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What is Soft Acrobatics?

April 22, 2022
I've been teaching a class that I call "Soft Acrobatics" for a full calendar year at this point (with some fits & starts predating the "solid" start). Despite its prevalence in some pretty specific "fitness" circles (mostly located on Instagram), most people I meet have absolutely zero idea of what "Soft Acrobatics" means, even if they've signed up for the class! In fact, I feel like even among individuals who use the term, there is no absolute consensus. As such, I thought it would be fruitful to sit down and actually try to arrive at some sort of explanation for what Soft Acrobatics is, or at least some indication of what it means when I use the term Soft Acrobatics, both as a class title & as a description of a practice.

One of the very first things to note about soft acrobatics, and to me one of the most important things, is that there are ultimately no codified definitions for any part of this. Like many physical disciplines that exist more at the edges of "sport" than something that has leagues, competitions, spectators, it is a discipline that has spread through cross-contamination. Because of this, there might be some generalized indications or ideas in reference to the practice that are the same regardless of where one is looking (and some of the "movements" might have the same or similar names in various places of the worlds), but there's always space for difference (both at the linguistic level, and at the level of the practice itself!). With that said, this guide should not be taken as any attempt to codify, rather it is instead my hope to offer a somewhat condensed but cohesive explanation of what a soft acrobatics practice entails.

Rather than talking about what "soft acrobatics" explicitly looks like, I feel like a better starting point is to consider the practice as a whole. For me, there are a number of qualities that establish a soft-acrobatic practice as something different than capoeira, dance, tricking, tumbling, circus acrobatics, or even any generalized idea of acrobatic movement.
  1. Sustainability of Practice - To my mind a primary insistence of soft acrobatics (and part of where the "soft" comes from) is that the practice is less "hard" on your body that something like gymnastics itself would be. The most common movements associated with soft acrobatics are often directly related to "mobility," i.e. using strength throughout a full range of motion. A practice that repeatedly insists on training strength throughout a full range of movement overlaps with what, in other realms of the fitness industry, might be referred to as Prehab, Rehab, or Bulletproofing (more on this in the "movements" section below). A part of how this works is that the movements that soft acrobatics "use" do not necessarily require an explosive "launch" or a high-impact "landing" as is often the case in tricking, tumbling, or gymnastics. Rather, the movements require you to be able to access control throughout the full range of motion that a movement requires. Because of this, once the movement is "mastered," the body itself is fully supported by strength and elasticity throughout the entire pathway of the movement, which means there is less chance of injury. Of course, being able to fully "access" this level of control requires a lot of practice/training and doesn't come easily! This idea of sustainability is not to inherently imply that the movements are easy or impossible to injure yourself with, but rather if you put in the work to master the movements, they can be practiced sustainably.

  2. Portability of Practice - Another element of the "soft" of the title has to do with the way your body is interacting with the ground. While many of the movement patterns that are considered "soft acrobatic" movements might feel somewhat complicated in terms of initially figuring out how to coordinate the body to make them work, there is an idea that once your body is comfortable with a pathway, it can be performed on any given surface. Consider this in opposition to something like gymnastics, where most formal technique is taught for use on a sprung floor, or dance/circus acrobatics, where, once again, a specific type of surface/flooring is used. I've practiced soft acrobatics on concrete blacktops, in grassy fields, on hard dirt in the desert, on wooden floors, on carpet-bonded foam mats, in my parents' carpeted basement, and many other places! There's a freedom in learning movement patterns that do not require a very specific environment to be able to practice.

