What is an Aerialist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An aerialist is a performer who works high above the ground. Aerialists are commonly associated with circus performances, but they can appear on their own, and can be part of other types of productions. For example, some dance companies integrate aerial acts into their work to expand the boundaries of the stage. It is also possible to hire aerialists for a standalone act, as is sometimes done for big events where people want some form of entertainment for the guests.

A tightrope walker is one type of aerialist.
A tightrope walker is one type of aerialist.

In order to become an aerialist, it is necessary to complete training in the aerial arts. This work can be very dangerous for inexperienced or poorly trained performers, and it requires an extensive knowledge of all of the safety procedures involved. In addition, aerialists have to be trained athletically, as the work is often physically demanding. Finally, they need showmanship skills so that their acts will be dynamic and interesting; even if aerialists are choreographed by someone else, they still need the ability to carry the act and hold the attention of the audience.

Aerialists should take classes in gymnastics.
Aerialists should take classes in gymnastics.

One way to train is to attend a circus arts school. Such schools often have aerial arts programs which offer training in trapeze, silks, tightrope walking, and other aerial skills. Some offer specialty training and certifications, such as training in unusual aerial techniques which are used by a limited number of circus artists around the world. In some cases, a circus arts school is a standalone facility, and in others, it may be linked with a circus which prefers to train its own staff.

Aerialists are typically also trained gymnasts and acrobats.
Aerialists are typically also trained gymnasts and acrobats.

Historically, many aerialists trained through apprenticeship, and some continue to pursue this approach to learning. In this case, an aerialist works with a circus, receiving training when performances are not in session and slowly developing skills which can be used in performance, initially on the ground and later in larger and more technically demanding pieces. Once an aerialist has completed an apprenticeship, she or he can work independently, design routines, and train other aerialists.

Many aerialists are relatively small and lightweight, but they are incredibly strong. They can work alone or in tandem acts with other artists, and they are usually flexible, toned, and capable of immense muscle control. A skilled aerialist makes the work look like nothing, appearing almost to float in the air. However, this work can be among the most dangerous circus work, as for certain kinds of acts, safety measures such as harnesses and nets cannot be used.

Circuses and other public performance groups may employ acrobats and aerialists.
Circuses and other public performance groups may employ acrobats and aerialists.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


There is a new program at my gym offering aerialist classes and it looks pretty intense. From what I can tell from the advertisements it combines gymnastics work with some aerialist equipment like the trapeze and trampoline.

I have to say, it looks like it would be a lot of fun bouncing around above the ground with the cables strapped to you, but I am worried that it would also be pretty easy to hurt yourself. I remember my first experience with a trampoline and I actually fell off of it, which was really embarrassing and painful. I hope that the classes at my gym are better prepared for total beginners than my last gym was.


I love the circus aerialist because I find that their performances are always the most frightening and exciting. Besides the contortionists, aerialists really make me think about how amazing the human body can be with all of the insane things it is capable of.

Plus, the circus costumes are pretty amazing and really highlight the work that the aerialists are doing. The last circus I went to covered the aerialist with glittering feathers. They were painted on, because the aerialist still needed to be able to move smoothly, but the whole things looked pretty cool. I would love to wear such intricate costumes as part of my work. Unfortunately, my uniform isn't nearly as eye-catching.


Besides the aerialists who work in circuses and theater, there are also the daredevil style aerialists. Since skyscrapers were built in New York City and other cities, there have been those who have walked a tightrope from one tall building to another. I doubt if they had the permission of the city officials.

And some of these risk takers have tried to get permission to walk over a part of Niagara Falls. I don't know if anyone has actually done it.It's hard to believe!


In some European countries and in China, circus aerialists were trained by family members. It was and still is a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation.They start as small children doing acrobats on the floor and slowly learn harder and harder skills.

I would think that parents and other family members do a great job of teaching their children the needed skills and safety techniques.


@JaneAir - Wow, that's really cool. I think I would be too scared to even take aerials classes. It seems like it would just be to easy to get seriously hurt or killed if you fell or something.

I think I will just stick to watching aerialists as part of the audience! Now that is fun. I saw a Cirque du Soleil performance awhile ago, and it was completely amazing. I don't think I could ever do the stuff that those guys do!


I take classes on the aerial hoop, and it is very physically demanding. I was pretty fit and strong when I started, but I can tell I've developed at lot more arm strength and core strength in the last year that I've been doing it.

It is really fun. I don't know if I'll ever get good enough to perform, but I love doing it as a hobby. It's so rewarding when I learn a new move. I can do things now that I never thought I could! There are a few different moves my teacher showed me in the beginning that I honestly though I could never, ever, learn to do. It's always a great feelings when I master one of those moves.

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