Learning a new trick on the trapeze

When I turned sixty-five, I promised myself a year full of adventures. So here I am on a Saturday afternoon at a trapeze lesson, secure knowing I have a Medicare card in my wallet.

When I was ten years old I was enamored of a pink woman flying on a trapeze, swinging high in the far-away peak of a circus tent, dangling by her knees as I gasped below. For the last fifty-five years I dreamed it was possible for me to do that.

I walk into Canopy studio and get acquainted with the space where I might make a fool of myself. For $15, I take this introductory class as a “drop in.” I prevaricate on the registration form, not mentioning the back surgery I had three years earlier. I do not want the whole series of lessons. I want to hang by my knees as I swing on a trapeze – once.

We gather in a large airy space, the floor covered in thick blue mats. Sixteen trapezes hang from, hopefully, sturdy roof beams. No net. Although advertised as a beginners’ adult lesson only two of the twenty-six students are over college age. I try not to act like a scared senior citizen.

We begin by standing barefoot in a circle, describing our experience in gymnastics, trapeze, and dance. When I say that my last experience in gymnastics was in 1960, there is a sharp intake of breath across the circle.

To my right, a punk-haired fellow in a tank top shows off his massive biceps and abs. A tiny black tire decorates a huge hole in one ear. Glittering on his face are silver piercings in his eyebrows, lip, and nose. “This is my second round of lessons,” he says. To my left is an adorable and petite freshman named Tracy, who says she has no experience of any kind. I feel grandmotherly toward her. We partner up.

The school director is middle aged but in fabulous shape. She leads us in a killer warm-up. My knees quiver as we wind up twenty minutes of yoga-with-attitude.
Our three instructors have no stomach whatsoever. I wonder what they use to digest their food. I have never – not even in high school – had strong stomach muscles. Two abdominal surgeries have not helped. My hope for survival today rests on strong arms and legs.

All the trapezes are lowered waist high. Tracy and I take turns sitting and swinging on the trapeze. It is much like sitting on a playground swing but instead of a flat board, we sit on a wooden rod the size of a broomstick.

For once, being well-padded is an advantage.

Then we both stand on one trapeze facing each other, her feet between mine. Tracy and I alternate hanging back by our arms while the other stands straight, eventually getting a nice swing going.

Next trick (that is what they call each new position) is hanging by our knees on the trapeze while neck and hands touch the mat beneath us. I ace that trick. So does Tracy, but she confesses that she had many years’ experience on a jungle gym. . . Recent experience.

Then comes the trick I both fear and crave. Trapezes are re-hung higher: above our heads. We are to grab the bar in our hands, bring up our legs, slip our feet between our arms and the rod into a pike position with legs parallel to the ground. Then hang by our knees.

My non-existent stomach muscles fail to pull my feet anywhere north of the floor. With help I get my left big toe on the bottom of the bar. From there I struggle a toe at a time until both feet are pushing against the bar. While in that awkward pose I notice it has been a long time since I shaved my legs.

I am able to perform the pike with my hairy legs and pointy toes roughly parallel to the ground. Then I hang by my knees, far above the floor. . . Well, a few feet above the floor. I end the trick hastily, not having the stomach muscles to unwind with graceful control. Tracy says, “Great job. I don’t think my mother could do that.”
I am proud of myself and satisfied.

Our last activity requires only arm strength. Three trapezes are left hanging above our up-stretched arms. I can reach the bar when I stand on my toes and jump up. We are to hang from our arms, swing in a wide arc, come back, and then drop with bent knees onto the mat.

One of the instructors says, “Pretend you’re a pirate with a parrot on each shoulder. Don’t squash the parrots. Keep your shoulders down and your arms wide.”
The fellow with the big biceps and the tire in his ear runs up to the middle trapeze, swings from one wall to the next, then goes into a knee hang. All three teachers yell, “No hanging upside down.”

I do as well as anyone else. My strong arms take the brunt of the pull. I swing, do a few dance moves with my legs, and get down with a bit of grace. I am very proud of myself for trying but Cirque du Soleil can do without me.

The other older woman and I both walk out of the school unaided. That counts.

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