By Mary Gofen
“Forget Fear. Worry about the Addiction”
I didn’t think much about my trapeze school’s motto when I signed up. Forget fear? I forget a lot of things – my keys, the password I created two hours ago, once even to pick up my child from preschool…but I never forget to be afraid.
I have what I consider to be a healthy fear of heights: while driving up Independence Pass near Aspen, I lean so far away from the edge of the cliff that I am practically sitting in my husband’s lap.
So when I signed up for classes on a whim, I knew that fear would accompany me to the rig.
The Chicago affiliate of Trapeze School New York has two locations – inside the Broadway Armory and outside at Belmont Harbor – and attracts students of all ages, sizes and abilities. It’s a dynamic and diverse group, and you bond quickly. It’s sort of like detention in The Breakfast Club (“a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal”), except that all of us are here by choice. There’s a business executive, a psychologist, a chorus girl, a camp director, and a former zombie clown.
My two goals for the 10-week workshop are to avoid serious injury and to just fit in.
On day one, the orange ladder looms large, 23-feet high and nearly vertical. No one’s going to carry me up. The ascent is scary but doable. The platform feels tiny. With someone else climbing up after you, there’s only one way down. Limited options have a way of focusing the mind.
Here, I try to sit on the bar but nearly fall off.
I am able to hide the fear (I think) on the first day and even accomplish a trick, the swinging Knee Hang. The other students have been flying together for a year and are gracious to the newbie. One of the women fashions hand grips for me to prevent skin tearing.
Each class ends with “catch” attempts. A successful “catch” requires athleticism, some bravery, and also good timing. One of the coaches, Birgit, swings upside down on another trapeze bar that looks to be a football field away. She is waiting to catch me. I rub chalk on my hands and forearms so she can get a better grip. The goal is for me to do a trick and then release from my own trapeze bar at the precise moment Birgit can catch me in mid-air. If my timing is a little off, I fall into the safety net. (This happens a lot.) If my timing is really off, we could crash into each other. (There’s one near miss but no collisions.)
Over the next few weeks I surprise myself by learning new tricks – and completing some “catches” – but I also learn that circus hurts. After class, it’s time to ice sore muscles. Mostly because I don’t take the time to warm up properly, I keep injuring myself. Remember my first goal about avoiding injury? I am failing miserably. Strained bicep (ice), abdominal strain (Motrin), shoulder strain (fascia stretch therapy), and a new set of bruises weekly (more ice). A double dose of Motrin before each class becomes my new routine. I “brag” about my minor injuries, and now I have messed up my other goal. None of the other students complain, and I am no longer fitting in.
After class, it’s time to ice sore muscles. Mostly because I do not take the time to warm up properly, I keep injuring myself.
I am desperate to impress. A show is coming up soon, and I am trying to learn a more advanced trick. We will each perform twice, and I am sure I will fail in front of a crowd. I’m also sure none of my friends will come, even as I shamelessly beg them to.
The show has a theme – the Flying Flowers – and I decide on sequins for my costume. Blue sequins on my tank top, red sequins on a six-inch hair bow, neon orange sequins on my socks. I feel stupid when I arrive. Nothing matches and I can’t figure out the flower hair bow. When I ask for help, they think I’m kidding and turn away laughing.
The floral tights I ordered online are way too big and will fall down during the show, I am sure.
Turns out some friends show up, and my husband, son, and in-laws too. The performers are supposed to act calm, but I am so excited I wave to everyone from the platform. I know this display is not de rigueur for the performers, but I am getting used to embarrassing myself. I come through in the end, nailing both my tricks, and tearing the skin on only one finger. No wardrobe malfunctions, so that’s a plus.
VIDEO: It’s show time! My first trick is also the hardest: the Penny Roll. With family and friends watching, I am beyond happy to nail it!
After the show, I sit with family and friends of three generations. I am on such a high, my mind is spinning. A few days later I reflect on the experience, and the feeling of exhilaration is lasting. After a certain age, I had started to fall into the belief that major physical accomplishments are things of the past. It is a surprise and joy to prove myself wrong.
Trapeze seems to spawn groupies, and now I too am addicted. I ask some of the other students and staff why they keep coming back. Everyone mentions the interesting people you meet, and more.
Birgit, trapeze coach: “I think the most rewarding thing about my job is when people are really struggling. It can be just the Knee Hang that they are afraid to try or just can’t figure out. But that moment when they finally get it is such an emotional moment that everyone in class seems to erupt with joy. I love how something as simple as that can make a person so happy and proud….I also love the feeling of swinging and doing tricks without the safety lines. It’s such a free feeling. The world kind of stops and everything gets quiet.”
April likes the feeling of escape. “When I jump off the platform, I can’t think of anything else outside of what I am trying to make my body do. Stress, anxiety, work have no room.”
Linda says trapeze carries over into the rest of her life: “Doing something that most people are scared of makes me feel braver in other stressful situations. I often mutter, ‘Of course I can do this, I fly trapeze!’ It’s also a great conversation starter. I find myself showing a little trapeze video to people waiting in the grocery store line or soccer game at half-time.”
I ask Andrea if she likes performing in the shows, and it turns out we’re quite alike. “I don’t like being the center of attention, so to get dressed up in a costume for the shows and take a chance on missing a “catch” in front of an audience is absolutely nerve-racking. Then you do it and survive. You realize the louder the costume, the better life is.”
I love the way it makes me feel, as a mother. My son, Peter: “Seeing my mom take trapeze classes — and perform successfully – is a great inspiration. It helps push away that moment of hesitancy, the doubt that comes with taking risks…. If she can do these things, why can’t I?”
TSNY offers lots of different classes – from trapeze to trampoline to aerial silks. Classes are available for adults and children, private parties and other group events.
For more information, visit www.chicago.trapezeschool.com