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Johnson City teacher turns dance on its head

Nathan Baker • Nov 8, 2015 at 3:27 PM

Not many people get paid for hanging around, but for Craig Lewis, it’s a full time job.

Owner of Johnson City Circus Arts, Lewis teaches aerial dance classes most days at Appalachian Tumbling and Gymnastics on Old Gray Station Road in Boones Creek.

In aerial dance, performers climb and descend on long strands of fabric, called silks, attached to the ceiling, allowing them to move in three dimensions.

Using well-practiced foot locks, methods of wrapping the silks around their feet and legs, Lewis and his students can ensure their safety as they perform dance moves while suspended above the ground.

Beginners under his tutelage learn foot locks, climbing and familiarizing themselves with the silks before moving on to the more advanced work high above the ground.

“One of the first things we work on is getting comfortable being upside down,” Lewis said. “When you’re first starting out, your brain can go a little haywire from being upside down, and it’s hard to know your hand from your foot.”

With the basics behind them, students begin tougher, more visually impressive moves, like drops, when dancers let go of the silks and lean forward for a controlled tumble.

Lewis, holder of a computer science degree, got his first foray into circus arts as a self-taught juggler when he was younger.

At a gathering of jugglers years later, during a four-week vacation in San Francisco, he caught the aerial bug.

“I was at the San Francisco Circus Center, and I had everything all planned out,” he said. “Then I saw all the aerialists, and I dropped all those plans for the rest of the vacation and crammed in as many classes as I could.”

Upon his return from the vacation, Lewis enrolled in a circus arts school in Asheville, N.C., where he traveled three or four times a week for classes, often taking them back-to-back.

There, he became a teacher’s assistant, then trained to teach others. On the side, he performed at parties and events, but he said performing was too much pressure.

That’s when he decided to open his own classes in Johnson City.

“It’s really good for strength, it takes upper body strength to pull yourself up the silks and hold your own weight, and it takes core strength to balance yourself,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun than running on a treadmill.”

Lewis’ students also perform in a showcase, called the Night Owl Circus, a couple of times each year to demonstrate what they’ve learned. It’s like a piano recital, but higher in the air.

Like many dance and fitness classes, he said most of his students are women, but he’d like to enroll more men.

“It doesn’t have to be a feminine, sensual performance,” he said. “It can be very masculine. Performances are a hugely personal thing, you’ll develop your own personas and displays.”

In about 10 classes each week, Lewis has a variety of skill levels and ages, from 7 years old to 60.

For more information about class schedules or to find how to enroll, visit www.jccircusarts.com.

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