I have a long-standing love-hate relationship with high places. I can’t stay away from a good view, but I have a very active imagination when I’m up off the ground. Back when the glass elevator at the Fairmont was open to the public, I’d accompany friends on joyrides up to the restaurant and back, but I’d often have to face the doors. Once I get several stories high, I tend to run through all the worst possibilities: falling, jumping, watching someone else fall, etc. It’s not until after I’ve come down that I feel especially alive and less likely to take the rest of my ground-dwelling life for granted.
I’m always looking for creative ways to face this fear, though, so when I read about the single-day, introductory trapeze class at San Francisco Circus Center, I saw this as an opportunity to try to master my heights anxiety.
On the morning of my class, I arrive at the beautiful, drafty building that houses the San Francisco Circus Center and begin the day by signing a release form. I must take full legal responsibility for any unanticipated – but, let’s face it, likely – klutziness.
My group is fairly small: six women and one man. Two of the ladies have returned for the second round of a two-for-one intro deal. Scott Cameron, the instructor, has the focused, efficient look of someone who’s been ready to start this class for hours. “Do we have any former gymnasts in the room?” he asks us. A petite student raises her hand.
He summons her to a stationary bar seven feet from the ground, walking her through the basic movement we’ll soon be repeating on the flying trapeze 40 feet above us. At Scott’s prompting, she reaches up to grab the bar, arches her back, then brings up her legs so she’s eventually hanging on the bar by the back of her knees.
He then has her reverse the motions one by one, and the rest of us line up and follow suit. Since we’re stationary, the main point is to get us used to both the movements and to taking direction from Scott. Next, we do a quick practice run of the take-off scenario on a stack of gymnastic mats about a foot high. We reach out and imagine we’re grabbing the swinging trapeze bar. When Scott says, “Ready,” we bend our knees. When he says, “Hup,” we jump a foot to the ground, imagining we’re much higher. Then – a mere 15 minutes into the class – it’s time to climb up to the actual trapeze platform.
Scott’s assistant Christina dumps a pile of harnesses on the floor and we each strap one around our waist. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’d assumed there was a practice trapeze, closer to the ground. There isn’t.
The two-for-one girls climb up to the platform and swing out on the trapeze. As Scott calls out the movements, they ace them, making every action look easy. For a minute I think, “Maybe it is easy,” before the woman next to me brings me back to reality. As the other tall girl in the room, she asks if I’m worried about being able to bring my legs up to the bar while swinging through the air. I admit that the concern has crossed my mind, and she asks Scott, “What if we can’t do that right away?”
This is when we learn that Scott – who is beginning to remind me of a no-nonsense sports coach – dislikes questions. He avoids answering ours. “At this point all thinking, strategizing, etcetera, is worthless,” he says. “You just have to do it.”
Scott points out that cats, the most acrobatic household animal, have very small frontal lobes – the parts of their brains responsible for reasoning and planning. As a founding member of over-analyzer’s anonymous, dread rises in me like an oily Gulf Coast tide. Maybe it’s not too late to fake my period and sit the whole class out in the bleachers.
“Whatever you do, don’t stop on the ladder,” Scott says. Said ladder feels much flimsier than I’d like it to, but I follow his order and keep my eyes trained on the rung ahead of me. When I reach the top, where the ladder is attached by what looks like a very tiny bungee cord, I climb quickly onto a carpeted platform that is 10 inches deep and about three feet wide.
“I’m a little scared,” I whisper to the slight, Robert Pattinson-esque spotter, Jan. He ignores my cry for help, attaches a clip to either side of the harness around my waist, and chats about the teenage vampire series that shares my name. It’s as if we’re standing on a street corner, and not surrounded on all sides by a dramatic drop. Sure, there’s a net beneath us, but it looks pretty far down.
Jan places one side of the fly bar in one of my hands, while grabbing hold of my harness from behind. Then he asks me to lean over the platform’s edge to grab the other side of the bar with my other hand – meaning my center of gravity is now out over the net. I pause longer than I’m supposed to, and Jan lets me take an extra big breath. But when he says, “Hup,” I jump. At this point, I’m more afraid of standing here looking scared than I am of leaping off the narrow platform.
Swinging on the trapeze is elating, but before I can take in where I am, Scott tells me to bring my legs up to the bar. I follow his commands, but my timing isn’t great. I’m thinking too much about falling. After I’ve swung upside down and brought my legs back down to hang, he says, “Hup” one more time and I land on the net in a sitting position. This last part is pretty awesome. How often do you get to fall into a giant net?
I take a few more turns, my timing getting better with each round – but then I notice that the other students are improving much faster than I am. Even the tall girl is surprisingly good! It’s soon readily apparent that I’m at the bottom of the class.
Christina starts applying various rationales in the pep talks she gives me as she acts as my spotter. “Two of the students have been here before,” she reminds me. “And everyone else is doing unusually well.” When we’re told to try the basic trapeze sequence on our own timing, I do better than I have so far, and Christina comments that perhaps I just have difficulty taking orders. Later, I freeze up at a key moment, missing my chance for Jan to catch me, and Christina says, “It’s usually only three out of eight who get the timing right to do that.” It doesn’t help me that in this class, that statistic has become seven out of eight.
While I’m on the trapeze, I am totally engrossed in the moment – much too focused to care how I rank among a group of strangers. I also start to feel less daunted by the height of the platform, which was one of my big goals. But when I’m on the ground, watching the other students look like naturals, my competitive nature comes creeping back.
To make myself feel better, I start to imagine all the people I know who would be doing a worse job than I am now. I try to give myself credit for showing up, and for making myself climb the ladder in the first place. But it doesn’t help much. The fact is, I’m one of those people who hate not being good at things.
As the class wraps up and I begin favoring the knee I didn’t bang up in an embarrassingly early dismount, Scott tells me I should come back for another class. “It seems like you might have some unfinished business here,” he says.
“You bet I do,” I answer, vowing to return and be as good as the two-for-one girls. As the adrenaline starts to wear off, I realize how far I’ve pushed myself, even if I haven’t exactly discovered a hidden talent for the trapeze arts. Glass elevators of the world, here I come.
If you’re both acrophobic and a tad masochistic, flying trapeze lessons are the thing for you! The San Francisco Circus Center has three introductory classes a week. Plan ahead: they’re $42 a pop, limited to eight people at a time, and require a phone reservation; the weekend morning sessions fill up at least a week in advance. Oh, and go light on breakfast beforehand; chances are good you’ll be hanging by your knees within minutes.