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My quest for aerial grace

"Is it worse to be scared than to be bored?" Gertrude Stein's famous question screamed at me as I mounted the ladder of a flying trapeze rig for the first time.

Whenever I rose more than six inches, vertigo struck, accompanied by sweaty palms. Ennui was equally unacceptable and triggered a similar response. So far I had led a life that actively avoided fear and boredom. But perched on a small wooden plank, 25 feet in the air, I cursed my thrill- seeking ways.

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My quest for aerial grace took me to the backyard of former circus star Richie Gaona in Woodland Hills, Calif. Thankfully he wasn't wearing sequined tights when he greeted me. Richie trains all levels of fliers in a relaxed atmosphere, where beginners receive plenty of encouragement. Similar schools are cropping up across the United States because of the trapeze's increasing popularity and a "Sex and the City" episode that featured Jonathon Conant's Manhattan school.

The sport attracts an eclectic mix of people, from shirtless jocks who have discovered the joys of trapeze flying at Club Med, to the descendants of Russian circus royalty. Newcomer Allison Sie says her interest grew from a scene in the 1956 film "Trapeze," when Burt Lancaster kisses Gina Lollobrigida upside down, in midair.

My lofty ambitions soared after witnessing a Lincoln Center performance of the French troupe, Les Arts Sauts. The company abandoned predictable circus theatrics and replaced the traditional drumroll with a cello player and an opera singer, giving the spectacle an ethereal quality.

I wanted to be them, the entire agile company, floating with effortless beauty. Instead I was a blustery maladroit, forced off the plank by a Fabio look-alike. I remember nothing about the flying part, only releasing into the net, where Richie greeted me with a grin and a high five.

I was shaking. But for reasons still unknown, I asked to mount the ladder again. I was fortunate. Other first-time fliers have reacted with high-pitched squealing that ceased only upon a safe landing. Certain inductees have said they experienced a spiritual catharsis and sobbed uncontrollably after their initial swing.

The day after, as I mentally played back my beginner's trick, the knee-hang, I realized I was hooked. No wonder the Trapeze School of New York adopted the motto: "Forget fear. Worry about the addiction."

A Frenchman, Jules Léotard, gets the blame for my obsession. He wowed Parisian audiences in 1859 with the first-ever trapeze performance, although his skin-tight pants could be held responsible for the crowd's adulation.

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Lyricist George Leybourne honored Léotard's triumph by penning "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1868: "He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze...." Leybourne probably found it easier to rhyme "ease" with "trapeze" rather than "leotard," Monsieur Jules's other famous invention.

Tito Gaona, a modern aerial hero, grabbed the audience's attention when, in 1964, he was the first to complete a triple somersault before reaching a catcher. He outdid himself a few years later by performing the same trick blindfolded.

Tito now teaches trapeze at schools in Florida and Massachusetts. His motto: "Don't just see the circus, be the circus." He imparts confidence and self-esteem to his students in a safe environment. Blindfolds are not allowed.

All schools require novices to use safety harnesses. Newcomers wear comfortable belts attached to ropes threaded through the rig and controlled by a spotter on the ground. The spotter ensures a smooth landing into the net. A more skilled flier might wear grips to protect his or her hands.

After five years of flying, I'm still scared every time I step onto the ladder. But now I'm fully aware of the sensation of springing off the platform, holding myself, and shooting into space.

My fright vanishes, life's inanities are transcended, and a vision of Gertrude Stein appears in a sequined costume, applauding every swing.


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