Dancing on air
Joanie Garcia (Spanish, ’07) explores the practicality of running a creative business while doing the art that brings her joy and a sense of purpose.
Held by a rope and harness, Joanie Garcia (Spanish, ’07) tip-toed across the Redwall Limestone face of the Grand Canyon. Nearly a thousand feet above the Colorado River, she and four fellow artists performed a dance they’d choreographed together during the peak of the pandemic. The months-long project culminated in a documentary and dance film called OMEN, which won awards at international dance film festivals and was covered by The New York Times. For Garcia, the experience also marked the zenith of a decades-long pursuit of artful expression.
“Aerial dance blends my former passion for climbing and forever passion for dance into one,” Garcia said. “It’s a growing art form, so there’s an endless wellspring of new, innovative techniques to learn. And it’s the most fun way to exercise—you don’t even realize you’re working hard.”
Garcia started climbing in elementary school and dancing when she was 14 but didn’t discover the two could be combined until 2003 when she moved to Durango to study Spanish at Fort Lewis College. She signed up for the climbing club and Dance Co-Motion, FLC’s student-led dance club. Co-Motion’s president at the time, Sadie Landrum (Exercise Science, ‘06), introduced her peers to something Garcia had never experienced: aerial dance, a fusion of modern dance techniques with old-world circus routines. Landrum taught her how to use climbing gear to choreograph these specialized movements that often feature silks, steel hoops called lyra, poles, and the flying trapeze.
“I was immediately obsessed,” Garcia recalled.
At the time, Boulder, Colorado, offered the closest circus studio to practice aerial. She committed to the introductory flyer program—and the eight-hour drive from Durango. In 2006, Garcia choreographed her first aerial routine, which debuted successfully as part of Mandala, a dance show produced by local choreographer and dancer Jessica Perino at Durango’s Animas City Theatre.
As she built her body and mind to soar higher in the aerial arts, Garcia enrolled in business classes, encouraged by her parents to be practical about her college education.
“A liberal arts education helped me learn and synthesize information. There was so much offered along with my education. I felt supported and well-known and that my professors really cared about me; I wasn’t just a number.”
“At first, I was resistant to business classes,” said Garcia, who worked with a tutor to navigate her accounting courses. “I don’t think I understood that business can be whatever you want; it can be mission-driven, helping make your community a better place, and it can also be an outlet to pursue your creativity. I didn’t understand the nuts and bolts of the business world and felt that that knowledge would help me unlock some really cool things.”
After graduating from FLC in 2007 with a degree in Spanish, Garcia moved to the Gunnison Valley to work for the Department of Health & Human Services, implementing foster care licensing and systems-building work for the Colorado Early Childhood Council. She loved social work but was always looking for opportunities to practice aerial. She started teaching low-flying trapeze and lyra at the local rec center.
In 2010, Garcia helped launch the Crested Butte Dance Collective based on her experiences with FLC’s Dance Co-Motion club. The Collective pulled together a community dance show called Move the Butte and held open auditions. More than 100 people, from the mailman to the babysitter, joined the show, Garcia said. Thirteen years later, Move the Butte is still a beloved annual event, held each fall at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts.
Garcia moved to Flagstaff in 2013 and plugged into the burgeoning aerial scene. She taught summer circus camps, where students learned how to stilt walk, juggle, make puppets, and aerial dance. Garcia realized the business behind creative expression was starting to make sense. In 2017, she made the leap and cofounded Momentum Aerial with her business partner and fellow aerialist Morgan Louvier. They planned to develop an aerial arts curriculum built around structured skill progressions.
“The arts are such a powerful part of a city’s vitality, and I see Momentum as a healthy, community space where people come for their mental health,” Garcia said. “It ticks all the boxes of what I thought I wanted to do with my life: give back and be a force for good.”
Part of the curriculum includes an apprenticeship, where advanced students can complete a training program at Momentum to learn how to become aerial instructors. Some of Momentum’s students aspire to be professional aerialists, working with companies like Disney or Cirque du Soleil, while many look forward to teaching aerial as a career.
“I love watching my younger students gain confidence and body awareness,” Garcia said. “It’s a tool for them to learn about their body mechanics and physicality. It helps them learn to advocate for themselves if they’re scared or something doesn’t feel good. It’s all the reasons I wanted to be a social worker.”
Besides Momentum, Garcia and five fellow artists cofounded a nonprofit aerial theatre company called Dark Sky Aerial. Dark Sky features aerialists who come together to choreograph shows dangling off the sides of hotels in downtown Flagstaff or the walls of the Grand Canyon, as they did in their award-winning documentary and film. Next up, Garcia and her business partner at Momentum Aerial plan to buy a building and create an aerial and circus facility—financial goals she said her FLC business classes continue to impact.
“Those skills gave me the confidence to work on starting all kinds of organizations,” Garcia said. “If I didn’t have my degree, I couldn’t have gotten my job at the Department of Health & Human Services, which taught me about systems-building that I apply directly to my passion projects. I want young girls to see older female entrepreneurs running successful businesses in the arts. I’m planting that seed daily in my students.”