Learn Trapeze: Fulfill That Childhood Dream

Swinging through the air might sound scary, but it can be a lot of fun, too.
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How would I describe my desire to leap off a platform 23 feet up in the air and swing from a bar?

Early midlife crisis? Maybe.

Still, I had some concerns.

"It's like hanging on the monkey bars," a friend assured me after I announced my intention to take a trapeze class.

The flying trapeze is both more and less physically demanding than one might expect. You have to climb, grab, lean, hop, swing, stretch, arch, curl, hang on, let go, kick, drop, roll, flip and crawl -- all of which add up to a serious workout. The non-gym-goer in me was anxious, but my far-from-firm physique turned out to be pretty much a nonissue.

"The way our hands are set up, if you just curve your fingers, you can easily hold all of your weight" as you hang from the bar, an ability most people have, explained Jonathon Conant, president of

Trapeze School New York, which he co-founded in 2002 with Dave and Anne Brown.

Indeed, the buff and brawny might even be at a disadvantage when it comes to flying because their movements may be too controlled.

"The activity is so much like waltzing," Conant said, "you just want to go with the flow and the rhythm of it" rather than muscle through the motions.

The greater hurdle to going with the flow, however, is fear -- of heights, of falling, of failing, of trusting strangers, of the unknown and, really, of giving up control. But it's a key component of the experience and the root of the exhilaration that follows. Face down your inner chicken, trapeze proponents say, and you could send your self-esteem soaring with every swing on the bar.

Trapeze is "a great tool for teaching people that they're actually capable of doing a lot more than they currently believe," Conant said.

During the past decade, trapeze schools have been popping up all over the United States amid increased interest in the high-flying sport. The trend can be traced to

Club Med, which began running trapeze programs for its vacationers in the early 1980s and now offers the activity at two dozen or so of its resorts; it's where many novices first try the trapeze, and where TSNY's Conant got hooked.

Since opening, TSNY has logged more than 24,000 fliers and tens of thousands of visits, Conant estimates. The school also operates in Baltimore and near Boston; another location is set to open on the pier in Santa Monica, Calif., this spring.

In Manhattan, TSNY has two locations: one outdoors, on a Hudson River pier (the season starts in mid-May), and one indoors, in a big white bubble on far-west W. 30th St., where I have my lesson. I am one of five first-timers; the three other fliers sharing the two-hour session are intermediates, and two of them are tweens.

Safety is first on the agenda. I'm fitted into a safety belt cinched tightly, and we beginners learn how to attach our safety ropes at the base of the ladder, as well as how to fall to the net.

Our instructor Rob explains what to expect on the platform: how we'll chalk our hands while another teacher switches the safety lines; how we'll reach forward to grab the fly bar and lean over the edge.

"Hep" is the signal to go. Once swinging, we will bring our legs up, hook them over the bar and drop our arms for an upside-down knee hang before reverting to the arm swing; an instructor will yell out what to do and when, so we need to listen.

We go through some of the motions on the ground. It doesn't bode well that my practice jumps are too wimpy to clear the imaginary platform edge I'm supposed to be envisioning on the floor. As we await our turns up the ladder, I ask to try a knee hang on a low bar. Lifting my legs is more difficult than I expect, but Rob explains it'll be easier to do during a swing.

My turn comes sooner than I want, and I'm nervous. As I climb the quivering ladder, I try to remember why I wanted to do this. I decide not to look down or up and instead focus on each small step. At the top, I kneel awkwardly onto the platform before slowly standing up. It's not so high, I try to tell myself, plus there's a net. And, hey, didn't that little girl just jump without a moment's hesitation?

But my head can't compete with my heart, which beats so hard I can barely hear anything else. The panic spikes when it's time to lean over the edge and grab the bar. Frozen in place, I weigh my options. The thought of climbing down the ladder isn't a soothing one; jumping will be the fastest way to get this over with. After about eight "heps," I hop off the platform. The sense of freedom lasts only seconds, drowned out by the flood of fear coursing through my body. I don't attempt a knee hang on this first jump. After the signal to let go of the bar, another "hep," I drop to the net and dismount.

Although they don't fully subside, my nerves lessen with each successive jump. I manage the knee hang, back arched and arms swaying toward the ground, on my second turn and add a flipping dismount on the third. My movements feel clumsy, jerky, but Rob suggests I might be ready for a catch. I'm not as sure. The catch is a precisely timed move; I'd have to smoothly execute a knee hang and stretch my arms toward a second bar, where a catcher -- also in an upside-down hang -- would be waiting to grab my wrists and pull me off my bar. I'm not even sure I'll be ready to jump on the first "hep."

My body makes the decision for me: Thanks to a leg cramp, my fifth turn becomes my last. The catch will have to wait until next time.

Where to Try Trapeze

In general, classes cost about $30 to $65; some places also tack on a one-time registration fee. Outdoor locations are seasonal.

Trapeze School New York offers classes indoors and out in New York City; indoors only in Reading, Mass.; and outdoors in Baltimore. It plans to open an outdoor rig in Santa Monica, Calif., in May.

The Flying Gaonas Gym

runs outdoor classes in Hollywood, Fla. (through April), and Chicago.

Hollywood Aerial Arts

, outside Los Angeles, holds flying-trapeze classes alfresco.

I.FLY.LI

is an outdoor school on New York's Long Island.

The

New England Center for Circus Arts

offers classes outdoors in Guilford, Vt.

Preparing for Takeoff

1. Novice fliers may take to the bar starting at age 4, and even younger in some cases. But the flying trapeze isn't for everyone -- e.g., pregnant women, anybody with a shoulder injury, some hypertensives. Your doctor or physical therapist can best assess which medical conditions might sideline you.

2. Should you fly indoors or out? The views you get outside add an extra element of exhilaration to the experience. That said, you also might have to contend with chilly breezes, blinding sunshine and the sounds and sights of traffic and onlookers, all of which can shake your focus.

3. Trapeze instructors regularly help fliers deal with fear and self-doubt. Listening for and following their directions can focus you on the activity at hand and encourage you to push aside negative emotions. "There's a lot of comfort in knowing that someone is there saying, 'Look, I'm here, and I'm only going to give you as much direction as you're capable of dealing with ... I'm going to keep my faith in you until you have faith in yourself,'" said TSNY's Jonathon Conant.

4. Ask a friend to shoot pictures or video of you in action. In addition to having proof of that backflip dismount, you might see that your swings look more graceful than they feel.

5. You'll probably be sore for a few days after class -- even putting on deodorant and laughing could elicit winces -- and might see a little bruising. Wearing socks, below-the-knee pants and a shirt with sleeves helps protect skin from the net, which sometimes feel a bit rough on landing.

Chris Swiac, a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey, has written for The Wall Street Journal, MobilTravelGuide.com and Fodor's Travel Guides, where she was a senior editor.