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Meet Acro Coach Emily Nicholl

WCS17's newest coach Emily Nicholl talks circus, movement, having a head for heights and how acrobalance can help your climbing.

Photo: Topher Dagg

Tell us about your path to circus...and to climbing...

My first interest in performing arts came from the use of theatre in political and environmental activism. Later, after being ill for a long period, realising I was coeliac, and recovering my health, I felt compelled to start physical activities with a surprising amount of newfound energy. Thanks nutritionist! I began training acrobalance at the local community circus group, enjoyed it, was good at it, trained with NoFitState, went to Flic circus school in Torino, and now I'm working with Ockham's Razor (a London-based contemporary circus theatre company).

During this time I met more people that were into climbing, both in circus and amongst friends, and found that I both really enjoyed it and that it was great complementary training. I mostly started with trad, enjoying seconding up long mountain routes and getting scared outdoors, but in the last year or so I've mostly been into bouldering.

I feel like there's a sort of beautiful connection between dance and bouldering or movement on rock, a sort of vertical acrobatics. Climbing can be a performance almost I feel sometimes, and the moments of focus before and excitement after are also really interesting, much like the preparation and vulnerability of a circus trick. So it inspires me to watch climbers, how each individual person moves differently within the climb and to think about how the body moves to figure things out. Reading people who write about the connection between climbing and movement or dance I find super inspiring.

Handstands at Font. Photo: Topher Dagg

What do you think the transferable benefits are between the two disciplines?

Circus is a huge and varied artform, but between acrobalance / acroyoga and climbing specifically, there are lots of transferable benefits. They both use core strength, balance, flexibility and movement. I for one really enjoy bouldering at the moment as I feel like it demands a lot of problem solving and movement technique that, when I'm doing it well, reminds me of dance. They both ask for a certain amount of discipline in training and being mentally focused. They both involve working with your acrobatic or climbing partner - Acrobalance demands and builds a lot of trust between partners. One is excellent complimentary training for the other as we're working pulling muscles in climbing and pushing muscles in acro. I reckon every climber should involve handstands as part of their training! As they strengthen your core, increases body awareness and works your triceps and pushing muscles in shoulders and wrists, fingers etc. Every handstander or acrobalancer also needs to remember to hang and do pulling exercises so climbing is perfect.

They are of course also super different. Climbing demands so much from the fingers and forearms, in a completely different way to any circus discipline I've done, that I have to be careful not to knacker myself out too much the day before a performance!

Does being a performer help your mental game when climbing?

I get super scared when I'm leading - trad or sport. I'm getting over it and there's moments when I feel more confident than others but it's something I'm always working on. I do remind myself sometimes that I don't feel the same fear when I'm training circus and that definitely helps. I feel that perhaps being able to put myself into the focused space I hope for when I'm performing sometimes helps me to be present when I'm climbing.

You must be on the road a lot touring - how does that affect your climbing?

I'm writing this on my way back from a wee tour to France where we took the van and had a few days bouldering in Fontainebleau on the way. So this time it was great! My partner and I mostly try to fit in climbing on the way to and from places and we often do manage. But often it's tricky. Especially having a job that's so physical I sometimes really need a rest day rather than a climbing day. Other times I go to the bouldering wall to just relax, do some stretching, some handstands, some climbing, some socialising and with the pressure off I sometimes climb really well! I have to be really aware of injury and things also I take ages to warm up and am mostly a chilled, happy to enjoy being outside and second interesting fun routes sort of climber. Though I do enjoy challenging myself of course, so I guess it's both.

What is acrobalance?

Acrobalance or Acroyoga is a discipline where one (the flyer) is moved, lifted or balanced by the other (the base). It can be gymnastic, acrobatic, expressive or therapeutic - or all at the same time. It builds trust between partners, cultivating playfulness, communication and community. Acro can help you gain some partner training techniques to help work antagonistic muscles to climbing, work core strength and see how you can efficiently use your body to balance and be balanced.

Some pre #WCS17 acro practice

How did you first come across WCS?

I came across the WCS in 2016 after being given a very kind gift of a ticket! The day was totally inspiring and enriching. I think supporting each other as women in sport in general is really important and to be in a room full of enthusiastic, talented and knowledgable women all connected by one thing was super amazing. The work done by WCS is something I feel really happy and honoured to be a part of. It's highlighting women in sports and in climbing. It helps to bring positive role models to the fore, which I think for any person of any gender, sexuality, ethnicity, background, is really important to have and to see. I think WCS and similar events, are having a positive impact on climbing in the professional world as well as in the personal world in terms of inspiring women to get involved in sports which were maybe seen as 'male'. To give a women's space to discuss specific surrounding issues affecting women in climbing is also helpful. Someone once told me to 'climb like a man', I'm quite happy to 'climb like a girl'! For me seeing more and more women climbing and climbing well and of all ages has definitely increased my own confidence so thank you!

Salisbury Crags in Emily's home town of Edinburgh. Photo: Mhairi Bell-Moodie

How would you recommend a curious climber get into circus?

Check out your local community centre or circus group if you have one and join in. There are often acrobalance or acroyoga or handstand classes out there. Start training acro or handstands at the local climbing wall and probably others will join in! There are other disciplines such as juggling, great for coordination, and aerial disciplines which would be equally interesting to a climber. And having a certain strength to begin with, and used to being at height, will definitely help with the first steps of learning and make it all the more fun. Get in touch if you have any questions! For an example of performance and climbing try searching for Deborah Colker, or there's a performance 'Black Rock' of Johnny Dawes' ascent of Indian Face by the Performing Mountains project - check Natalie's Berry great article on UKC! Lynn Hill also writes a lot of how gymnastics inspires her in her climbing and the link between acrobatics and climbing in her brilliant book Climbing Free.


Emily is currently performing Tipping Point with Ockham's Razor and coaching acroyoga, handstands and flexibility at various walls when not on tour.

Visit her website to read her write up of WCS17 and see her stick figure plans for home acro training, and follow her on Instagram.


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