J.: How would you define what you do, acro-contortion?
Aryn Shelander: It’s a combination of acrobatic tumbling, like you might see in a gymnastics floor routine, and contortion, which is about back-bending and other kinds of extreme flexibility. I also like to put kind of a modern dance twist on it in performances — it’s not just going from skill to skill.
J.: How did you start doing this? Have you always been athletic?
AS: Growing up in San Mateo, I started doing gymnastics when I was 5 and I kept at it all the way through college. I was on the gymnastics team at U.C. Berkeley. After college, I wanted to keep doing exercise in a creative way, so I signed up for the City Circus training program at AcroSports in San Francisco. And now I train with an independent acrobatics coach. I’ve also taught gymnastics camp for kids at the JCC of San Francisco.
J.: You are also a designer/user researcher at Microsoft. How do you balance your work and acrobatics?
AS: They’re both really important parts of my life, and actually I think I’ll always have these two tracks. I’ve always wanted to be in a profession where I could make a positive impact on a really big scale, and I feel like designing how technology looks, the way a user experiences it, actually has the potential to help a lot of people — has a big impact on people’s lives. And I feel like the creative elements of design and dance and physical movement kind of complement each other.
J.: So you don’t want to do acrobatics or contortion as a career?
AS: I would not say that’s a goal of mine, though I can see myself teaching acrobatics. I think people learn a lot about themselves through movement. I want to help teach people that if our bodies experience the world in a positive way, it has a huge impact on mental and emotional health as well.
J.: What’s the best part of performances?
AS: Engaging an audience is really important, and it sometimes happens in surprising ways. I was doing a hula hoop acrobatic act at a convention recently, and the crowd was pretty passive and silent — until I dropped the hula hoop. And it’s the worst thing, hearing your hula hoop drop. But then the whole crowd started cheering me on. “You can do it!” They were that much more engaged.
You’ll actually see that in circus acts sometimes, where someone will intentionally mess up a skill so the audience is rooting for them later on. I think when you seem perfect, you can look very alien … people love to see other people being human, improving, achieving new things.
J.: Your mom, Harriete Estel Berman, is an established Bay Area sculptor and Judaica artist. But what about your athletic genes?
AS: My dad swam at Georgia Tech, and he’s also a big whitewater kayaker. He’s all about anything in the water, a new adventure every week. My brother does water polo. And my mom has always been strong, but she didn’t get into exercise until later in life; she started taking circuit-training classes and now she actually leads core and abs classes at her gym.
J.: Do you need to be a natural athlete to get started in acrobatics?
AS: People think that performers in the circus world are born super athletic, and it’s not something regular people can get into. Really, everyone can benefit from doing acrobatics; every part of it helps you understand your body.
J.: What would you tell someone who is just starting out, or even just thinking about it?
AS: There is no end goal with flexibility — it’s always about progress. People say, “Oh, I don’t want to stretch because I’m not flexible,” when really, you’re not flexible because you haven’t started stretching! Also, it takes your muscles 30 seconds to start relaxing, so it’s when you hold a stretch for 30 seconds to 2 minutes that you’ll start seeing progress.
I want people to know that movement can really help you see the world in a new way — even just learning to fall can be great. There’s not enough falling in the world.
“Talking with …” is a j. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.