First appeared in Sunday Telegraph.
There is no easy way of jumping from a thirty foot platform and swinging through the air like Tarzan. Not for me anyway, who, at 33 years old, has only spent a few days in a pseudo-jungle a decade ago without a trapeze in sight. Of course I had dreamt of possessing natural talent but my first attempt at this renowned circus act is humbling. Firstly, I squeal like a cat with a crushed paw. Secondly, I later realised, watching the obligatory video (to be uploaded to social media later – or not, perhaps, in my case.) my legs were less elegantly together with toes pointed and more dragged behind me like reluctant accessories.
But, I’m sure I’m not alone. Since they launched in 2009, Gorilla Circus, whose staff make up the only actively performing flying trapeze troupe in the UK, has been in most of the London Parks and introduced over 5000 people to the beauty of trapeze. I’m assured by the few I know who’ve flown with them that the men and women who run the rig now resident in Regents Park for the summer, are as prepared for tentative beginners like me as they are the many keen gymnasts and trampolinists who decide to make trapeze their new hobby.
And so our two hour class begins. It is a beautiful, sunny Wednesday afternoon. I think how thrilling it is to know that, somewhat incongruously, millions of Londoners work at computers in offices nearby. Still, I’m terrified. I know of course that the danger is mostly in my own head, since in every instance safety comes first – before a fall, in fact – as Gorilla Circus staff member, James (who tells me he used to work in I.T. before he realised that ‘trapeze was loads more fun’) will control our harness, slowing us down and thus manipulating the position in which we land.
On my first try I manage just to swing and scream. On the second try I attempt to elevate my knees as we have practiced on another hanging rail far closer to the ground and with a crash mat beneath. But it’s not until the third attempt that I properly manage the ‘knees up and over the bar’ trick that leaves me upside down and swinging through the air.
But being assured that I won’t land on my head does little to stop the adrenalin rush. According to Gorilla Circus marketing manager, Jen, trapeze can cure fear of heights. Yet my long-standing vertigo is tenacious. On my first try I manage just to swing and scream. On the second try I attempt to elevate my knees as we have practiced on another hanging rail far closer to the ground and with a crash mat beneath. But it’s not until the third attempt that I properly manage the ‘knees up and over the bar’ trick that leaves me upside down and swinging through the air. On the fourth, I’m encouraged to yell “YOLO” [you only live once] before leaping off the platform with committment. I tuck my knees under and this time brave the disorientating ‘hands off and reach behind’ manoeuvre. In my case more of a tentative wave; I don’t extend my arms and smile as every single other person in the class has, but quickly slam my hands back on the bar and grip for my life…
Is it a failed attempt? Maybe, but no matter. In that single minute, something has changed: I have overcome fear and turned it, quite literally, upside down. Immediately afterwards however, knees now off the bar and my body back in a straight line, I am so overwhelmed that I can’t execute the next part.
“Legs back, forward and let go!” Yells James. The momentum created is supposed to allow me to backward somersault off the trapeze, but right now all I can manage is to let go and flop.
Unsurprisingly I’m not picked out as competent enough to attempt the last part of the class: the catch. Instead I watch and marvel as a lean, blond ex-gymnast called Shane climbs up (without a harness) to a trapeze from which he then hangs upside down in mid air.
“Ready!” He yells, as another member of our class swings off, puts their knees on the bar and then tries to reach behind and be ‘caught’ by Shane so that they can swing from his hands.
I watch, aghast, as he catches some and drops others (who fall safely on their fronts) who don’t fully extend and trust …
Circus legend has it that you fall in love with the person who catches you for the first time. But there’s no romance here for me today – in fact my first encounter with trapeze is far more meaningful than love at first sight, and my feelings about it swing as freely as the contraption itself. At points I feel freer than I have for decades – remembering the joy of childish play. At other times I curse the hateful invention and my own intrigue with the unknown, both of which have brought me face to face with fear. But every time I land, via another stomach lurch, on the soft netting below, I am a slightly different – braver, stronger, more confident – person from the one who gingerly climbed the narrow ladder.
Fear aside, almost anybody can try beginner trapeze – the weather is the most likely thing to stop playtime actually – provided they have the basic level of grip and upper body strength required to hang on to the bar and get your knees over it (if you want to go upside down). Gorilla Circus’s courses are full of office workers who have shunned a regular training environment to sneak out on a summer evening and learn to fly. One woman in our class, a returnee, suggests trapeze is literally the most exciting thing she has done in her life, quickly following it up with a plea that I don’t mention her name or tell her husband. By the end of my first session, I can begin to understand why at least. Here you can train yourself to risk without much fear of actual danger. From there, great leaps are made – mental and emotional – in a relatively short time. There are physical benefits too, of course. When it’s done very regularly, trapeze is a whole-body workout, as the slender, defined physiques of our instructors demonstrate: flying helps with spatial and body awareness, as well as working the abdominals, shoulders (rotator cuff in particular), bottom and thigh muscles just as much as any gym class, whilst being a whole lot cooler too.
TRAPEZE AROUND THE UK – WHERE TO FIND
Gorilla Circus – London
Gorilla Circus trapeze classes take place in summer for 2 hours in Regents’ Park every afternoon (£24) and evening (£27) during the week and from 9am-9pm at weekends (£28). Maximum 10 people in each class with weekly courses available too. Also appearing in Hyde park 22-25th June
Out of the Blue – Edinburgh
An indoor venue with trapeze and aerial silks skill workshops and classes available, starting at £15, taught by All of Nothing (http://www.aerialdance.co.uk/) and Strangebird Zircus (http://www.strangebirdzirkus.com)
Aerial Edge – Glasgow
It’s not just flying trapeze but also acrobalance, trampolining, hooping, parkour, handstand and circus fitness classes amongst many others that are available at Aerial Edge’s two Glasgow locations. Prices start at £48 for a 6 class pass.
Circomedia – Bristol
All abilities can attend flying trapeze classes outside on Tuesdays 7-10pm or half-day sessions on Sundays 1.30-4pm, both £25
– By Lucy Fry