Learning to fly with the greatest of ease


By Robin Hindery

It was 11:20 on a Wednesday morning, and I was standing on a small rectangular platform 23 feet in the air, shivering and hoping for divine intervention.

It sounds like a bad dream but it was perfectly real: my day at trapeze school.

There are few places in New York City where you can find teenage adrenaline junkies, businessmen and old women all pleading for mercy as they prepare to attempt something called a “knee-hang,” but the Trapeze School of New York is one of them. Opened in 1999 in Upstate New York, and moved to its current Hudson River Park location in Tribeca in July of 2002, the school has attracted the brave, the curious and the foolhardy to its two-hour lessons at $45-$55, and was even featured on a recent episode of “Sex and the City.”

For me, the biggest pull was the pursuit of that feeling of strength — of being truly alive — that only pushing my limits can inspire. I hadn’t felt that since I completed a 10-day Outward Bound backpacking program over a year ago, and I missed the sense of accomplishment, of pride, of adventure. The school’s motto, “Forget fear — worry about the addiction,” sounded like just the thing to give my life a jolt.

So there I was, scowling at the grey, cloudy sky, and looking around anxiously to see who would be sharing the time slot with me that day. One by one, the others showed up. There were six novices, including myself, and we quickly separated ourselves from five women who were regulars back to work on new skills, chatting and laughing with no sign of apprehension.

We hated them immediately.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if a nice, rousing game of table tennis wouldn’t perhaps be a better idea, a tall, thin man in spandex pants that left little to the imagination came bounding over to our group and told us he would be our main instructor. His name was Jason Cookum, he was really excited to get us up onto that platform, and he assured us that “just listening” was the key to pulling off any trick on a trapeze.

Now we hated Jason, too.

Things started off slowly, like a train pulling out of the station, but then the class started moving at full speed. After practicing a knee-hang on the stationary training bar hanging about seven feet above the ground, Jason decided we were definitely ready for the real thing.

Did I mention that Jason was an evil man?

The basic trapezing process unfolds as follows: First you attach your harness to a rope hanging down from the platform, and you climb a ladder that seems a lot taller and scarier once you’re no longer on the ground. Then once you reach the platform, you unattach the rope as one of the instructors reattaches your harness to a new rope attached to the various safety catches controlled by an instructor at ground level. These first steps are easy, except for the fact that it is then beginning to dawn on you that you are being prepped for actual trapeze swinging.

Next, much to your probable dismay, you are told that it is time. “Time to climb back down?” you ask, hopefully.

The instructors don’t seem to realize you’re not joking.

While holding on to the platform bar with your left hand, you stick your hips out, and reach for the trapeze bar. Then the instructor grabs the back of your harness and tells you to let go with your left hand and grab the trapeze, at which point you are leaning out over the edge at an almost 45-degree angle, wondering how “safe” the safety net below really is.

The last step before flying, as those in the trapeze world like to call it, is what has come to be your least favorite noise in the universe: “Hep!” This three-letter word brings to mind various four-letter words, and it signals you to jump lightly off the platform and take flight.

What comes next can only be described as magical. If you hop when they “hep,” you’ll discover, as I did, a feeling like none other — a blend of power and total helplessness, of soaring and floating, of exhilaration and utter disbelief.

Of course, while I was basking in the glory of having gone against every ounce of commonsense I had in jumping off the platform, I completely forgot about the knee-hang, and instead just swung back and forth until I lost momentum. This wasn’t a textbook first-time performance by any means, but as I dropped into the net I felt like running around the block, fists in the air, Rocky-style. Instead I just sat on the bench, beaming so hard my cheeks began to ache.

The group proceeded one by one, practicing knee-hangs and fancy dismounts (such as a back-tuck flip into the net) for the next hour, and then Jason and the other instructors decided who had performed well enough to try a catch.

As they pointed at me, I was half-proud and half-nauseated. I mean, I had done well on the basics, but catches required not only jumping off the platform, but also leaping off the trapeze into the arms of another person! Now not only our bravery, but also our trust issues were being put to the test, and I felt suspiciously like I was in therapy.

All of the skills I had been practicing had to come together in order to make a successful forearm-to-forearm catch. I decided that in order to keep from bursting into tears, I had to avoid all thoughts of my own. Suddenly, Jason’s advice about “just listening,” didn’t seem so absurd after all.

“Don’t let me die!” I yelled to Jason as he mounted the trapeze facing mine.

He laughed, but made no promises.

At the peak of the first swing, the instructor on the ground yelled, “Knees up!” and I slid my bare feet between my hands and hooked the backs of my knees over the bar. When she yelled, “Hands off!” I let go and stretched my arms out in front of me in a Superman pose, straining to close the distance between myself and Jason, who was racing toward me on his own trapeze, ready to try the catch.

Before I could let my better judgment take over, my knees were unhooked, and I felt Jason’s hands lock onto my forearms with a strength that assured me he wasn’t letting go until I was ready. The cheers of my classmates down below filled the air, and all I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again as we swung back and forth.

“No need to thank Him,” Jason said with a laugh. “That one was all you.”

As I left the Trapeze School that day and walked toward the Uptown subway, I ignored the puzzled stares my chalk-smeared clothes and bruised knees attracted, and I resisted the urge to ask every passerby if they could say they had nailed a knee-hang or conquered a catch.

Instead I just smiled, that “all’s-right-with-the-world” smile that comes from making yourself proud and being reminded of what your body and mind are capable of. I had learned to let go, as scared as I was, and because of that I was able to fly.

“Hep,” “hep,” hooray!