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2010 Hot 20: Alayna Stroud, Aerial Dancer and Creative director of Cirque Noir

Photography by Robyn Twomey

You’ll need to know the password if you want to catch a glimpse of Alayna Stroud and her small company of aerial-burlesque dancers at her Divisadero Street studio. For the past three years, audiences have lined up outside to get into Cirque Noir’s sexy speakeasy performances. But this is no mere striptease. Her choreography tells fantastical stories about love and transformation—but, you know, in the air and with legs wrapped around a pole connected to a swaying bathtub.

“It’s an awesome way to connect to your body and feel sensual and strong,” says Stroud, who was an exotic dancer in college before studying aerial dancing with its pioneer, Terry Sendgraff, in Oakland. “People expect it’s this total abandonment and freedom because that’s what it looks like. But it’s also physically challenging and painful. You’re climbing up and down fabric or hanging from parts of your body you’re not supposed to hang from. You have to smile through that pain.”

The four women who make up Cirque Noir perform around the city at special events. In addition to teaching aerial burlesque, Stroud recently traveled to Mumbai to dance on the side of a skyscraper with Project Bandaloop, a company that combines climbing and rappelling with dance. In January, she joins Cirque du Soleil to develop their next show, which opens next summer.

“When I first moved to San Francisco, I stripped at the Hungry I,” she says. “I quit because I was way more interested in dance. It’s the closest thing to flying.”