Swing and a Prayer

The flying trapeze can be an aerial assault of awesome if you don’t let it go to your head.

By Matthew Halverson August 17, 2010 Published in the September 2010 issue of Seattle Met

IF I’M BEING completely honest, the whole thing made me sick. All the swinging back and forth, the hanging upside down by my knees while swinging back and forth, the clumsy little back flips off the bar, the clumsier little front flips off the net—why it didn’t occur to me that the flying trapeze’s unique cocktail of aerial intoxicants might lighten my head and turn my stomach is beyond me.

Actually, no. I do know why. It was all Brian Flint’s fault. Flint is an instructor at Emerald City Trapeze Arts and a former Cirque du Soleil performer, and he’s been doing his domesticated Tarzan-of-the-high-bar thing for 15 years. In other words, he’s the kind of guy you listen to if you’re scheduled for semitethered flying lessons in 24 hours. The only problem is that, when I talked to him in June, he went out of his way to fill my head with reasons to not be scared, even though I wasn’t. And that scared me.

“The first time people walk in and see the structure, they think, Wow, that’s intimidating,” Flint said, which begged the question, Uh, how high is the platform? (Twenty-four feet!) “It becomes an experience where people overcome a lot of stuff that’s going on inside them,” he explained, which is just a nice way of saying, Prepare to soil your shorts, bro. “We’re not in the scary business. We’re in the fun business,” he reassured me twice, which was just—oh come on, man. Are you trying to freak me out?

So no, I wasn’t considering the potential for epic waves of flight-induced nausea when I walked into the converted boiler plant in SoDo where ECTA has offered classes in circus arts since last December. I was too busy gawking at the massive trapeze rig that seems to take up the entire Catholic-church-meets-log-cabin building and sweating what Flint expected me to do: swing by my hands from a bar two stories off the ground, throw my legs over it and hang upside down, and then allow an instructor to hurtle at me on a similar bar from the other side of the structure to yank me off by my forearms. (By the way, in lieu of a traditional handshake—and in a nod to that maneuver—Flint greets you by grasping the inside of your wrist.) Circus folk call that a “catch,” and according to Flint it’s “the adrenaline shot that we’re giving people that brings them back.” You know, assuming they overcome that stuff—fear of death, maybe?—that’s going on inside them.

And make no mistake, that opportunity to exorcise emotional demons is what the flying trapeze is all about. There are physical benefits—specifically for your shoulders and abs—but even Flint admits that it’s more suitable as a complement to a traditional workout regimen. So unless you’re looking to learn enough tricks to make good on that childhood threat of running off to join the circus, it’s really an exercise in learning to literally let go.

After some warm-up stretches that did nothing but give me more time to contemplate the platform’s height (in case you forgot: 24 feet!), a brief tutorial on the physics of flying (maneuvers are performed at the ends of the pendulum swing, where you’re virtually weightless), and assurances that I’d be secured to at least one safety line from the moment that I stepped onto the ladder to the moment I dismounted the trapeze bar and landed in the net, it was time to climb.

Oh god, that climb: 23 rungs on a ladder that couldn’t have been wider than a cinder block and that shuddered a little with each step, and 15 seconds of staring straight ahead as I ascended because the task that awaited me up above was just as threatening as the void down beneath me.

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Quite the swinger Emerald City Trapeze Arts owner Gary Kirkland picked up the sport four years ago.

But then something funny happened.

Whether it was adrenaline, an unconscious acceptance of the inevitable, or the fear of wussing out in front of the cute instructor who was waiting up there to—I’m just guessing here—toss me overboard if I couldn’t do it myself, I cowboyed up. Stepped to the edge of the platform, hooked my toes over the edge, and gripped the bar when she handed it to me. Bent my knees when she called out, “Ready,” and jumped when she barked, “Hep!”

No matter how prepared you are, that initial drop is bracing. It sucks the wind out of your lungs, lasts just long enough for you to question why you jumped in the first place, and produces so much downward momentum that when you reach the bottom of the arc you feel two-and-a-half times heavier than you really are. And coupled with the constantly shifting horizon, it makes concentrating on Flint’s instructions from below (“Legs up, knees over the bar!”) challenging. But I’d be lying if I said it isn’t exhilarating. This is what a yo-yo feels like.

I didn’t complete a catch. Didn’t even attempt one. Flint estimates that seven out of 10 first-timers pull it off (or, more accurately, get pulled off), but the motion sickness sidelined me after my fifth solo swing. But just like he promised, I overcame some stuff along the way—namely the irrational fear that comes from taking an instructor’s lighthearted, well-intentioned comments too seriously.

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