back to the Black Table
           
  THE CLASSROOM IN THE SKY, WHERE FALLING IS FAILING.  
   
  found myself hanging by the knees, swinging upside down, arching my creaking spine, reaching out plaintively, clawing the air, waiting -- praying -- to be caught. At the apex of my swing, there he was -- the catcher -- stretching out to me from the height of his own arc. We grasped briefly, his strong, supple fingers wrapping around my wrists for a split second before disaster struck.  
 

 

"No!" he cried tartly, casting off my grip and swinging away. Startled, my knees instinctively unlocked from the trapeze, sending me hurtling face-first into the net below. Never before had personal rejection had such immediate physical consequences -- the post-turndown crash was no longer metaphorical. At trapeze school, the failure to properly connect really is a spectacle unto itself, though at least there's a sympathetic audience.

Trapeze School New York has ignited a mini-frenzy among jaded Manhattanites. TSNY's sophomore flying season (they relocated to Manhattan last year from upstate New York) has attracted hordes of urbanites, hipsters, and celebs from lists A through D, as well as regular visits from location scouts. Sex and the City, Al Roker, and numerous news crews and reality dating shows have all filmed segments there in the last month.

 

 
 

If circus was high school, acrobats are the jocks. But TSNY provides the chance to rise above it all and repudiate your inner geek, both literally and figuratively. Some live out their circus fantasies by taming lions or elephants, but aerial acts combine macho cool and athletic grace. The thrill of disaster that comes when a team of acrobats fall from the sky is no different than a multi-car pileup at a NASCAR race.

TSNY is set on the narrow strip of Manhattan shoreline called Hudson Park. Should you manage to fling yourself off the trapeze and over the fence, your options are splashdown in the Hudson River or landing amidst traffic on the West Side Highway.

LEARN TO FLY.

Students and instructors mill around and stretch in the summer sun before the two-hour session. Among this group of ten students, we have Mike and Laura, who've done this before and have experience in the gym. There's another Laura, also a gymnast, and two Japanese couples who speak limited English.

Our first instructor, David, lines us up next to the practice bar, so we can "get comfortable" with the trapeze. This involves grabbing an eye-level trapeze and hanging there for a moment, until David commands you to curl up, hook your knees on the bar, let go with your hands, and then arch your back and reach upward and behind you as if grabbing at an imaginary incoming trapezeist.

"Do it like Superman!" barks David, assuming the classic superhero-flying pose. Then he whips his hands around like an effete spastic warding off a hallucination. "And don't try any of that fancy Cirque du Soleil crap. Just reach!"

When I assume the "knee hang" position on the practice bar and begin arching my

 
 

back, David prods the small of my back and yells out, "Higher! Farther!" I bend perhaps five degrees and feel my vertebrae begin to fuse.

"That's as far as it goes," I grunt. The other students titter. I wonder if I'm about to get a Full Metal Jacket-style dressing down, but David just laughs coldly.

"That's as far as it goes now," he corrects.

We get some very quick instruction on how to strap ourselves into the safety harness. Instructor David is friendly and garrulous, a sinewy lemur of a man who looks like a natural acrobat. His orange-tanned comrade Jack is a bit more brashly caustic and has a more stumpy physique. The elder statesman of the instructors, Rick, is a beefy, grim guy who is by far the scariest of them. The three will alternate: one works the safety harness on the ground, one runs the platform up above, and a third will eventually serve as catcher.

Our first task is just to repeat what we did on the practice bar -- hang, knees up, hands off -- only this time we start by jumping off the platform. To get there, you must climb up the tippy aluminum construction ladder, fight off your traumatic experience falling off a similar ladder when you were seven and inch your way to the trapeze platform. Looks easy. Feels much more terrifying.

WHAT IT'S LIKE.

