Thanks to the Magic of the Internet, it is easier than ever to learn new skills from instructional videos:  how to put on makeup, how to change your oil, how to do a crazy silks drop.  Which of these things is not like the others?  The one that could leave you paralyzed or dead if you do it wrong.  Which is why so many aerial instructors discourage you from learning from videos – it’s just too easy to get something wrong and end up with a serious injury, or at least bad habits from having no feedback from anyone qualified to provide it.

That said, there is no way to stop curious and hungry aerial students from watching videos and trying stuff from them. (It’s like when my partner says, “stop picking at that” — ain’t gonna happen, even though I know he’s right.)  Some folks aren’t lucky enough to live near a great studio, or maybe don’t have the funds to spend on regular classes.   Heck, I did it when I was starting out and didn’t know any better.  So I thought that instead of issuing a blanket “Videos are evil” statement, I’d try to come up with some guidelines to help students look at a video from a safety perspective and make smart decisions about which ones to trust their precious bodies to.

First off, I am only talking about videos that are intentionally provided as instructional material.  I am not talking about watching a performance video and trying to figure out a trick from it.  If you really really really want to learn something you saw in a video, take it to a qualified instructor and ask them if they can teach it to you.  Be prepared for them to say no for any number of valid reasons that I won’t go into here.

Turning our attention to videos that are specifically marketed as providing aerial instruction…here are some questions you should ask to assess the safety of the video.  (Spoiler alert:  these are also questions you should ask any time you consider training with anyone, whether through a video or in person.)

  • Consider the source: who is this instructor and why are they qualified to make this video?
    • Check their credentials – have they gone through any sort of aerial teacher training program? There is currently no (inter)national aerial teacher certification but there are many well-known teacher training programs such as that provided by NECCA.  Have they gone through any of them?  (see below for info on an emerging safety recognition program through ACE.)
    • Don’t be distracted by the words “Cirque du Soleil” – many Cirque and ex-Cirque performers also happen to great teachers, but it’s no guarantee. And many amazing teachers never performed professionally.
    • Ask around! Have any of your Facebook friends worked with them in person?  Do you know any teachers who know them?
  • Consider the equipment: do they exhibit a commitment to safe practices?
    • Are they using crash mats? Do they tell you to make sure YOU are using a crash mat?
    • Can you see the rigging in the video? You may not know how to recognize safe rigging yourself, but you should find a qualified resource who can verify that the rigging in the video at least appears to be well-designed and safe.  For example, perhaps whoever installed the rigging you are using for your own practice?  (You/your studio used a qualified and competent rigger for that, right?  Of course you did.)
  • Consider the setup: what information do they provide before they show you the trick?
    • Do they talk about skill level/prerequisites? We all have a different idea of what constitutes beginner/intermediate/advanced, but they should at least be able to give you an idea of what skills you should already possess before attempting what’s in the video.  Maybe they could even provide video of the prereqs.  Be honest when self-assessing!  You only stand to hurt yourself by trying something unsupervised that is above your strength/technique/skill level.
    • Do they provide a progression working up to the skill or just jump right in?
    • Do they talk about how to get OUT of the skill, including how to walk yourself out of a drop before attempting it full-on?
  • Consider the video itself: is it clear and complete?
    • Do they show the skill from multiple angles?
    • Is the setup clear from the video?
    • Does it show the entire skill from setup to exit?
    • Does it include a progression from basic to more advanced versions of the skill?
    • Does it include common errors to watch out for?
    • Does it include a discussion of proper technique for the skill or just a recipe for executing it?
    • This may seem obvious, but does the person demoing the skill have good form?
  • Consider the worst-case scenario: what happens if I get it wrong?
    • Drops are inherently risky, and often the difference between a beautiful, controlled drop and a plummet to the mat comes down to one incorrect wrap.
    • Footlock-based skills, for example, may seem simple and bullet-proof….but what happens if you get stuck because the video didn’t explain clearly how to get out, or you didn’t watch the video enough times before you went up and tried it and turned the wrong way and now you’re tired and…you get the picture.
    • Is there someone else in the room with you who can help if something does go wrong? This goes beyond “don’t train alone” – you need someone who would actually know what to do if you got stuck or injured.
  • Consider the liability: are you willing to accept the risks involved?  Because that instructor on the video isn’t providing any insurance coverage for you.

As I mentioned above, many of these same criteria – and more — apply to choosing a studio/instructor.  The better-informed students are, the better able we will be to hold aerial studios – and videos – to a higher standard of safety as the practice continues to become more widespread.  The American Circus Educators has developed a safety program that recognizes circus facilities and aerial teacher training programs through a set of guidelines designed to foster best practices.  It’s a new program, but more studios are applying all the time (including Versatile Arts!).

Meanwhile…make informed choices and ask good questions when you’re not sure if something is safe or not.  The best way for us to make everyone safer is to talk about it!