I’m standing on an eight inch ledge 20 feet off the ground. It may as well be 200 feet. I can feel my stomach starting to shrink in anticipation and I would wipe off my sweaty palms if I hadn’t already done so about a dozen times to no avail. People are down below staring up at me, yelling things that are only vaguely registering. With my chest tightening up, I take as deep a breath as I can.
And then I jump.
Think back to when you were a kid. Think back to the once a year when the circus came to town and you and your parents, or maybe your 3rd grade class, went to see the greatest show on earth. What do you remember?
The smell of the dry fairground grass. The more-scary-than-funny clowns with their overplayed reactions and clumsy choreography. The elephants being led slowly to the ring to stand on their heads. Lions and tigers and fire. (Oh my!) But the highlight, at least for me, always was the colorful acrobats on the flying trapeze.
I watched them closely. They moved a little differently than you or I. They were just more…aware of themselves and where their bodies were in relation to everything around them. And it makes sense. When you’re flipping through the air two and a half stories above the ground, it’s a good idea to know where you are. I always wondered what it would be like to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.
So one Sunday morning, I wandered down to an old gymnasium near Golden Gate Park and into the Circus Center of San Francisco.
The Circus Center is a professional circus school that teaches everything from tumbling and Chinese acrobatics to contortion and trampoline. They even have the country’s only professional clown training program. But I was there to do just one thing: learn the flying trapeze.
I was met by my instructor for the day, Erick, who’s been teaching the trapeze for more than 10 years. He gave me a quick rundown of what we’d cover in the 90 minute class and I joined three other students in a quick stretch. After covering off the safety procedures, Erick took me to a stationary trapeze bar just out of arm’s reach. I learned to grab the bar properly, swing my legs up between my arms, and hang from my legs. It all seemed easy enough.
Doesn’t it always?
The next thing I know, I’m staring up a 20 foot ladder to a small platform where I’ll leap from. I’m not sure why I chalked my hands – I’d end up sweating it all off before I was even 5 rungs up. But it seemed reassuring in the same way as talking nicely to a strange dog makes you think it won’t bite you. When I reached the top, another teacher helped me maneuver to the center of the platform. I was clipped into lines on both sides of my safety belt. Now here’s where things started to get strange.
The bar was pulled up towards me, but the catch is, I had to lean out with my entire body at about a 35 degree angle to reach it. To accomplish this without plummeting off this suddenly shrinking ledge, the instructor grabs hold of my safety belt from behind and leans backwards. New students' tendencies are to bend at the waist, but in order to exit the platform properly, you have to lean with your whole body. It’s about as foreign an experience as you can imagine. Several million years of evolution is telling your brain “You do not have wings! You are going to fall and die!” And the rest of your brain is trying to be like Dr. Phil and convince you everything’s going to be all right.
Erick stood below to shout commands. He had explained earlier that the quicker I could do things as he yelled them, the better off I’d be. Frankly, I was just hoping I’d be able to hold on to the bar with palms as sweaty as an 7th grader going in for his first kiss.
“Ready!” Erick yelled. I bent my knees.
“Hut!” and I stepped off the platform.
As I swung forward and approached the apex of the swing, Erick yelled out “Legs up!” Somehow, despite the fact that my stomach was in my larynx, my brain processed that information and I curled my legs up and around the bar.
I swung backwards towards my takeoff platform. “Hands off!” I let go of the bar that was now firmly nestled in the crook of my knee and swung backwards. “Look up!” Erick instructed and I arched my back so I was looking forward.
“Hands back!” “Legs down!” “Ready…Hut!” I let go without thinking, and fell into the springy net below.
Erick gave me a few more pointers and I went back to perfect that beginner routine. However, successive tries proved to be more problematic. At the end of the first swing as I tried to bring my legs through, my feet would catch on the bar, screwing up my timing and my momentum. I just couldn’t seem to get it. After a few more failed attempts, Erick had an idea.
