Serena Williams. Michelle Wie. Simone Biles. The female faces of Nike are legends of their sport, international icons when they step off the court, course or gymnasium. So when Emirati Yasmin Baker – an aerial silks instructor from Dubai – was asked to be one of five Middle Eastern women to feature in its latest campaign, she couldn’t quite believe it.
“I love being fit and active, and promoting that lifestyle,” says the 25-year-old, whose fascinating practise is a highly physical form of aerial acrobatics performed while hanging from a piece of fabric eight metres in the air. “But at first, the glamorous side – the makeup, posing, photoshoots – made me feel like a fish out of water. The Nike team was incredible; so welcoming, uplifting and inspiring… we could all put our best feet forward to bring a strong and empowering message to women, using fitness as our platform.”
And that’s the encouraging subtext here. Yes, Baker can be seen in posters and video – shot in Dubai – extolling the virtues of the sportswear company’s new Chrome Blush collection. But it is a small part of Nike’s female empowerment campaign Believe In More – which comes after its “What Will They Say About You” advert of earlier this year featuring five other Arab women (including Emirati ice-skater Zahra Lahi) that laid the ground for the much-talked-about Nike Pro Hijab.
“Nike has successfully demonstrated through so many of its campaigns and product lines that it really appreciates the diversity of its customers,” argues Baker. “They are of course selling a product, but there is a story to be told about the people who embody that message.
“I think the activewear hijab symbolises this notion. The hijab is a form of expression of a belief system and should be an informed lifestyle choice. Lots of fitness-oriented Middle Eastern women wear it.”
In turn, Nike say that the common bond Baker has with the other four Chrome Blush ‘influencers’ is that “they are women pioneers in the fields they work in, they eat, breathe and live the relentless pursuit of excellence, and they’ve come together to inspire you to exceed your potential in body, mind, soul and style.”
They came across Baker after interest in her ‘aerial art’ grew and grew. Baker says it is still “relatively unconventional” for a Middle Eastern girl to be openly engaging in a ‘strange’ sport. And aerial silks is by most definitions a strange sport.
“It’s hard work, both mentally and physically,” she says. “There’s a lot of trust you have to build in your body and in the apparatus, a lot of overcoming fears and persevering through scary and often painful situations. On the physical front, it uses a lot of muscles that you wouldn’t normally in a conventional gym.
“The entire body works differently when you’re in the air, you have to use a lot more strength and control to invert [go upside down] when you don’t have solid ground to jump off. And of course the rope burns, which gets my new students every time! But no pain, no gain I guess.”
Baker now teaches aerial silks at Gravity Gym and Dubai Circus School – although she never sought to be an instructor. Initially, she was just intrigued by the aerial movement and artistry in a Cirque Du Soleil show, but her journey to success in the aerialist field is unique to say the least. After all, Baker has a biology degree, spent time in wildlife conservation, works for Expo 2020 Dubai… and is scared of heights.
“It’s funny, the Nike campaign required us to take some pictures from rooftops, and I recall clinging to the rail and feeling lightheaded at times,” she laughs. “But that’s really where the trust and confidence comes in. I don’t get the same dizzy feeling when inverting 8 metres off the ground.”
The only dizziness will come from Baker trying to work out how far she can take her career in Dubai. She says the Emirate has provided her with many opportunities for “learning, growth and open-mindedness.”
“As a fully Emirati girl born in Washington DC, I’ve had immense exposure to both a hyper-globalised and a very traditional Arabic society,” she explains. “Maybe that’s why I feel well-placed to bridge the gap and stand strongly for acceptance, freedom of peaceful expression, and can embrace and advocate positive change.
“Is Dubai a good place to do what I do? I would say it is often not the easiest place to do what I do, but that it is the right place and the right time to do it.”