By Caitlin Ingrassia
July 20, 2003
This is no firefighter test, when you climb ladders and jump out of burning buildings. It’s no suicide mission.
This is flying through air with the greatest of ease, daring young men – and women, and old people and kids – on the flying trapeze.
It’s an electrifying jolt of nerves. It ranks alongside bungee jumping and skydiving for adrenaline junkies. It’s the “IT” way to get the blood pumping while testing boundaries and building confidence.
I should know. I did it.
I want to fly, so I head to The Trapeze Club at the Center for Symbolic Studies in New Paltz. I arrive to find myself in the capable hands of Megan Dwyer, the program’s coordinator, and David Pakenham, the head trapeze instructor. Pakenham, a Gummy Worm of a guy with six-pack abs, studied under Tito Gaona – the renowned Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus trapeze artist.
First things first: Before I can swing with the big boys I have to learn how to hold the bar, swing my legs and hang by my knees. Sounds easy, until you realize the real bar is much higher up.
Dwyer goes over important trapeze vocabulary. The most important word: “Hep,” the command to begin flying or, if you’re already swinging, to release your grip and fall onto the net.
Only then are you ready to fly.
The ladder leading to the jump-off board is barely a foot wide. My climb is slow, with one shaky hand following the other. With each passing rung, trees look smaller, birds seem closer and my heart beats faster. (P.S. There is no net to catch me if I fall and I’m not secured to anything to prevent that from happening.)
By the time I reach the 3-foot- wide pedestal board – the tiny platform you jump from – my 5- foot frame is on sensory overload. My hands are clammy (glad I chalked them), my mind is computing all the instructions and my body is preparing for a 23-foot fall to the net below.
The pressure is high. Sophia, one of my classmates, already did a perfect knee hang. She is 12 and gorgeous and I hate her.
With my harness belt on, I am hooked into the safety lines (which David controls from the ground). Megan calmly talks me through the instructions. “With your left hand, grab the trapeze bar. With your right hand, hold onto the (stabilizing) bar behind you.”
The weight of the trapeze bar takes me by surprise. I am afraid it will drag me off the board.
“Now stand on the edge of the board,” she says. “Bend your knees a bit. Keep your arms straight. And when I say ‘Hep,’ fly!”
I pause and think, “She really doesn’t expect me to jump off this thing, does she?”
No. She doesn’t. My editor does. So, with that, and the magic word, I flew.
I can’t say I was very graceful. I probably looked like a seahorse on electro-shock therapy. But I did it. Twice.
After I take a couple of pendulum-like swings, David yells, “Hep.” But I can’t let go. I won’t let go. Fear of falling backward, fear of not seeing the net, fear of getting hurt – it all gets in my way.
My classmate, Ruth Meaker, understands. “There’s a strong psychological thing with trapeze,” says the 33-year-old Spanish and Humanities teacher and self-proclaimed trapeze addict from Kripplebush. “The mind can get in the way.”
When I finally let go, I fall vertically instead of horizontally. I land with my feet on the springy net and then fall flat on my face. This, I also did twice.
Fear, some say, is one of the main causes of accidents. Let go of the fear and the body will be more fluid, the experts advise. After flying, I agree with them. The day after my inept landings, I had two bruised kneecaps. Injuries I wouldn’t have suffered, had I let go of the fear – and the bar – and simply trusted.
Luckily for the Trapeze Club, there haven’t been any serious injuries. Regardless, the insurance is expensive and each participant must sign a waiver before flying.
While the mind can cause bodily injuries, it has also had an impact in the soaring popularity of trapezing. Some trapeze enthusiasts have used their rigs for more than flying. They have used the trapeze to rebuild the spirit, develop confidence and forge new emotional boundaries for women and children whose lives have been affected by abuse and drugs.
They believe flying is simply a “metaphor” that can be applied to the human spirit. Dwyer agrees. She has seen the transformation in many who have flown at the club.
“People laugh, cry, they write about how the experience has transformed them. I receive photos all the time,” says Dwyer. “These are all organic examples of people who trapeze and feel it has given them the confidence to do other things with their lives.”
Some people will ask, What makes swinging in the air so life altering?
“Some things are so sacred. The whole magic of trapeze is almost superhuman,” Dwyer says. “The letting go. The flying. The falling and the getting caught. It’s totally exhilarating. It’s almost like love. How can you describe what it is?”
The day after trapeze, my body hurt. Bad. I don’t consider myself out of shape – maybe one too many burritos, but I have strong upper body strength. Or so I thought. Every muscle I ever ignored before was letting me know it was still around. This just might be the reason trapeze has become the super trendy way to get in shape.
Three years ago, Crunch Gym in New York City introduced its “Circus Sports” class. The class involves partnering (balancing on another’s shoulders), hula hoop, juggling, acrobatics and trapeze. And while it sounds a bit clownish, Crunch insists it’s a tough class.
“You have to be in extremely good shape to do this class,” says Matthew Walters, public relations manager for Crunch Fitness International. “It’s a really good workout for your lats, core and arms.”
Attendees have included Geena Davis, Bette Midler, Jeff Rosenblum and Diane Von Furstenburg.
The most recent celebrity getting into the act is Sarah Jessica Parker. Parker went “flying” at Trapeze School New York for her role as Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.” The gossip is that the swinging trapeze involves such bizarre plotlines as Carrie joining the circus and taking up trapeze to improve her sex life. Obviously, HBO won’t give us the dirt. The episode, titled “The Catch,” will air on Aug. 10.
I don’t know if trapeze improves one’s sex life. But I can tell you that it did build my confidence and it did give me a serious workout. But will I climb up that ladder again?