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Within Reach

Taking a trapeze class can elevate your senses—and your sense of possibility. It did for me.

As I took deep breaths under the desert sun, I blinked back tears. Why did I ever leave the sanctuary of my home in the Pacific Northwest? Some 10 feet above me, a kind woman with a soothing voice was trying to coax me up the last few rungs of a 23-foot ladder that I was clinging to like it was a life raft.

And maybe it was, because I felt completely lost. My stomach was in knots, and I tried not to look down as I inched up the ladder. Somehow, despite my fear of heights, I was convinced to don a harness and climb to a platform some two stories high—only to jump off it.

Although my lizard brain was urgently trying to convince me that I was in danger, I was only at trapeze school, taking a lesson at a Phoenix-area facility at the urging of a friend.

That was four years ago, and while Trapeze U, the Gilbert school I was visiting, closed not long after to look for a new location, today there are three other schools within an hour’s drive of Phoenix that offer classes on circus skills: I.FLY Trapeze at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, the Circus School of Arizona in Scottsdale, and Vertical Fix in Tempe. These courses, popular among locals and tourists alike, have been teaching novices how to reach new heights—after first conquering their fear of falling.

Although the year-round sunshine and the sense of adventure that come from living in cowboy country are certainly factors in the clustering of trapeze schools in the Valley of the Sun, interest in circus arts has been growing around the nation. Alastair Pilgrim, author of Discovering Flying Trapeze, says there are nearly 100 trapeze schools and camps in the U.S. and that the number has at least doubled in the last 10 years. The overall number of circus schools and programs is roughly 300, according to the American Circus Educators Association, with about 10 schools opening every year.

My class and others like it are designed to help rookies figure out the fundamentals of flying, get comfortable with the trapeze, learn to hang from your knees, and practice falling onto the giant net below. Some classes offer the choice to perform a wrist-to-wrist “catch” with one of the pros.

That’s if you can make it up the ladder.

I was far from the first person to panic before reaching the platform, according to Scottsdale trapeze enthusiast Dennis Ford. “Trapeze requires so many different aspects of the mind and the body. It’s as much in your head as anything else,” he explains.

Ford would know. At 64, he is one of the oldest regulars at I.FLY Trapeze, where he flies up to three times a week. A former ski instructor who has participated in mountain biking, triathlons, and ski races in the past, he’s no stranger to adrenaline sports. Even so, Ford considers trapeze “the coolest thing [he’s] ever done.”

“Flying trapeze is better than a righteous powder day skiing,” he says. Ford has an almost spiritual approach to the sport, having discovered it at 57 while on vacation.

“That first experience, it just lights you up. It’s unlike anything else,” he says. “It’s pure magic. You get a real feeling of accomplishment.”

His philosophical wisdom even makes me feel better about my mid-ladder meltdown. “I’m going to guess you felt fear, trepidation, and doubt. You’re not alone; everyone does. I still feel those things sometimes, even though I’ve flown for years,” Ford says. Overcoming that, he adds, is “this amazing ability that you nurture over time: the ability to control your mind as much as your body.”

Ford believes the mental training he receives from trapeze—his ability to empty his mind of self-doubt—has not just made him a better flyer; it’s also spilled into other aspects of his life. “We all get inside our heads. That’s where doubt and fears come from. We never perform our best in that state of mind, but if we can control that state of mind and that state of being, we would have no limits. Trapeze trains you to do that.”

To be successful, you must let go of not just the bar, but also your inhibitions and self-doubt.

While climbing up to the platform was a lot trickier than I anticipated, after a few stifled tears and an embarrassing amount of encouragement from staff, I eventually made it to the top.

Once I was up there, though, I felt a flicker of excitement. The fear remained—I was keenly aware of the vertigo-inducing height—but all my senses were charged. The sky was a perfect blue. My harness fit snugly, and below, my husband snapped pictures and gave me a thumbs-up. This was it.

I listened carefully to my trainer’s instructions. Although I had been briefed on the ground, up in the sky I wanted to make sure I understood everything clearly. Like most sports, trapeze has its own jargon. The instructors don’t just tell you to jump; they use phrases such as the Spanish word “listo” (ready) and the circus term “hep” (meaning “go”), the signal to jump off the platform while holding the trapeze bar.

There were three trainers on hand to literally show me the ropes: the soothing instructor next to me on the platform, a staff member on the ground holding emergency safety lines, and a third on the platform opposite me. I’m safe, I told myself, trying to ignore my somersaulting stomach.

When my instructor yelled “hep,” I told my body to jump—but it wasn’t listening. It turned out I had a strong instinct for self-preservation, and I froze. My instructor had to yell twice more before I finally leaped off the platform.