Once on the platform, there's no time for fear, however. There's so much to do. You have to twist your way around various ropes and struts, comply with Jack's instructions, and remember the drill: jump, swing, knees up, hands off, etc. As you lean forward and off the platform, grasping the trapeze and waiting for the command to go, Jack holds the back of your safety belt so you won't fall into the net. It's a bizarre feeling, like you're about to receive some terrifying new kind of wedgie.

"Hep!" shouts the man on the ground, which is the cue. "Hep!" is universal aerialist lingo for "Go!" or "Start!" or "So long, sucker!" The trapeze platform is a humble 25 feet in the air, which doesn't sound like much until you're falling off it, or cracking your head on a pole or strangling in one of the cables. There's also the matter of executing your knee hang flawlessly.

Swinging on a trapeze is like your third-grade swingset times ten, and the surge of childish adrenaline makes you giddy. It's surprising how easy it is (at first) to flip your legs up and swing by your knees, which looks and feels impressive and slick. Since TSNY is in a park with a major jogging, biking, and walking path alongside, little crowds of gawkers are constantly stopping to watch quietly, applaud, or moan sadly as appropriate. Tacky as it sounds, you want to entertain the audience even at this most basic trapezeing level. And after the knee hang, we even get to do a back flip down into the net, which makes one feel accomplished far beyond any actual skill.

BILL BUCKNER ON THE TRAPEZE BAR.

Now it's time to try catching. Or more correctly, attempting to be caught. It's ostensibly the same as the knee hang, except that instead of the back flip into the net, you stretch out to get your wrists grabbed by the catcher, who's swinging in tandem on his own trapeze in front of you.

Four other students are dropped when I climb the rickety ladder, choke back the crippling fear and grab the trapeze. After four failures, the tension is palpable, even to the park-side gawkers. Each misconnection draws a round of "oooooohs" as the student falls to the net.

Even so, I'm convinced I can do it. Here's Jack, telling me to chalk up my wrists. There's David on the other trapeze. I grab the bar and lean out, Jack has me in the safety wedgie, and time slows down. Adrenaline has me giddy, even though it's my sixth time on the platform. "Ready," chirps David, rotating down as he swings to hang by his legs. "Hep!"

I jump up and off the platform, nearly dragging Jack with me. Swing forward. I start pulling my legs up to hook my knees on the bar. Swing back. "Knees up!" shouts David. Somehow I manage to comply. I catch a glimpse of the underside of the platform as I start to come out of the curl. Swing forward. "Hands out!" yells David urgently. I'm behind on the pacing, but I can make it. Arch back, head back, hands up. There's David! He slaps his hands on my wrists! He's got me!

"Ooooooooooh," groan the onlookers as David hurls me to the net. I can't believe it. We were right there, man, and he let me down, quite literally. As I pick my face out of the net and stagger to the edge, David above tells me to arch back further, keep my hands up, not to grab. Jack piles on from the platform, complaining about my too-high jump-off and how I almost took him down too. If only it were so, I think darkly.

Rick has that I'm-not-angry-just-disappointed thing going on, impassive behind his shades. "You know what you were doing wrong," he intones, attempting to get me to incriminate myself.

I plead ignorance. "Hands," he says unhelpfully.

"Okay," I reply. "Hands, where? My hands? At what point?"

Rick sighs. I have shamed the circus family. "Your hands were out like this." Rick holds his meat-hooks in the air, then wiggles them as if he's trying to dry nail polish. "They should be like this," he continues, adopting the rigid Superman pose.

About a third of TSNY's students return for more classes. Less than half that advance to the intermediate level of skill, with only about five percent attaining true Jedi levels of trapeze mastery. Others never quite take the leap, unable to climb the ladder and unwilling to swing off the trapeze platform.

Finally humbled by my own mediocrity, it was time to go. Fittingly, when I shook David's hand after class ended, my thumb accidentally slipped inside his grasp, leaving him with a handshake just as awkward as the one we'd attempted in mid-air. "We'll try and get you caught next time!" he enthused with maximum cheer and minimum sincerity. It was the easiest let down I'd had all day.

 

*BT*