Imagine jumping into a performance during which a single spotlight shines brightly on an aerialist wrapped elegantly in fabric, suspended several stories off the ground. She gracefully spins, using her powerful legs to create breathtaking lines and shapes. Suddenly, the fabric unravels as she plummets towards the unforgiving ground. For a split second she tumbles, rapidly descending, but skillfully catches herself only inches before hitting the floor.
At first sight, it would be appropriate to assume that senior Sama Rao is just another regular Palo Alto High School student. However, what many of her peers are unaware of is Rao’s participation in a particularly unique activity outside of school: aerial silks.
Aerial silks, also known as aerial tissue or aerial fabric, is a form of acrobatic performance that has gained popularity in the last two decades. Aerialists wrap the fabric, hanging from the ceiling, around their limbs to support themselves. It not only requires courage in the performers’ part, but also in the collective assets of strength, skill and flexibility to execute a beautiful routine. Aerialists spin, drop and contort — at their own risk.
Rao, 17, did not initially start her acrobatic career with silks.
“I first started learning rope, which is similar to silks, at a camp five years ago,” Rao said. “I [wasn’t] a very graceful or artistic person, but aerial silks changed that. I’ve become more aware of what I can do as well because I’ve gained a lot of strength and grace that I didn’t think was possible.”
According to Rao, the initial excitement associated with being secure so far off the ground was one of the main appeals, along with the free-falling sensation of drops and complex flips.
“My favorite experience was performing at camp as part of the talent show,” Rao said. “It was just me up there and about 120 people watching. I was a bit nervous, but it was absolutely amazing.”
Rao trains facilities dispersed in Oakland and she has been on and off for the last several years.
As a senior, Rao faces many difficulties with managing both aerial silks and school; however, Rao finds opportunities to constitute a balance in her busy schedule.
“This fall and junior year were super tough because of college applications and the SAT and other extracurriculars,” Rao said. “I wasn’t able to practice as much as I would like. This semester [and] summer, I’m planning to go to a class every week.”
From years of performances and training, Rao has established a strong bond with silks. Such attachment to the art form has made it difficult for her to imagine life without it.
“During the times when I haven’t been able to attend classes or practice for a while, I watch videos of silks performances and come up with new routines,” Rao said. “It’s a pretty big part of my life and I hope that I can continue to learn and perform for a long time.”
Rao hopes to carry forward with aerial silks in the years to come. After graduating, she would like to perform in college and later teach at the circus camp where she began her training.
“I’ve demonstrated tricks for kids or [spotted] them when they learn how to climb,” Rao said. “It’s wonderful to see how many other people love it or want to learn as much as I do.”
Rao leads a life similar to the many hardworking students at Paly, but with an artistic flare that is rarely seen in the community.
“I love the falling,” Rao said. “But I also love knowing that I will alway catch myself.”