By Leslie Hsu Oh 

Spinning 15 feet above the Palisades Tahoe Village, Trina Padden wraps her aerial sling into double foot locks, then gracefully lowers herself with straight legs outward into a split. The audience erupts into whistles and applause. She bends her left knee while tossing a 95-inch wide silk around her waist, briefly letting it flutter like a cape behind her back. 

Beneath Padden, there is no mat, no padding. She flows easily from a martini (when the aerial silk is tossed around one’s back and under an arm while one leg is extended straight out in one of the poles of silk and the other leg is free) into an arabesque by flipping upside down so she can get her right leg locked higher up on the silks. When the spinning slows, she touches her toes with her left hand, bends down and does a standing split, then transitions back to a martini. When her back is turned toward the audience, she untangles some of the silk and suddenly drops at least 10 feet into a single knee hook. The audience gasps. When Padden’s strawberry blond pigtails brush against the concrete, I realize I can’t remember the last time I let go with such abandon. 

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It’s my favorite moment in a routine she performed at October’s Made in Tahoe with Tahoe Flow Artists, a premiere aerial and dance performance company originally founded by the late Kelly Smiley and now led by Meredith Calderas-Precit and Alicia Streetman. Padden tells me that she has never considered age to be an issue. 

“I like to be challenged,” she said. “I learned to ski in my 30s and because I like trying new things, I progressed to telemark, cross-country, snowshoeing, and snowboarding.”

HAPPY COUPLE: Trina Padden and Sam Brury have been married for 35 years. When she started aerials at age 59 a decade ago, he told her, “If it makes you happy.” Photo by Leslie Hsu Oh

She was 59 when she started learning aerials with Smiley in 2013, who opened Tahoe Flow Arts Studio the same year. Smiley partnered with Christine Bettera in 2018 and they rebranded the business as Tahoe Flow Arts & Fitness.

A certified master health coach and multi-disciplinary movement trainer, Bettera is keeping Smiley’s legacy alive by expanding their studio located in Tahoe Vista into a campus offering yoga, Pilates, TRX, nutrition coaching, dance, karate, aerial fabrics, lyra/hoop, aerial rope, and even divine purpose ascension training.

Ageless: Trina Padden, who is 69, doesn’t let age stop her from performing with the Tahoe Flow Artists. Courtesy photo

“The community is what’s special about this place and the accountability, and the care that we have for each other and the way that we support each other,” said Bettera. For example, some of her private clients have hired her employees to design their websites.

She walks me back to the brightest part of the studio where the ceiling rises to cathedral heights with plenty of windows letting in sunlight from all angles. Padden, now 69, and Angela Kearns are stretching with aerial hammocks. They both juggle teaching here, performing with Tahoe Flow Artists company, and work in real estate. Kearns is Tahoe Flow Arts’s community outreach and marketing director, and also teaches aerial silks, hammock, and silk veil fans.

I’m treated to a demonstration by Padden and Kearns, who say that aerials are to thank for bringing new customers to their studio. The two of them look like angels, spinning into different poses on white aerial hammocks. You can tell Padden grew up figure skating in Syracuse, New York, and that she practices yoga.

“You can go anywhere in the world and find circus people,” Bettera said. “Aerials are super accessible. It’s a fun way to move your body. And it’s great cross-training for snowboarders and skiers because it’s all core strength. All foundation of movement comes from your core.”

Because I lost all my core strength giving birth to four kids, when Padden asks, “Do you want to give it a try?” I nearly run out the door.

TRINA PADDEN didn’t start aerial silks until she was 59 years old. Now she performs and teaches. Photo by Leslie Hsu Oh

Padden approaches me and gently uncrosses my arms, which I didn’t realize formed a shield in front of my tummy. I had grown so ashamed of this body part over the years that I am not even conscious that I’m always trying to hide it. 

No matter how I protest, the two of them are patient and understanding. Finally, Padden makes eye contact and says firmly, “Love what you have. Look at your belly and look at your four kids and love it the way it is. The whole point of this place is to learn to accept yourself and love yourself and spread it with other people. We don’t want to hear any negative self-talk.” She talks fondly about her students, who range in age from 19 to 69. At this year’s Holiday Bazaar, in celebration of the 10th anniversary, not only is Padden performing but her mixed apparatus class of sling/hammock and lyra will perform two numbers. 

“These students are no longer self-conscious,” said Kearns. “They now admire their bodies in the mirror. It’s so supportive. Everybody cheers each other on. There’s no competition.”

“And when they finally do something, they say, ‘Look at me. Take my picture,’” Padden said.

Eventually, they persuade me to sit down on the hammock like on a swing. Easy enough, but not as comfortable as I thought it would be. Then Padden instructs me to lean back, let my bottom fall towards the mat and leave my knees hanging from the hammock. I’m supposed to continue to fall back without letting go of the hammock and then swing my legs straight up parallel to the aerial silks in a headstand position, then relax into a split. 

In seconds, I feel sweat beads dripping. My breath is ragged. Core does not exist in my vocabulary. I’m not able to hold onto the silks. They slip out of my hands. I deflate onto the mat like a balloon losing air. 

Swallowing my pride, I realize that it was important for me to try an aerial pose just to understand how much strength is required. Padden focuses on keeping herself strong and flexible. “Aerials have helped my neck, back, and pelvic floor. My medical team all support my aerials for physical therapy as well as mental health,” says Padden. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology proved that aerials improve stability, cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance.

At the same time, Padden’s husband Sam Drury, whom she met waiting tables at Sunnyside in 1988 when he was 24 and she was 33, shared a few scary moments when Padden either fell or became tangled upside down in her aerial sling for an hour. But if you hear Padden talk about aerials, you’ll know that for her the risks, which are rare, are worth it. She wants Moonshine readers to know that, “No matter what is going on in your life, aerials focus your attention like nothing else and stops the mind chatter. Your mind stills and you feel like you are moving in slow motion. It is hard to explain but you feel every second. It is joyful. It is like dissecting a puzzle and putting the pieces together. It takes time and patience to make these pieces fit together in a graceful way. The community of Tahoe Flow Arts & Fitness has taught me that it isn’t a competition, but a collaboration of body positive people who cheer each other on. It doesn’t matter your size, shape, weight, or level of fitness. If you want to, you can fly.”

To see Tahoe Flow Arts & Fitness students in action, check out their Holiday Bazaar on Dec. 23 from 3 to 8 p.m. Purchase tickets at tahoeflow.com.

~ Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes for National Geographic, Travel +Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Vogue, and more. Read her work at lesliehsuoh.com or @lesliehsuoh.  

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