If you’ve ever watched a Cirque du Soleil show filled with colorfully-costumed dancers rhythmically tumbling, jumping, and flipping across the stage…well guess what? There’s a name for that! Acro-dance is exactly what it sounds like, a form of performance art combing the best of dance and acrobatics. And although it may seem graceful and effortless, doing this stuff takes quite a lot of strength, energy, skill, and discipline.
Acro-dance, usually called just “acro” in the dance world, came about in vaudeville in the early 1900s. Even before this time, individual acts of dance and acrobatics were very popular, but no one had ever thought to merge the two together. On the same note, acro-dance wasn’t created overnight. It was a gradual creation through several performance artists across a span of many years. There is not one performer that is single-handedly credited as the sole creator of the art form.
Many of the pioneers of acro-dance were African American. Sherman Coates, of the Watermelon Trust dancers, was one of the first to use acrobatic elements in his dance routine around 1900. His Trust consisted of his friend Grundy and his wife, as well as Sherman’s own wife Lulu, who in 1913 went on to form a separate group with three other young male dancers called the Crackerjacks.
Another notable pioneer was Tommy Woods, a tap dancer who incorporated flips into his routine for the vaudeville production Shuffle Along. Woods would time his acrobatic feats to land them right on the beat of the music, a talent previously unseen by vaudeville audiences.
Since then vaudeville acro-dance has changed significantly, becoming more precise in form and movement as a result of the integration of ballet techniques. Additionally, vaudeville acro-dance generally focused on acrobatic feats with accompanying music, whereas today’s acro-dance is mainly dance with various acrobatic tricks sprinkled throughout a routine.
To become an acro-dancer takes an extreme amount of strength, flexibility, and endurance. If you’ve ever watched Olympic gymnasts, you know that they are in pretty incredible shape, so the same must go for acro-dancers. After all they are combining the strength and power of gymnastic elements into the elegance and energy of dance. To become trained in both dance and acrobatics is very difficult and requires a high overall fitness level in order to excel.
Acro-dance has seen widespread popularity in the performing arts, becoming a staple of almost every Cirque du Soleil production. However it is still not uniformly defined in the competitive dance industry, with each school and competition having its own rules on what percentage of a routine needs to contain elements of dance and what percentage elements of acrobatics. It is not an Olympic sport either, but if combined the competitions of floor exercise and rhythmic gymnastics, the offspring would most definitely be acro-dance.
One of the defining characteristics of acro-dance is its focus on smooth, graceful transitions between dance and acrobatic moves, creating seamless blends between the two. Additionally a significant portion of a routine must involve dance in order to be defined as acro-dance. For example a gymnastic floor routine cannot be considered acro-dance for its lacking in rhythmic dance movements as well as in the characteristic smooth transitions.
The dance portion of an acro-dance routine generally follows one of the more established and official styles of dance such as jazz, ballet, or modern. Nevertheless, what’s great about acro-dance is the creative freedom it provides the dancer, a freedom that is missing from most structured singular dance or gymnastic genres.
Acrobatic elements of any routine are obviously called tricks, and can be categorized based on the number of performers involved, solo being a single performer, double two performers, and group more than two performers.
A few common solo tricks include the elbow stand, back walkover, and hand walking. An elbow stand consists of a handstand on the forearms with the feet bent back and hanging above the head. A back walkover is similar to a cartwheel rather facing forwards instead of sideways, bending backwards with hands on the ground, and bringing the legs up and over the body one at a time. Finally hand walking is exactly what it sounds like, a handstand in which the performer walks across the stage using their hands.
A few common double tricks include the double cartwheel, swizzle, and pitch tuck. A double cartwheel is when one performer grabs the torso of another performer who begins cartwheeling, following the move with another cartwheel, and so on and so on in succession like a wheel rolling down a road. The swizzle is when one performer grabs another by the hands and swings them down towards the ground and back up high in the air in a 360 degree motion (this is also popular in doubles figure skating). Finally a pitch tuck is when one performer clasps the hands together to create a support structure to launch the other performer into an aerial backwards somersault, tucking the knees in during rotation and landing on both feet.
A common group trick includes the pyramid, in which 3 or more performers support each other in a vertical fashion. Most group tricks involve creating some sort of human support structure, similar to the pyramids done in cheerleading.
Acro-dancers usually have their own type of footwear, unable to perform barefoot like gymnasts since they usually do not perform on the cushioned springy floors that gymnasts use. Their footwear usually consists of various types of jazz dance shoes, providing traction and cushioning, to prevent slipping as well as protect the joints during the hard impact of tricks. They also protect against abrasion on the ball of the foot, which takes most of the brunt of acro-dancing. Some dancers opt for foot thongs, which only partially cover the foot (specifically the ball), and come in flesh-colored tones so as to appear barefoot.
Many acro-dance performers will also incorporate the use of props such as hoops, batons, and balls in order to increase the difficulty and skill level of a routine. Or in the case of Zen Arts…our favorite props are snakes and fire!
Circus troupes such as Cirque du Soleil and Zen Arts have helped increase the popularity of acro-dance worldwide. Common acro-dance elements are now not only a feature of, but expected of, the dance troupes on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. And more and more dance studios nationwide are offering acro classes in their repertoire, allowing future circus performers to get started at a younger age.