/Pilates instructor, whose classes I went to regularly decided to start a dance company and asked if I was interested in being in his company. I said yes! That work led to working with other choreographers and dance companies in NYC. I then auditioned for a scholarship to Pierre Dulaine’s American Ballroom Theatre Company, and was chosen!

I worked with Pierre for 3 years at the forefront of his Dancing Classrooms Program. The audition for Karen was my introduction to the circus world. That led to a much longer career and one that I was able to invent and reinvent for years. Each transition felt very aligned with one another, and it did ultimately become the totality of a dance career. It never felt like a punch in the stomach, but a series of events that led me to what I loved the most.

  1. What were the 3 biggest obstacles in pursuit of your career?

1) At times, getting in my own way.

My father was a perfectionist. He had very high expectations of my brother and I in all our endeavors. Nothing was ever really good enough. I’ve always been hard on myself – on my performances, creative ideas and teaching. I often complicated my work and needed to seek validation from others. It has emotionally limited me and created a fear of failure.

Art is for arts sake. Creating art with no expectation of its outcome nor need to validate it; competing with myself instead of with others— have been approaches to my work I have struggled with over the years.

2) Not getting to know the business of Circus earlier on.

I was very fortunate to work for years through Karen’s company. We shared the creative side of the business, but she preferred to run the ‘business side’ herself. So she booked our gigs and made contacts. I didn’t look into alternative work during that time. After we separated I did find work through many people I met along the way. Though I had often regretted that I didn’t put enough effort into learning the business side of things on my own any sooner.

3) Sharing too much.

I tend to be overzealous with sharing. But sometimes you give an inch and they will take a mile. I learned that it’s so important to set boundaries in your personal life and your career, and have clear contracts and agreements.  

I’ve been burned, as many other aerialists have. People use other’s choreography and concepts as their own, with no credit or consideration. Clients back out of events at the last minute, unless you’ve signed a clear and concise contract. This is a mistake I only had to learn once (a point to consider in the 2nd obstacle listed above. Learn the business!).

Don’t give your time and work for nothing. Every day I’m learning to be much more selective, careful, and to the point. 

  1. Where do you find inspiration?

Music and movement exploration. Asking myself questions I have no answers to. Asking what might happen next, what happens if…

 Seeing so much amazing talent on Instagram nowadays is truly inspiring. We didn’t have social media back when. We had our small communities to inspire one another, and explore movement together in open workouts.

I find inspiration from many of my students. I often tell them their mistakes are my gold mines. It gives me fresh ideas! But it’s not just their mistakes in the air, it’s their passion for aerial arts too. When they finally let go and explore movement unique to themselves … it is so exciting to watch.

I’m also inspired by my fellow aerialists here in NYC. I’ve seen so many blossom and create original and innovative work. It’s enervating.

  1. What challenges do you face in this industry as a ‘50+ artist’?

I feel more invisible among my peers. I may not appear 62, but they know I’m not in my 20’s or 30’s anymore. They don’t invite me to participate in projects they are developing. I feel they view me as less capable or less interested, somehow.

Aerial work is highly connected to the burlesque scene these days, which wasn’t a huge thing years ago. The quality of one’s aerial work appears less substantial. Students taking just a few aerial classes get paid to perform aerial now. Baring skin seems to be a proprietary factor. So at this point in my career, I’m asking myself – should I jump into these waters because there is more work in burlesque? I’m not necessarily comfortable with it, baring all was not a prerequisite in the past! But I’m open-minded!

The largest challenge is ageing! Elastin and estrogen have disappeared and I’m more conscious of my waistline, trying to figure out how to chisel it down again. Those that know me would laugh hearing me say this, but we all want to be our best in life (and in the air), but at some point, there are some things you have to let go of.

I’m still very strong though. My students comment on this all the time. My duo trapeze partner is happy about this, and I’m still challenging myself to learn things I’ve not tried before. Like flags and roll-ups in straps. I laugh at myself, why did I wait until 62 to take straps classes? But I’m doing really well!

I become more fatigued than I used to. It’s harder for me to train for hours! I’ve become aware of my limitations and honour them to avoid injury. Having always been a technique and anatomy nerd, that has helped me greatly in maintaining myself and avoiding injuries over the years. At least, I believe so.

I still ask a lot of questions and search to understand how to make movement efficient and safe, what muscle groups are involved, what needs to pull, push, leverage or counterbalance. Many teachers still teach from the exemplary “just do as I do” or “ just do it” approach. That works less for me as I need to figure things out. Proper technique and progression keep your body whole.

I’ve not been faced with any serious injuries, now or in the past, fortunately. I feel I need to be a bit more cautious now than I used to be in many ways – be more attuned to my body, pay more attention to maintenance and be more careful not to cause any serious injuries, because, at this point in time, it would be harder to bounce back!

  1. What advice would you give someone who is about to start their career but is being told that it’s ‘too late’?

I would say it’s never too late to do what you love. But if your career is in a physical realm, there are limitations, but also choices. You have to really believe in yourself!

Being realistic is important. Ask yourself questions. Do you want to become a performer and to what skill level? Where do you imagine yourself working? Do you want to become a teacher? Choreographer? An aerial studio owner? Were you always active? Been a dancer previously? An ex- gymnast? Are you still in good health, with little to no past injuries? People with physical backgrounds may be able to handle the stresses of aerial arts places on the body later in life.

And starting later in life when? At 20? 28? 40? 50…? What is “Late”? It’s relative.

Ask yourself truthfully where you’re in your life presently, how strong are you mentally and physically, and what your true physical limitations are. What can you strive for realistically for an aerial/circus career? What could you achieve with your training considering the time it takes to learn skills safely and well.

  1. Do you have any idols and if so, who and why?

I fell in love with trapeze after seeing Aurelia Katz in Teatro ZinZanni years ago. She embodied the beauty and grace I imagined performing aerial was about.

Talent is so abundant these days. I generally don’t idolize people, but I admire their skills. Those that train regularly, seek creativity outside the box, and remain passionate about what they do, lift themselves higher. We all are intrinsically born with many skills. Some people come to realize them sooner than others, while some need to work harder to attain them.

  1. What’s your life motto?  

Be the best you can be.

Work hard but don’t be hard on your work.

  1. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?

Silver Striped Tabby.  Because I’m crazy about my new cat.

Find out more about Fran’s aerial work on Skybodysystem.com. The company provides entertainment for private events and offers a comprehensive 60-hour Aerial Yoga Certification course to studios or gyms interested in aerial yoga programming at their location.