When I did, time seemed to stand still. I felt simultaneously strong and light. Without over-thinking it, I found myself following my instructor’s commands. I used the trapeze’s momentum to swing back and forth like Tarzan, and then lifted my legs onto the bar so I could hang upside down before tumbling onto the net in a slightly inelegant dismount.

I did it—and it didn’t hurt at all. In fact, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as I rolled off the net and headed back to join the rest of my class. In that moment, I had never been prouder of what my body could achieve.

With training, it’s possible to make significant progress—not just mentally but physically, too. After seven years on the trapeze, Ford now regularly performs stunts outside the safety lines (something reserved for experienced athletes) and hopes to be flying for years to come. “I don’t think many of us think we’ll find something totally, radically brand new in our mid-50s, and realize it’s the coolest thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m 75.”

Although Ford is an athletic guy, he insists anyone can try trapeze. He didn’t have a background in gymnastics or the circus when he started, and his skills have exceeded his wildest expectations. “If you have a little bit of strength, if you can just hang from a chin-up bar, then you can fly trapeze.”

Fellow Scottsdale resident Rachel Stegman is another passionate trapeze fan. As the owner of Circus School of Arizona, she teaches a range of aerial arts, including hoops, silks, and static trapeze, a form of trapeze that uses a stationary trapeze bar rather than a swinging one. Stegman says this kind of setup can be less intimidating for novices, although most tricks actually require more strength at the beginner level than a flying trapeze. Stegman also offers classes in other circus skills such as ground acrobatics.

Like Ford, Stegman discovered aerial acrobatics at a resort. Although she was only 8 years old at the time, she was hooked. “I was always the kid hanging off the monkey bars, so it was a perfect fit,” she says, laughing.

It turned out I had a strong instinct for self-preservation, and I froze. When I finally leaped, time seemed to stand still.

Stegman really did run off to join the circus after high school, training at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now Circus Center) before setting up her own school in 2007.

Since then, she has seen interest in aerial acrobatics grow, particularly in children. (That said, Stegman recently taught a woman in her 80s.) Circus School now offers youth camps, birthday parties, and private lessons, as well as lessons for teens and adults.

For beginners, she suggests joining an introductory class for a taste of four major circus skill sets: aerial acrobatics (including static trapeze and aerial silks); ground acrobatics (such as handstands); equilibristics (balancing skills such as walking on a rolling globe); and prop manipulation (such as juggling and plate spinning).

Aerial acrobatics is by far the most popular skill that Stegman teaches; however, she believes films such as The Greatest Showman and the popularity of Cirque du Soleil in nearby Las Vegas have helped bring all circus skills into the mainstream.

“For a long time, circus people wanted to seem awe-inspiring, and this kind of mysticism kept it away from the public,” she explains. “Of course, it takes time to become skilled. But it’s very attainable.”

I certainly wasn’t expecting to become a pro in my first lesson, but after a few swings, I was ready to step it up a notch—I wanted to try a catch. This involved pulling myself into the knee-hang position and then letting go of the bar mid-flight, in the hope that my partner would be there to grab my arms.

It’s truly an exercise of trust. To be successful, you must let go of not just the bar, but also your inhibitions, self-doubt, and, more than anything else, fear of falling. 

I wasn’t sure I could manage that, given the trouble I had even jumping on cue. But when the moment came, I leaped off the platform, got into position, and reached out instinctively in front of me, straining to feel for my partner’s arms.

“Gotcha!”

It was a beautiful moment. As our arms connected and I pulled away from the bar, I was free.

And maybe that’s the real appeal of trapeze. Beyond the showmanship and artistry, trapeze gives you a real sense of achievement in your first lesson. You learn to fly, for goodness’ sake. Getting out of my comfort zone—and for me, this was way out there—helped me realize that I am capable. I still have issues with heights. But I’m now more inclined to say “yes” when it comes to trying new adventures, from an intense black diamond ski run to a mountain scramble.

And beyond the adrenaline rush, I keep hearing about another benefit of trapeze from students and trainers alike: its restorative powers. Ford sees trapeze as a kind of meditation. His friend Melanie O’Donahue, 44, a scientist, started attending classes last year as a distraction from her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. She says the sense of empowerment that trapeze gives her has helped her cope.

Stegman says the circus transforms lives, providing a sense of home for those who feel they don’t fit in elsewhere. “You feel like a superhero,” she says. “There’s something about circus that builds your mood and self-esteem and touches you in so many ways.”

I’m not going to argue with her. Someday, I’ll climb the ladder again. This time, without tears.


Margaret de Silva is a writer in Vancouver, British Columbia. Email her at desilva.margaret@gmail.com.

Illustration by Michael Parkin/folio

Originally Published September 2018