An unusual way to get a taste of the high life
A trapeze school in New York is receiving rave reviews from students who say they're learning how to stretch themselves.
Denise Wagner Furman stands on a small platform 23 feet above Manhattan's West Side. She waits a few moments while an instructor gives her final directions. She pauses, jumps off ... and flies. Moments later she hangs her knees over a metal bar. Loud applause breaks out.
"It was fabulous. It was just incredible," she exclaims once she has returned to earth. "I was doing something I never thought I would ever do as a 48-year-old two-time cancer survivor."
Ms. Furman is a first-time student at Trapeze School New York, located in Hudson River Park, about a mile north of Battery Park City and the Sept. 11 ground zero site. The driving force behind the school, which is in its second season, is Jonathon Conant, a former stuntman who first tried trapeze while vacationing at a Club Med.
To Mr. Conant, trapeze "flying" can alter attitudes and people's views on life.
"Your perspective on life changes, just like when you walk out of a symphony which has really stirred your soul," he says, sitting on the equipment box one recent spring evening. "You've experienced something so filled with elegance it changes how you look at the world."
The school opened last July, earning rave reviews from its students, not just for the instruction but also the location. The southward view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from this spot is spectacular, especially at sunset. The TriBeCa area, home to some of Manhattan's most exclusive restaurants and apartments, is directly across the street.
Walkers, cyclists, joggers, and inline skaters stop to watch the trapeze students perform. Applause from this impromptu audience is common. Even dogs gaze up at the "fliers."
The school's metal rig has four uprights, each 32 feet tall. A large safety net provides a soft spot for landings. Two "swings," the fly bar and the catch trap, hang from the rig. A stationary low bar is 10 feet off the ground near one end of the rig.
First, students practice tricks on the low bar. Once a student is in the air, a spotter shouts instructions to guide the flier as he or she attempts maneuvers.
The first trick for everyone is the knee hang, where a student hangs from the knees on the fly bar with hands dangling down.
Next, students move on to the knee-hang catch, in which, at the height of their swing, an instructor in the catch trap reaches for their hands and, when he grabs them, the student is one with the catcher, flying directly underneath. In a more advanced version, the catcher throws the student back toward the fly bar, which is then grabbed before the flier returns to the platform.
Other tricks include the split, a leg split over the fly bar, and the pullover shoot, in which the student "shoots" over the fly bar to the catcher.
Mastery of the tricks is secondary to the students' process of learning, says Conant. "We feel we have succeeded in a class if they learn something new about themselves, how to be more present in their bodies, and move through space with ease." A student's progress is monitored closely, and the instructors will not let students do tricks that they are not yet equipped to do.
Encouragement is always present. "There are no mistakes," Conant tells his students on a daily basis. "There is only learning."
Furman, an attorney in New York's Westchester County, came with her two teenage nephews, Zev and Ezra, both of whom have "flown" before.
Jonah Arcade, another attorney, is also a first-timer. The class is a gift from his girlfriend. He wanted to sample the feeling of flying. "It's not something you do every day," he says.
By the end of the session Mr. Arcade has accomplished his first knee hang. "You don't think you're going to be able to grab onto the bar, but if you listen to what the instructors tell you, it works," he says.
Twelve-year-old Anna Cage is in her second year as a student. She started trapeze flying last year in camp. The best part, she says, is when she lets go of the bar to reach for the catcher.
"Our job as trapeze professionals is to make impossible things possible for everyone," Conant says. "Helping people redefine their sense of what is possible is why I do this."
Anyone, age 6 and older, can participate in the school. Classes are limited to 10 students and sell out quickly. Fees range from $45 to $65 for a two-hour class, depending on the time of day. Classes will be held outdoors until the end of October. Then the school hopes to secure indoor space for the winter months.
Safety is the top priority and is maintained through use of harnesses and ropes. "Most important," says instructor Arlie Hart, "is making sure everyone has a good time safely. We are fortunate with trapeze because the safe way is also the right way to do things."
Students don harnesses and are attached to safety rope lines before they climb the ladder to the fly-bar platform. There, instructors hold the student by the harness, detach the ground lines, and attach flying safety lines. Once the student is in the air, a spotter controls - through the use of more safety lines - how the student falls or dismounts. This method, according to Conant, gives the school "absolute" control over a student's movements.
The late-afternoon sun is shining over the Hudson River. As her class breaks up, Furman considers her favorite moment. "There were so many," she says after a pause. "Watching my nephews get 'caught,' swinging in the Manhattan breeze - and pushing myself to a new limit."
"If you can fly on the trapeze, you can do anything," says Mr. Hart. "It's an incredible medium for self-growth. The worst day on trapeze," this former computer professional adds, "is better than the best day doing software design."
• For more information, see www.trapezeschool.com or call (917) 797-1872.