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Today@Sam Article


New Dance Professor Teaches Students To 'Dance On Air'

Jan. 20, 2015
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Weston Rose

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Please note: This article is updated from the original story Weston Rose wrote that appeared in the inaugural edition of The Distinguished Review: SHSU's Graduate Studies Magazine. To read the original story, or other graduate student profiles, click here.


Alice Carlin in the aerial studio
Alicia Carlin (center) was introduced to aerial dancing when she attended a Blue Lapis Light Company concert in Austin. She joined the company and later brought that knowledge to SHSU, where she became a teaching assistant while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree. Since graduating in December, she has joined the dance faculty as an adjunct professor, teaching beginning and advanced levels of aerial dance. —Submitted photos


As a graduate teaching assistant and Master of Fine Arts student in dance, Alicia Carlin took dancers at Sam Houston State University to new heights—literally.

Now, as a recently hired adjunct professor in the department, she’s working to continue an area of study she helped bring to SHSU when she joined the graduate program in 2006.

Carlin, an aerial dancer in the vein of Cirque du Soleil, is more artist than acrobat. Rather than wowing audiences with a series of tricks, she strives to make motion meaningful. Along with other graduate students in the Department of Dance, she was recruited by the faculty for her unique talents.

“Everybody in the group brings something special. Nobody is the same. One graduate student is a contemporary dancer. Another is hip hop. We’ve also got flamenco and folklorico. My aerial stuff. Having so many different people adding to the program is really fun,” Carlin said.

Like so many artists, Carlin knew she had to perform from a tender age—3, to be specific. A bunhead (aka, ballerina), she worked with a pre-professional company throughout high school.

After high school, Carlin earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance at SHSU. Soon after, she landed a principle dancer role in the Houston Grand Opera’s rendition of “The Cunning Little Vixen.”

Dancing on Air


“Usually for an opera, the dancers are background characters, but for this particular opera, every person had a character. I wasn’t just a dancer in the show; I was listed as the Dragonfly mom,” Carlin said.

Eventually, Austin beckoned. While attending a Ballet Austin Summer Workshop, Carlin heard about the Blue Lapis Light Company through a friend and attended a show at the Federal Buildings.

“People were rappelling off the side of the building and flying around. Meanwhile, I was sitting in the audience, thinking that someday I had to do this,” Carlin said. “After the show I talked to the director. She said they were having an audition the next week, so I showed up, got in, and started performing with them.”

Exactly a year after attending the Blue Lapis Light performance, Carlin was swinging through the air in the same show with downtown Austin aglitter beneath her. Carlin performed with Blue Lapis Light for the next five years, in time becoming an instructor for the company.

In addition to rappelling off buildings, she learned how to use aerial fabric—sometimes called aerial tissue or silks—which is a cascading swath of fabric tied to a rig point. Aerial dancers wrap themselves up in the fabric and unfurl in a spiral of artistry and grace.

“As long as you have wrapped yourself properly, you are going to land and the cloth is going to catch you,” Carlin explained. “You can also lock yourself in at certain levels.”

After teaching aerial dance through an exchange program between Blue Lapis Light and the Austin-based performing arts school McCallum Fine Arts Academy, Carlin’s priorities began to shift.

The life of a dancer—or any artist—is exhausting; performing, teaching, and having to hold down four jobs just to keep it all afloat while raising her son made Carlin long for stability.

“I always maintained a good relationship with the SHSU dance department,” Carlin said. “We have a concert every year, the Alumni Reunion Concert, and while I was away, I came back almost every year for it. I brought an aerial piece each time. Around 2011, the dance department started actively recruiting me.”

In January 2012, Carlin started her MFA. During her first semester, she taught aerial dance in her own time for her rehearsals. By her second semester, she had a teaching assistantship. Technically, graduate students in dance need 18 hours before they can be considered for a full-time teaching assistantship, but because the demand for her aerial classes was high, the department offered her a part-time assistantship.

In the Department of Dance, undergraduates need a certain number of hours in dance technique, which involves ballet, modern, and jazz. Because of Carlin, students can now get credit for aerial technique.

aerial dancers
Aerial dancers demonstrate the aerial style in Carlin's and Travis Prokop's thesis dance concert "Nuance."
more aerial dancers

“It’s interesting, too, that not just dance majors are wanting to take my class. The musical theater majors are almost more excited than the dance majors because if they can add aerial dance to their resumes, it just adds a whole other level of competition,” Carlin said. “I cap the class at 18 students, and people are kind of fighting to get in. I have six cloths hanging in the theater and I like to keep it at three people per cloth. That way I don’t have to worry about too many people doing too many things at once.”

Even SHSU President Dana Hoyt got in on the action. Both she and Nancy Gaertner, the wife of President Emeritus James Gaertner, attended one of Carlin’s classes in the Performing Arts Center.

“The president is really strong. She could actually do a few things! I didn’t recognize her at first. She showed up in her yoga gear with her hair in a ponytail. Both she and Mrs. Gaertner were pretty excited,” Carlin said.

If teaching and studying weren’t enough, Carlin also performs with VauLT/Gyrotonics, a Houston-based company directed by Amy Ell, of Spring St. Studios. A former warehouse, the location has been converted into a space for artists of all walks: a theater group, painters, musicians, and, of course, aerial dancers.

VauLT took Carlin and company to Quito, Ecuador, through a cultural exchange program in connection with the U.S. Embassy. Surprisingly, aerial dance is widely popular in Ecuadorian universities.

“We arrived in Quito in March 2012 on Easter day. Everyone was wearing these purple robes and we got there in the middle of this big festival,” Carlin said.

Later that year, in June, VauLT catapulted Carlin across the Atlantic to Letterkenny, Ireland, which just happens to be home to an aerial community and, subsequently, the Irish Aerial Dance Festival, hosted by a company named Fidget Feet.

“Performing in Ireland was a dream come true for me,” Carlin said. “My family on my mom’s side has roots there. My grandma and grandpa were the first in their families to be born in the U.S.”

In her first semester as an adjunct professor, Carlin teaches beginning and intermediate/ advanced aerial fabric classes.

“When I began my studies in the dance MFA program, it was always my hope to teach aerial classes and develop a mini aerial program that would continue after I graduated. The SHSU dance department is already a very well rounded program, but adding an aerial element creates a unique competitive edge,” she said. “When I created the first beginner aerial fabric class here, it was the only aerial class offered at the college level in Texas, and only a handful of aerial programs exist today in universities across the country. Now, students can receive technique credit for the courses, a required component of the dance degrees.”

Through her classes, she hopes students learn the importance of training in all performance realms—“including the space above the stage”—and that the aerial training students receive will open additional doors for job opportunities.

“I want my students to have the confidence to put ‘I can fly’ on their resumes and audition for aerial dance companies and maybe even Cirque du Soleil,” she said.

Because she is still a member of VauLt, she also hopes to cultivate a partnership between the company and SHSU that might provide students with performing opportunities in Houston.

“Now as I get ready to welcome my second child into the world, I am focusing more on teaching,” Carlin said. “But I will always be a performer at heart.”




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