The Wheee! Generation: Trapeze School
Put on some tights and fly.
SLIDE SHOW: The Wheee! Generation
Photographed by Olivier Laude
Trapeze school may not be in any how-to book of ways to face your fears, but it definitely belongs in a guidebook for thrill seekers who don't have the time or budget for paragliding. Twenty-two steps up a narrow ladder to a perch about 35 feet in the air is a quick way to start your heart pounding.
The thrill may be all the keener if you're outdoors in the spectacular hills of northern California's wine country, as I was. But these days, trapeze schools are not exclusive to resort areas, nor are they few and far between. Schools in colder climates have indoor spaces and move outdoors as weather permits. Others are like the circus -- they travel across the country.
Marek Kaszuba, who runs his own school on a private ranch near Sonoma, an hour north of San Francisco, has more than sixteen years of experience. So I chose to believe him when he urged us to smile, "because you'll be having fun." Flying through the air with the greatest of ease is his game, and he wants you to play. "If you can hold a broom," Kaszuba assures my beginners' group, "you can do this." There's no standard of age, weight, or physical condition. A toddler of sixteen months, an eighty-eight-year old man, and even a woman with cerebral palsy have all flown under his wing.
Credit: Olivier Laude
Ground instruction begins beneath a low-hanging swinging bar. Trapeze is all about timing, so we'll have to react to directives in a split second. "Treat us as you would a South American dictator," Kaszuba says. One by one, we jump up (with assistance) to the practice bar, then pull our legs up and over the bar in order to hang upside down. Hanging motionless, this position feels awkward, but Kaszuba reassures us that when you're aloft, it's all in using the swing -- momentum carries you.
We then move over to a trapeze rig set up among the trees. This is pretty much a replica of what you've seen at the circus. Well, except for the safety cables, the harness fastened around your waist and, of course, the reassuring net. The first swinger of our group, Bryan Yeung, has done this before, so he demonstrates for the rest of us. After climbing to the platform, he reaches for the swing held for him by the perch master. At "Ready," his knees bend. The next order, "Hep," is the signal to jump off the proverbial cliff. Fully outstretched, Yeung swings in a pendulum arc to the far side, while Kaszuba holds the safety lines. Yeung hooks his knees onto the swing and releases his hands so he's swinging upside down. On the next arc, Yeung returns to his original position, then releases his grip and falls into the net with a big bounce.
Getting the Hang of It:
Trapeze school is equal opportunity fun -- a high-flying learning experience for the author and for her four-year-old daughter, Parisa McGahan.
Credit: Olivier Laude
By the time my turn came, I had seen enough of my companions'attempts -- some more successful than others -- to realize the safety harness makes the action notably less risky than crossing a city street. In fact, once I took off on "Hep," the thrill of swinging out into space completely canceled out any trepidation.
In fairness, not everyone had the same reaction. A member of our beginners' group, pegged by Kaszuba as "a screamer" during our ground instruction, howled "Oh . . .my . . .God!" as she swung out over the net for the first time and never quite managed the upside down maneuver. On the other hand, my four-year-old daughter, Parisa, nonchalantly climbed to that high perch and happily jumped when told. What for me seemed a rather daring accomplishment was, for Parisa, just another day at the playground.
According to Kaszuba, placing people in situations of "controlled danger" helps them learn about fear, courage, and trust. His trapeze school conducts an Upward Bound Program for disadvantaged kids and teens, as well as abused women. He has seen timid children overcome fears and rebellious teens become cooperative.
Credit: Olivier Laude
Soon we were ready for a "catch." Kaszuba climbed to a swing across from the perch and gave us instructions from an inverted position. The object now was to end up hanging not from a trapeze but from the catcher's hands. This requires getting to a specific point in your swing at just the right time -- while hanging upside down. If our timing was off and we didn't make eye contact with Kaszuba, he'd slap our hands in "See ya!" fashion and we'd have to try again. I can proudly say that at least once my timing was right. After a few swings holding onto the catcher, I got the instruction to drop. And down I bounced, high on flying. I wasn't quite ready to run away with the circus, but that was fun. Really fun!