By Lorna Mackinder-Clark, founder & studio director of Leeds Aerial Arts

Hey, I am Lorna founder and studio director at Leeds Aerial Arts. My team and I have been introducing Aerial to the awesome women of Leeds for several years now! Take a look below to see how it all started, what we have been up to, and a glimpse into our future plans…

Get comfy, enjoy, and then why not pop over to social media to say hi 👋@leedsaerialarts

To begin… I first discovered the world of Aerial Arts during my dance training at University, where I trained with Wired Aerial Theatre. Through my aerial training, I found a way to be free, to challenge my body and mind, to step beyond what I thought possible, and to take flight! The aerial arts brought me out of my comfort zone in my dance style and I noticed that this newfound perspective and confidence in my abilities was translating into other areas of my life too.

When I moved back to Leeds I wanted to share this newfound feeling with women just like me. In 2013 I was awarded a ‘Kickstart’ Bursary of £500 from Yorkshire Dance to begin to put my plans into action. The Leeds fitness scene was exploding at the time, but I saw classes with a focus on body image, burning calories, losing weight and this wasn’t my message. I wanted to start a class with strength AND confidence building at its core. I wanted to meet women who were looking for a different type of exercise, a class that was fun, challenging, and for that hour of the week, they were thinking only about taking on the equipment in front of them. Leaving the outside world outside of the room.

I began a weekly class at Yorkshire Dance and to my delight, I found that these women were coming from all walks of life, teachers, nurses, parents, office workers – (we seem to have ALOT of radiographers, and primary school teachers in particular!?) Those who enjoyed danging from climbing frames as children were able to rediscover this love of playing, exploring moving through Aerial classes. My client’s bodies were becoming stronger as a bi-product, they had found a form of exercise that was rewarding and FUN.

Teaching at Yorkshire Dance in 2016.

As one class filled up I added another, becoming a regular fixture on the Yorkshire Dance timetable, I began teaching Aerial at multiple locations around Leeds, sharing my passion for aerial and converting women to exercise and take up the challenge! In 2016 I began teaching for ‘Vertical Fitness’ a student-led Pole Dance society at the University of Leeds, they wanted to offer Aerial classes for their members and a wonderful partnership was formed! In 2017 I was able to hire my first team members Maisie & Emily, both had previously attended my ‘Give It A Go’ events with Vertical Fitness and, like me, they were eager to share their passion for aerial far and wide.

In 2018 Leeds Aerial Arts found its first dedicated home in Leeds. Opening the Cross York Street Studio saw the introduction of Aerial Yoga, Aerial Sing, Acro Yoga, Stretch and classes for children and young people. We added birthday parties, hen parties, corporate retreats and bespoke workshops. I was blessed at this time to welcome Gaby and Kathryn to my team of instructors. The added space has helped us to introduce aerial to over 1000 new clients whilst a large group of the original gang from Yorkshire Dance continue to grow and move from strength to strength. In setting up the studio at Cross York Street Leeds Aerial Arts truly found a home.

Training at a distance…

Things were ticking along relatively smoothly… And then BAM. Half-way through teaching a class for Vertical Fitness on Monday 16th March 2020, my phone makes the dreaded sound of a BBC News alert: ‘People should avoid unnecessary physical contact.’ I looked around the room. Students were supporting one another, giving each other direction, encouragement, physically helping one another to work out the sequence being taught. I took the president of the society to one side, “This will be our last class for a while.” At the end of the session, we explained the alert. We said our goodbyes. (I encouraged one of the students to look into teaching training during the time away!*), and I knew this was a moment of change.

I went home (and cried) before contacting my team and beginning to form a plan, sure we could teach some sessions remotely, but our specialist equipment is pretty integral to 99% of our classes! There were safely implications to consider, and at this point, I remind you, NO ONE had heard of Zoom! We ran a free taster class on the Wednesday with Kathryn teaching our first online stretch class to thirty volunteers. The class helped to give feedback and insight to form our online timetable of activities. We made the decision that our doors would close on the Friday, by which time we had a full weekly timetable of classes ready to go to support our community to continue to train, physically through stretch and strengthening, and mentally by being there for one another. The hashtag #traintogether was formed. That Friday evening the PM announced that Gyms must close, and on Monday 23rd March 2020 the country was ordered to stay at home.

The gang showed up, our army of strong women logged on in their living rooms, in their garages and from their makeshift home offices and rose to the new normal. We offered free challenges, live classes, pre-recorded classes, focused workshops and worked with our clients to keep evolving our timetable to suit their needed, with the focus on using all of this work for not if but WHEN we returned to training in person. I created a complete library of Aerial Hoop tutorials on Patreon so that those with equipment at home could continue their training safely with my knowledge and support.

The financial burden was enormous. We were not given any reduction in our studio costs, and I had a responsibility to my team of instructors to help them as freelancers to keep their income stable. Our client base helped to fundraise £3000 which went straight into our studio rent, with each supporter receiving a limited edition t-shirt as a thank you. This time was challenging, but it showed me that Leeds Aerial Arts is a community, rather than a place. When our clients need us we are there, and in return, they showed up for us.

I think those new to aerial imagine it could be a bit of a ‘fad’ but the loyalty from our clients shows that that is not the case. In Leeds Aerial Arts our clients have found a place to try something new and unique, to succeed in something they once thought impossible, and the ability to consistently move the goalposts and strive for more. In our online classes, they have nourished and cared for their bodies through lockdowns, showed up for themselves and worked as a team. There is always a next level with aerial and the only limit is how far you are willing to take yourself.

Fast forward to today, Leeds Aerial Arts welcomes clients with vast ranges of experience to train in the studio and online. Former members of Leeds Aerial Arts who have moved away have been able to continue to #traintogether with us online from around the UK, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and Argentina! Our clients join us to thrive as themselves. They take on the physical and mental challenge every time they show up.

In 2020 we were finalists for the ‘Most Inspirational Studio’ in the XPERT Industry Awards. In 2021 we will take up our new home in ‘Leeds Centre for Aerial Arts’ a whopping eight-times the size of our current venue! Just imagine what we will be able to achieve next? Will you be joining us?

Lorna Mackinder-Clark

Founder & Studio Director of Leeds Aerial Arts

*The student I encouraged to look into teacher training is now qualified and successfully interviewed for a place in my instructor team. They will start teaching in the studio when we reopen 🙂