Hanging out with Dasha Fogel

We’re always after that elusive balance of mind and body. We’ve all dabbled in the Jane Fonda workout videos and will profess an unhealthy level of fascination with whatever ballet bungee is. And then we stumbled on anti-gravity aerial artistry and stopped short right there, drawn by both its power and grace; one of those rare forms of physical exertion that is equal parts arduous and beautiful.

No matter where in the world you live, you’re probably witnessing a proliferation of urban fitness studios. Here in the capital we went to Delhi Rock, an underground gym in Delhi Greater Kailash, flanking a school and a gurudwara, with a climbing wall, high ceilings, crash mats, and meticulously rigged aerial silks, hoops, and trapeze gear. They offer classes in climbing, parkour and aerial acts spread out across the 6500-odd square feet of air-cooled space. Dasha Fogel is the studio’s residing aerialist, and a tiny powerhouse whose petite stature belies the insane amounts of power that body contains.
Fogel grew up in Moscow, a product of the stoicism that is steeped into the fabric of that city and speaks in a matter-of-fact manner, her fuchsia tank popping against the grey cement-rendered walls of the studio. As the day (and our shoot) wore on, she went swiftly from silks, to rope, to hoop, mounting each with the ease of a seasoned athlete and the grace of a dancer, like watching one of Degas’ circus girls up in the air. Only this was very real and unfurling in front us. “My mum took me to dance school when I was six and I spent like, 15 years there,” Dasha told us. “It wasn't professional, it was almost immature. But there was a sense of community. We supported each other, spent a lot of time together; we had to skip school for dance competitions or to rehearse for shows. It helped me internalise teamwork, build flexibility. It gave me strength, and a sense of movement. I’m not a great dancer, I’m actually quite horrible! But it was great experience, because that’s how you understand your way, you feel yourself in the space.”

After that soft introduction to dance, Dasha moved onto the more dynamic aerial silks after spending a couple of months training in Moscow. This is also when she made the move to Delhi to pursue a Masters degree at JNU. She enrolled in a month-long training workshop run by a teacher named Catherine Daniel, the co-founder of Vertical Circus, a travelling troupe of gymnasts who partner with organisations the world over to give inner city students a chance at aerial acts. “There wasn't an option to learn silks here,” she recalled. “I was a beginner at the time, but I was strong. I spent a month training two hours a day. I only got Sundays off. This one time I remember clutching a muesli box on my way over from the campus grocer’s but I couldn't move because my arms were shaking uncontrollably.” She’s now been practicing for five years.
The month of training with Daniel was followed with a series of sessions at ancillary studios, one of which she frequented in Delhi’s Jungpura. It wasn’t rigged to perfection but was “okay for silks”. The studio insisted she take up teaching (at the aerial yoga program they were developing), and despite her flaming uncertainty, she relented. She remembers, “I was still quite new to aerial, so I didn't think it was a very good idea, but I did my best. I stayed in touched with my teachers; showered them with questions. Plus every time I’m back in Moscow, I try to take as many classes as I possibly can.”

Aerial acts are the metaphorical ‘swan’ of the league, but Dasha injects into it the pragmatism of blue-collar work, like a day’s hard work. With Daniel, she’d had her first toe-dip, and today she has graduated to teacher. “It’s a tight-knit community. There’re not many aerialists in Delhi, we’re all friends. When we get the chance, we train together. It’s been three years that I’ve been teaching, but I didn't expect to find myself here. I was pushed into it.” Her routine today is a lesson on consistency. “Because I teach, I spend a lot of time in the gym. I try to train for two to three hours a day. It doesn't necessarily have to be on the silks, it can be on the rope, on the hoops…sometimes I just do conditioning at home.” „My mum took me to dance school… there was a sense of community. It helped me internalise teamwork, build flexibility; it gave me strength, and a sense of movement.„Her own choreography is free-flowing. “The piece I’m working on currently started out with tricks. Then I found the music that I liked.” Somewhere in the middle she visited a ten-day workshop in Goa, so it got its first airing there.“It was my first time on that act, and it was alright, but what it did help me realise is the story I wanted to tell. Then it started evolving. So now it’s a totally different act.” Her piece is set to Koan Sound’s Wide Open, and centres around the nuances of life. “It’s quite dark, but I kind of like it. It gives you the feeling of a person astray in a spare forest. It’s not a simple story. It’s about looking for something deeper—like truth or light. It’s open to interpretation of course, and it’s ever-evolving. Let’s see where it takes me.”

She’d like to believe silks are for anyone, but for those who haven’t had an initiation to strenuous movement, aerial classes are more for conditioning. She confesses, “It will tend to be long, boring…frustrating even. But the stronger you are, the easier it gets for you. Safer too.” Be warned, her sessions at Delhi Rock have a basic requirement: the ability to hold a plank for no less than 45 seconds. Not to discourage, but to ensure some authority over one’s own body. “We suggest those interested take up pilates or yoga to build core strength. Unfortunately, in the hour and a half long sessions we conduct, there’s not enough time to condition them with a separate class. Having said that, everyone’s welcome. It requires dedication, but not everyone respects the process. Not everyone is ready to be an athlete.”

Her love for silks hinges on community and a focus on personal rituals. “Setting your mind to one task a day helps. Just waking up, knowing you have to get a handle on a task for the day is essential. Circus isn't about competitions. Circus is more about community. I don't see the point of competing. I prefer building a support system. It’s more circusy! I’m very lucky. I’ve met some wonderful people in life through silks.”

For an aerial yoga class in Delhi, drop-ins at Delhi Rock are Rs 1,000 a pop; passes of 6 and 8 classes will set you back Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 respectively. Classes are slotted every day of the week. More details here.