The trapeze has its own kind of hubris. Similar to the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the likelihood that you will both fall and allow yourself to be caught is what makes the art so exhilarating. From a seat in the audience, trapeze artists are otherworldly. Their bodies almost cease being human as women are tossed intro triple flips and gracefully grasp hold of a partner’s arms. Static trapeze, where balance is used to hang off the bar with only the arch of one foot, makes the performer seem little more than a series of shapes suspended in midair.
In person, watching middle-aged parents and their children leaping off platforms gives new meaning to audience discomfort. The sense of awe that exists watching a real performance with lighting and leotards is replaced by a gut-dropping feeling each time someone takes off from the platform. These are not people who have been training since birth. They could be your little brother, your grandmother. They could be you.
If you’ve ever taken a summer drive along Manhattan’s West Side Highway and not been paying close attention to the road, a strange sight may have caught your eye. On top of the Chelsea Piers are the outlines of ropes and wires. Unless you are lucky enough to pass by in time to see people propelling themselves into thin air, it would seem like a school playground. The New York Trapeze School, with both outdoor and year-round indoor locations, is the main place for Manhattanites who want to learn how to fly.
For sixty dollars, aspiring trapeze artists can learn the basics starting with the first swing off a twenty-three foot high platform. Though you are roped into a harness until more advanced levels, the ladder to get up there is precarious. It’s not much more than the flimsy aluminum you would use to paint a house. And there are two of them, held together with something that looks like a metal clip. Once you have reached the platform, it is time to fasten the harness into the ropes used for actual trapeze. In the beginner classes, someone is stationed at the platform to help you with adjusting your harness before taking off into the air.
This is the point where you will have your first experience holding the bar in two hands. Though they’re wider, there doesn’t seem to be much distinguishing the trapeze bars from the monkey bars most children use at the playground. As long as you forget that, unlike a play-set, this one is not built on a base of wood that has been solidly staked into the woodchips beneath you. And, unlike climbing sets, you will be required to lean the upper half of your body far over the edge of the platform before moving forward. The second reason the spotter is there on the platform with you is to hold the back of your harness in place until it’s time for you to sail out into the air. Once you’ve assumed this leaning position, there is no turning back. Your body is stretched so precariously that the simple opening of a hand will send you soaring.
Fifteen minutes of the class has probably elapsed at this point. There is only an hour and forty-five minutes left.
Next is the most basic trapeze trick—the knee hang. It’s more or less self-explanatory. You curl your knees into your chest in order to get them over the bar. Then you hang upside down by your legs and undo the process. Beginners tend to miss the gravitational cues that announce when to move to the next step. Flying trapeze relies entirely on your ability to use balance to your advantage. You become that pendulum from physics class, moving from one end of a trajectory to another. Only, in this case, you have the ability to increase your momentum by releasing your arms at one end of the knee hang and curling back into yourself at the other.
There is only one part left before the end of your basic training is over. There are thirty minutes left in the session.
For the last step of your foray into circus arts you will be asked to trust a stranger beyond the limits of most romantic relationships. On the ground, an instructor readies you. “It takes twelve seconds from the time you take off. Being off by one second ruins everything.” You will be hanging upside down from the bar. Swinging back and forth, the stranger will yell that he is ready. This is when you are supposed to reach backward to grasp the forearms of a strapping young man. He is also on the trapeze, pulling you off of your perch. You will hang in the faith of your increasingly firm hold on his skin.
From the audience this is a heart-racing moment. Though the net below and the harness rid the act of fatal danger, there is something both raw and brave in watching someone rely on another so fully. In the motion of straightening legs, normal people gain a grace that can rarely be found on the ground. For only a second, the two on the trapeze are suspended in the air. It takes watching a number of people take their first turns to figure out why: the person being caught always waits to lock arms before allowing their legs to let go of the bar. There is trust here but it isn’t perfect.
Some members of the class will never get the catch quite right. One woman has trouble with finding the rhythm of steps. By the time she swings to be caught, the other person has pulled too far away from her. Her husband can do it. So can her children and all of her friends. She is jealous. Discouraged. Before the last round of flights, she takes her harness off and gets ready to go.
To become a true trapeze artist you have to feed off the exhilaration of height. You need flexibility, strength, and above all else, a sense of yourself as a gravitational object. Trapeze is a sport like anything else. It builds strength and requires discipline but it also metaphorically—and literally—reaches something higher. The bar centers you in a unique way. Either you will find balance or you will fall. Short of trying something a little closer to the offering of your high school gym class, those are the only two options. People at the trapeze school come to the sport for many different reasons. Some have been gymnasts or dancers. Some came to accompany a friend and couldn’t stop doing it. One woman quit her job as a lawyer specializing in international law to travel for a year. When she gets back she is hoping to teach trapeze to others. People at this school—at least those in the upper levels—are not sure what they would do without it flying their lives. One woman says she has worried about the possibility of moving to a place without access to trapeze. This is a lifestyle and an addiction rolled into one.
It’s why true trapeze artists—those ones you’ve paid to see illuminated by stage lights—can make a possible activity seem wholly unattainable. As moving forms, their bodies are not what you are made of. This is not a matter of endurance or muscle tone. The need to be in the air is apparent from the first few swings. After dismounting from the bars, the more advanced students turn to their instructors in order to perfect their tricks. Few of them have real smiles but the thrill is clear on their faces. To trust the bar is to fly and to fall like Icarus. You know you have the ability to catch yourself on the way down. For the next swing, you will only push yourself higher.