  3. Accessibility of Practice - As a teacher of soft acrobatics I always make sure to insist to my students that their goals in my classes should not be to try to move like I move, rather they should try to figure out how they want to move in their own bodies. Unlike competitive sports that feel similar (gymnastics, dance, sometimes capoeira), there is no inherent "right way" to do a movement. There are generally biomechanical principles that help explain how the movement works, but there are no strict standards on exactly what a move should look like in order to "count" as that move. Movements are not being scored according to a certain standard, and there is no inherent "function" for a movement (like in capoeira or martial arts) outside of carrying momentum or expressive aesthetics. Because of this there is infinite room for variation! Similarly, as a community there is space for the sharing of ideas: I love when I'm teaching a new movement to a student and they end up performing the move in a way I had never considered before because my body did not naturally arrive at that solution to a "task"! One of the greatest rewards that can come from (or sit next to) a soft acrobatic practice is a level of "self-betterment." So, while I do always insist that a movement does not have to look a specific way, I always encourage my students (and myself) to see if they can perform the movement other ways or work to try to make the movement look the way they want it to rather than just accept how something ends up working the first time you try it. The element of personal style is what makes soft acrobatics so fun to watch. If you're too busy being concerned with making sure that your movements look like everyone else's, you won't have space to explore or develop that personal style.
Aaron Martin, who teaches and practices soft acrobatics in Hong Kong (and runs the @softacrobatics instagram page) defines the practice as follows: "... a non-competitive floor-based practice of acrobatic skills, with an emphasis on soft and sustainable execution." I'd like to note that I found this short definition after writing the above, which I think (and would hope) lends at least some credence to the idea that there are some core components that describe the practice. But, again! This should not be taken as prescriptive, rather just as a way to communicate intention!

When pressed for time, I limit my explanation of the "difference" between "soft" and "hard" acrobatics to the following: "hard" acrobatics involves jumping, and "soft" acrobatics involves shifting weight onto your hands to move across the floor. This is a gross simplification, but it gets the job done — the macaco is to soft acrobatics as the back flip is to "hard" acrobatics, etc.

But, in opposing "hard" to soft one should not take that to imply the level of difficulty. Sometimes even the most seemingly simple soft acrobatics movements are deceptive in the level of full body coordination they require to pull off smoothly! This does not inherently mean they are "difficult" moves, it just means that the way we normally move through the world (especially in the 21st century!) is at odds with some of the ranges of strength and positions these moves need. Part of the sustainability of the practice mentioned above is aided in the fact that a soft acro practice helps you access ranges of motion associated with mobility/prehab/rehab drills without the tedium of doing an explicit prehab/rehab exercise.

But, in more nuanced consideration of Soft Acrobatics, I like to think of the following categories as the "core" elements of a soft-acrobatic vocabulary:
  1. Low-gait positions - Think squatting — sissy squat, cossack squat, "ass to grass" squat, locomotive pathways that echo the idea of "crawling" in how they find you low to the ground. It can be helpful to think of low-gait movements as akin to the "lower body movements" of soft acrobatics: these movements load you in a position where your knees track forward over your toes, so strong quads and access to ankle mobility are a key part of making these movements accessible. As examples: coffee grinder, front & back sweep, scoot, low bridge rotation.

  2. Arching - Think of a bridge; but rather than the yoga bridge (or even the gymnastics bridge), think of a "full body" backbend that requires the entire front line of the body. It can be helpful to think of "arching" movements as "full body" movements, requiring both intense leg strength and access to the upper body, often with a special emphasis on the spine. Movements like the arm swipe, bridge rotation, gumbi, and macaco are all dependent upon your capacity to simultaneously & often ballistically access thoracic extension, shoulder flexion & hip extension.

  3. Shifting weight into the hands - Think of a handstand, or a cartwheel — your feet are off the ground while you are supporting your body's weight (either with or without the help of momentum or inversion) with your hands/arms/shoulders. Learning how to load weight into the arms and push into the floor (both with straight and with bent arms) is a core part of the soft acrobatics movement vocabulary. Traditional acrobatics often only use the hands/arms to "direct" the body in the air (like for twisting) or as part of blocking that builds momentum for a larger flip or trick (like a round-off or handspring); soft acrobatics will find as many ways as possible to use the hands and arms to put the body into different positions, inverted or not! Gallop, step through, valdez/macaco, rolĂȘ/mini-cartwheel, transformer, and the aforementioned handstand and cartwheel (of which there are infinite variations) are examples of movements where you shift weight into your hands.
While the above categories seem to imply that these "concepts" have different moves, many movements combine two or all three categories in the way they end up working: for a macaco you start in a squat (low gait), and pushing into your feet as you arch your body (arching) to shift weight into your hand(s) (shifting weight into hands) before using the push of your hands into the ground to lower yourself back into a squat (low gait again!) with control!