“You’re going to try Hawk Style.”
I had no idea what Hawk Style was, but it sounded cool. (In reality, I’m sure it was just a cool-sounding name so as not to embarrass people like me who can’t even manage the most basic move.) Hawk Style involved me taking a narrow grip, then swinging my legs around the outside and hooking them over the bar. I got it down on the first try.
“Ok, are you ready for the catch?”
Not that I know this from first-hand experience, but I have the feeling that asking me that question is equivalent to asking “So, Neal, you ready to go walk around on the moon?” Of course I wasn’t ready. But that’s what I came to do. I mean really, would you still be reading this column if all I was doing was swinging from a bar by my knees?
I climbed the ladder once more, acutely aware of all 14,832,954 sweat glands in my fingertips. A third teacher climbed up to a trapeze across the room. He looked impossibly far away. Seriously. I thought I was missing something, because when both trapezes were at their closest it still seemed like there was a good 15 feet in between them.
I got into position – hanging out off the ledge had somehow started to feel normal by this point – and held into the bar. I tried to visualize everything I needed to do. Step off, legs up, hands off, arch back, make catch, release legs…I had no idea how this was going to go.
“We have one Hawk Style, with catch!” the teacher holding onto my belt yelled out.
“Ready!” the catcher on the opposing trapeze yelled out. I bent my knees and reminded myself to breathe.
It was probably 3 seconds, but seemed like 3 hours, before he yelled “Hut!”
And then I jumped.
My legs pulled up and wrapped around the bar. The commands didn’t seem to be coming as fast this time. Time slowed down. I was more comfortable. I let go with my hands and swung down, arching my back, looking forward, and reaching out towards the teacher. And suddenly, there he was. Right in front of me. Our hands locked around each others’ wrists and my legs uncurled from the bar.
I swung back and forth, held aloft only by the teacher's hands, until the he called out “Hut!” again and I let go, falling into the net below. It felt good, actually experiencing something I had thought about such a long time ago. The second release and catch was just as smooth.
I left the Circus Center smiling, replaying that brief second over and over. There I was – two and a half stories off the ground. Acutely aware of where my body was in space. Not having to think, but just moving, like those colorful acrobats from my childhood memories.
The Circus Center of San Francisco offers a variety of classes and workshops for both non-professionals and professionals interested in circus arts. Check out their website for more information on classes, schedules and prices.
Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
11.17.03 @ 9:26a
Next time, I think you should go to the Roy school of tiger training.
11.17.03 @ 9:38a
Jeff's just jealous! This is one of the things I won't cross off my list of 15,000 things I want to do before I die because I'm afraid of earthquakes. Sigh. But, hey, I COULD go to Vegas and put my head in a tiger's mouth, except that's not on the list. Oh, well....we don't always get what we waaahaaant.
11.17.03 @ 11:45a
Oh yeah, I'd do this.
11.17.03 @ 12:06p
Inspired by an episode of Sex the City this season?
11.17.03 @ 12:09p
It was great fun, and totally safe. I'm thinking of getting a few people together to do it again as a group.
One thing though, the next day a lot of those little torso muscles I rarely use were pretty sore.
11.17.03 @ 12:10p
Heather, everyone's asked me that. But I don't get HBO and have never seen a Sex and the City episode past Season 1. So I'm not exactly sure what the story is there.
11.17.03 @ 1:49p
The story is, on the West Side of Manhattan, there is a very visible outdoor flying trapeze school, and SITC filmed an episode there. It's likely much like the place you went, Matt.
11.17.03 @ 1:56p
So to those who devotedly watch the show (i.e. at least 1/2 the country), this probably appears to be a rip-off.
11.17.03 @ 2:02p
That was a little harsh-sounding, Heather. I've never seen the show, but even if Matt had seen it, it's hardly a "rip-off" if he went and did it.
Good work, Matt - you continue to surprise me with the sheer variety of things you think to try.
