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‘Doing pull-ups while smiling’ — Daniela Torres shows aerial arts is where dance meets strength

Our Sense of Community Series, "Living Through Art," features residents in our community who express their identities through various art forms.

Earlier this month at the MIDxMIDWST festival in downtown Springfield, I met up with one of the Ozarks’ most distinctive creators — Daniela Torres.

Torres owns Springfield Aerial Fitness. It’s a place for practicing the aerial arts.

Using six words, Torres sums up aerial artistry: “It’s doing pull-ups while smiling.”

These performers achieve complex dance moves and acrobatics while dangling in mid-air from long fabrics known as silks. They use other items as well. Torres helped me pronounce one of them.

Torres said, “Lyra [LEER-ah] is the aerial hoop [...] I do lyra, silks, aerial sling, straps, trapeze, and of course invented apparatuses. So that is any cubes or ladders, or anything you can wield in a way that is rated an appropriate way, you can use as an aerial apparatus as well.”

People at the festival seemed excited to see aerial arts in action.

“I just think it’s a wonderful and beautiful way to express feelings," said fan Allison Sexton as she waited for Torres and her team to perform. "And also I think that the people that do it are incredibly hardworking and talented, seeing the things that they can do —”

I asked, “It’s a physical art for the body, right?”

Allison: “Yeah. Absolutely!”

When I got a chance to sit down with Torres, she recounted a childhood experience in a belly-dancing class that marked her journey as an artist.

“At the end of class, they would play some music and they would allow you to move, right, and it didn’t matter how much you knew or how little you knew, what mattered was that you moved and you connected with the music. And everybody was so supportive.

“And I loved just like that moment of just being lost in the music and just having the music pour into you, just like soft velvet.”

The music may be velvet — but the performance is intense. Artists hang from a tall metal pyramid, their arms or legs hooked on the lyra. Silks wrap around calves and thighs, carrying the weight of the human body. The swings, drops, poses and dance seem to defy gravity.

When I talked with Torres, I learned more about her relationship to the aerial arts.

“Tell me about aerial arts," I asked. "What are aerial arts for Daniela Torres?

She replied, “Aerial arts for me is… it is a way to tap into authentic movement. To create community with other people that are also called to, to be different, to express themselves in, in strong ways, in complicated ways, in things that require massive amounts of discipline and hard work — creativity.”

'To be able to conquer something'

Mastering aerial arts takes years. Torres got started a decade ago after a divorce she called “excruciating.” Before she took up aerial arts, she learned acrobatic yoga and got into rock climbing.

She said she faced down her “demons” as she climbed: “You know, just taking — identifying all of those — those, those painful moments that your brain just bombards you with, whenever you are doing something difficult, where it can be a could be a memory of what somebody said to you a while ago, or if it’s feeling some unworthiness, to be able to conquer something.

“And after a few years of that, that’s whenever I found aerial arts. And aerial arts was kind of the joining of kind of like those two worlds. I’ve been a dancer my whole life, and with that physical activity, it was like yin and yang together, right. There’s just something absolutely so medicinal —

“Medicinal!” I exclaimed.

“— about feeling your own strength.”

I asked Torres how her art is linked to her sense of self.

“I love that question," Torres answered, with a bit of laughter. "Thank you for that. I feel like where a lot of my personality type is — is very much tied into aerial arts, and my personal practice with aerial arts continues feeding that personality.

I don’t know if you follow the enneagrams, but I am enneagram 8, I am a challenger, I am ENTP, which is the debater — so, like, I am a tough person. But like, I am a tough person with myself, most importantly. It is very important for me to show up regardless of how I am feeling that day, and to do work with my body that honors it wherever it is at, whether I need a soft day, or a dramatic day, or a very strong day.”

Torres said that community is her favorite aspect of her art: “Like for my dance company, I feel like it’s like a crown with all of these jewels. Yes, you could have one jewel only, but having every single person shine with what is best for each of them just makes this a giant powerhouse, I feel.”

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.