The answer to this question ultimately comes down to you, personally, once you've put some time into the practice. I could perhaps draw a comparison to yoga, in the sense that if you try it once or twice it might seem difficult and frustrating and out of reach, but if you spend enough time with the practice you might start to experience the personal satisfaction of comfortably moving in ways that you may not have thought were possible, you start to approach something more. While I would insist the "point" is primarily to be found in the doing, I would like to draw attention to some elements that might encourage you to consider starting.
  1. Physical Health - I am a firm believer in the idea that there is no one-size fits all way to "exercise." The practice that is going to work best for you is going to be the practice that you find yourself eager to actually do. I have a wide range of experience with a wide-range of disciplines, and for me my favorite way to "work out" is to practice acrobatic sequencing (at the current stage of my practice, I get the most pleasure out of readily combining "hard" and "soft" acrobatic "tricks" together into cohesive sequences or flow, but my experience with soft acrobatics is what gave me a leg up when I started learning the "hard" stuff!). It feels more like guided play than a task, and as someone who spent a lot of time as a child enjoying being upside down, the fact that I have access to a movement technology that combines pleasure with a way to exercise my body has been key to my physical health.

    While I do go to pains to preach the fact that soft acrobatics is an accessible practice, it might be extremely difficult to go from being someone with no acrobatic experience to someone who feels comfortable with the basic vocab. This should not be a deterrent—the most worthwhile things in life have a learning curve. If you enjoy reading, consider the fact that there was a time before you could read, and there was a durational process you had to endure in order to cross the gap from illiterate to literate—but that didn't stop you from learning, and think of all the worthwhile books you've read since learning how to read!

  2. Expressivity - Soft acrobatic movement can be a great expressive tool. I never felt fully comfortable in my own body in a dance class, but have always craved an embodied (and non-linguistic) way to express myself. In a world where our operative capacity to express ourselves is moving more and more towards a very narrow set of signifying modes of communication (texting, emails, the way you talk about a subject on facebook), having access to a mode of expression that is not defined by semantic insistence can be truly liberating.

    Communicating energy by "swimming" on the floor can be a lot more liberating than trying to articulate how you're feeling when you're frustrated or holding discomfort. Beyond mere expressivity, soft acrobatics can carry a level of artistic intent that is ostensibly close to the idea of dance. In the same way not everyone can appreciate the artistic merit of contemporary dance, not everyone may be able to see a soft acrobatic practice as "art," but there are those who can and will.

  3. Continuity - For me the absolute bottom line of why I find a soft acrobatic practice "worth it" is the opportunity it has provided me to experience a truly satisfying engagement with the flow state as I've carried on in my practice. There has been much written on the idea of the flow state as a "tool" to be used for productivity in the workplace, but I would insist you forget about any sort of utilitarian intentionality behind the idea of "flow" and instead allow it as a zone in which dissipate the often trying confines of 21st century identity, allowing your thoughts and movements to dissolve into the sense of water in a stream: the dissolution of the self into a larger non-utilitarian unity with the energy and movement in the world. This might sound a bit "hippy dippy," and as such might turn you off, but what I would insist upon here is not related to any sort of ulterior didacticism growing out of some post-New Age agenda: when you can lose yourself to your body, your body takes over and, for me at least, I experience a sensation that I cannot articulate with language, but feels like the height of satisfaction.

    How does this happen in soft acrobatics? As I've mentioned above, one of the great things about soft acrobatics is how the basic vocabulary is built around movement patterns that allow you to combine multiple movements into either improvised or "choreographed" sequences. This is a "higher level" concept in the practice as it requires a level of comfort with some of the basic building blocks, but consider an analogy to the written word: when we are learning to write and speak (either our first language or a new language) we first learn basic words and concepts. Once we are familiar with these words we can string them together into sentences and these sentences can express ideas or meaning in a very different way than individual words can in isolation. Soft acrobatic sequencing is exactly the same: you learn a basic vocab (individual movements) and once you feel comfortable with the vocab you can start learning to speak (you can string movements together, see how they interact, and make duration sequences of flow rather than looking at movements in isolation).
With all this said (and it's a lot, I know!) I hope that if nothing else, I've imparted some sort of idea about how I personally approach and teach the practice of Soft Acrobatics. As I stated above, this should not be taken as gospel or irrevocably carved in stone—it should be considered open and permeable and personal, just like, I think, a soft acrobatics practice itself should be considered.

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Mike Kitchell, 2020-2022