11.17.03 @ 2:10p
Thanks Juli. Heather, really, I had no idea about the Sex and the City thing. I've known about the Circus Center for about 2 years now. And ex-girlfriend told me about it, but we never got around to actually going. I always thought it sounded like a really cool thing to go try though.
11.17.03 @ 3:00p
Really, even if Matt had seen the episode, and that was the basis for this story, I still wouldn't call it a "rip-off." I mean, following that logic would mean that every woman who goes on a date in NYC is "ripping off" that show... or that that episode was ripping off the 1956 film trapeze... or for that matter, that Heather's column
How to Bag a Hot Chick is a rip-off of the show because she's writing a dating column. It's nonesense. Don't listen to Millen - especially on her dating advice.
11.17.03 @ 3:09p
More than any other of your experiential style columns, Matt, this one made me feel like I was there. My hands were literally sweating as I read it and I was getting nervous thinking about jumping off the platform. Either I'm neurotic, this was well-written, or both.
11.17.03 @ 3:37p
I was just explaining why everyone was asking Matt the SITC question. I don't, by any means, think he's lying about not seeing it.
Everything is a rip-off these days. Originality is hard to come by.
11.17.03 @ 4:37p
I didn't see it on their Website today, but the Circus Center used to teach a whip cracking seminar. I always thought that would be a fun, too.
Or we could all pitch in and send Jack to clown school.
11.17.03 @ 5:11p
I can teach you how to crack a whip, Matt. I can also teach you to walk on stilts and how to do some very basic swordfighting. Juggling continues to elude me, though.
11.17.03 @ 5:44p
Or we could all pitch in and send Jack to clown school.
You know he'll kill you in your sleep for this, right?
Juli, why am I not surprised?
11.17.03 @ 5:47p
What part fails to surprise you? The fact that I can crack a whip, or the fact that I'm a lousy juggler?
11.17.03 @ 11:16p
Gotta be the juggler. We know about your daughter. We know you can crack a whip.
11.18.03 @ 9:59a
Juggling isn't that hard - it's like riding a bike, you have to take some time to learn how to coordinate the motions and then off you go. Stilts, though, that sounds hard to me.
11.18.03 @ 11:45a
Juli, darling, you can do it all.
Sarah juggles? Speaking of doing it all....
Stilts, I've done. And I do it well. Which is about as necessary as a fish needing a bicycle. Don't stand too close, Adam!
11.18.03 @ 12:57p
Sarah juggles, Tracey's on the stilts, Juli can crack the whip and swordfight, and I'm on the trapeze. We've got our own Circ du Intrepid right here.
Just no clowns allowed.
11.18.03 @ 1:03p
Sometimes we get stilt-walkers for mall events and we have to get extra insurance on them. It seems that little kiddies find it quite the fun past-time to try and knock 'em over. The lesson here: Professional stilt-walking is dangerous business. Just in case you were thinking!
11.18.03 @ 2:42p
My juggling skills aren't quite up to circus level - I tend to drop the fire.
11.18.03 @ 2:43p
That explains why Erik has no hair...
11.19.03 @ 12:13a
Venture into a sex club? I might (read that as been there, done that). Fight Club? If I were drunk enough, maybe. Swing from a trapeze? Nope! Fear of heights.
My hat's off to you Matt. You are on a fearless path. I can't wait to read the one where you do that most daring of deeds, and enter into marriage. (Just kidding. I know training white tigers is on your list before marriage.) Honestly, I'm glad to know there's someone like you in the world. You're really a cool guy. At least judging you by what I read. So have you done hanggliding yet?
11.19.03 @ 1:16a
Hey Robert, thanks for the compliment. But really, I haven't done anything anyone else couldn't do. All kinds of fun things are out there for the doing. I just love to explore and try new things.
Haven't tried hang gliding yet, but I think it'd be great fun.
11.19.03 @ 9:50a
You should do that. I've always thought it looked fun. And when else can you jump off a mountain and not die?
11.19.03 @ 10:22a