PROFILE: Airborne – This associate college dean moonlights twirling and spinning in aerial silks.
Published 3:10 pm Thursday, March 31, 2022
By Michelle Love
Photos by Keith McCoy
Ashley Kitchens swings from the air as if she was born there. She pulls herself up on her aerial silks with ease, twirling and spinning as if the silks are an extension of her body.
Believe it or not, she does so on most any ordinary day. Whether she’s performing or practicing, aerial silks are part of her everyday life. It’s something she always makes time for, as it’s just another important part of her busy routine.
When Ashley isn’t in the air, though, she’s is spending time raising her family, or serving as associate dean at the Chilton-Clanton campus of Jefferson State Community College. She’s been in that position for five years now and has worked for Jeff State staff since 2002. In addition to those duties, she serves on various organizations and local service groups throughout Chilton and Shelby counties. In short, “I cannot sit still,” she says laughing.
As to her aerial silks journey, it began in January 2017 after she saw an advertisement for a class at Head Over Heels Gymnastics off Caldwell Mill Road in North Shelby County. She quickly took to it like a bird to flight as a way to focus on her mind and body and let out some steam.
Today Ashley loves being in the spotlight in the air. Whether she is in a live show or on video for a virtual audience, she finds it all thrilling.
Ashley loves how unique and challenging the sport is and the sense of freedom she feels while twirling through the air. In 2019, she added a lyra hoop—a circular steel apparatus suspended from the ceiling for acrobatics—to her routines as well. Her Facebook page is full of photos and videos from her performances, and in every frame Ashley can’t hide the huge smile on her face.
All of her training has not only made her strong physically, but also mentally, and she carries that strength with her throughout her daily life. “That has made me so grateful to see the ability my body has,” she says.
Ashley and her fellow aerial silk enthusiasts share those abilities in performances at the gym with various themes and choreographed pieces. Recently, her aerial group put on a show dedicated to the best Disney villains, which got adults and younger participants very excited.
For her the sport is about far more than herself. “The best part about performing and the aerial community I am in is the support that we all give each other,” she says. “Every person I have come in contact with has been truly interested in seeing each other grow and put on a phenomenal show.”
She also compares the supportive aerial community to the tight knit community she grew up with. “Shelby County offers big city and small town all wrapped in one,” she says. “I have loved the Oak Mountain school system and the teachers and administrators that really give their all to make a difference in students’ lives. I also just adore the close-knit communities in our county. Indian Springs Village, and in particular my Homestead neighborhood, is just a great place to be; our neighbors are like family.”
Likewise, her job at Jeff State is dedicated to maintaining the close-knit community of students and faculty. She said she is incredibly lucky to call most of her colleagues her friends, and is grateful for their equal support in her work at and away from the school. While there she runs academic programs and analyzes the various needs of different classes, student enrollment and counseling services. She also supervises their special seasonal events all for a campus of approximately 850 students, and she will tell you repeatedly how much she loves her job.
“I could bore you for days with why I love teaching,” she says. “I love getting to know students and giving them a reason to want to be in my class. I love what I teach, and I totally dork out when we get discussing topics, so I hope that enthusiasm is what students get out of my classes. I really do love my job.”
Jeff State being such a prominent part of the Shelby County community makes her “so proud,” and she said the love and support Shelby County residents have for the school is a much-appreciated bonus. “The leaders in both cities and industries in Shelby County support the Jeff State mission and play integral parts in continuing opportunities for students,” she says.
When she leaves campus, though, she still doesn’t stop. “I cannot sit still, and I love to be busy,” she said. “And I am a big dork, so I am always doing something physical or nerding-out [about] something book or pop culture wise. I am a super positive and active person.”
Any free time she has is spent taking part in various organizations throughout the county. She attends Easter Seals events with her husband, who is on the organization’s board. She also always works to help with events at the Jeff State campuses, and has also provided her writing services for the Shelby County Sheriff’s office when they reached out several years ago about it. Outside of just doing aerial silks herself, she shares the joy of it with others, teaching a youth beginner class on Sundays at Head Over Heels.
When pressed, she says there really isn’t anything she would give up. “Luckily, my career, home life and hobbies are all things I love and am passionate about, so I continually blend them into each other,” she says. “I integrate my hobbies with work, whether that be bringing a performance to one of our activities at the college or bringing colleagues to try classes with me.”