“She flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young girl on the flying trapeze.” Okay, so I’m not exactly a young girl anymore, but I did take a trapeze class last weekend at TSNY Chicago. The greatest of ease part is probably debatable.
We decided to take the family to Chicago for a quick two-day getaway. Summer is drawing to a close and the weekends have been busy with one thing or another, but one August weekend miraculously demanded nothing from us, so we went on a little adventure. I picked out a historic old hotel to stay in (Congress Plaza Hotel), I booked us on a Lake Michigan fireworks boat cruise on Saturday night, and then asked my husband if I could book three spots in trapeze school for me and the kids Sunday morning. He said no.
I never planned to ask my husband if he wanted to join us in the school. He has a fear of heights, so much so that standing on a chair is an activity that makes him uncomfortable. The platform for the trapeze is 23 feet off the ground via a ladder, which I knew he’d never be able to do. So, I figured I would go some other time with friends and we would find different Chicago adventures for this trip.
I was still looking forward to our upcoming weekend in Chicago, despite not getting to do the trapeze. I had golf with my girlfriends Tuesday night and came home to the family that evening and the first thing I heard when I opened the door was my daughter yelling down the stairs to me, “Mom, I want to do the trapeze!”
“Why did you tell her about it if you said we couldn’t do it?” I asked my husband. I never bring up activities with my kids until I’m actually sure they’re a go. No need to get them excited for nothing. He didn’t have a good answer. I searched YouTube for videos of the trapeze school so he could see it wasn’t as scary as it sounds. We all watched them and then the next day I asked him again if I could book three spots in the Sunday morning class. This time he said yes.
We had a great Saturday in Chicago seeing the sights, but that night as I went to bed, it was not the notorious ghosts of the Congress Hotel that kept me awake but the thought of doing the trapeze the next day. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. I wanted so badly to do well. Not being able to complete a catch would feel like failure to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to bring my knees up to hook onto the bar.
A couple days before we went to Chicago, the kids and I drove around our town looking for a playground with a bar to practice on. The playground sets are all very specialized these days. It’s not like when I was a kid and they’d put a metal bar up on top of two logs and call it a piece of playground equipment. The best we could do at the playground was a twisting set of monkey bars.
I told the kids they had to get their knees up to the bar without kicking off the ground, because they would be high off the ground when it came time to do it on the trapeze. Neither one of them could do it. I couldn’t do it from a still hang either, but if I started swinging I could get the momentum to do it. I realized that on the trapeze we’d have a nice big swing to start us off and figured that should be enough to give us the help we needed. This turned out to be true and not true.
Our trapeze class was two hours long and began at 8:30 outside at Belmont Harbor. We were the first students to arrive, so we checked in and I bought a souvenir tank top with the word “trapeze” across the front, further solidifying my absolute need to succeed at this or be hugely disappointed. I showed the kids how to stretch out their shoulder and leg muscles and we waited for the rest of the students to arrive.
Probably everyone who comes to trapeze school is delightful and friendly, but we lucked out with our group. Besides me and my kids, there was a pair of friendly ladies who cheered everyone on, a nice young girl and her boyfriend, and a woman and her adult daughter. With only nine students signed up, there was room for one more, but my husband declined.
They put our belts on us tighter than you'd think they could go. It felt very much like I imagine a corset would feel. The instructors introduced themselves and then went over the basics of how to tie ourselves in, get up the ladder and then get in position to go. The instructor up on the board would hold onto the back of our belt as we put our toes over the edge and put first one hand and then the other on the bar. We were to lean out and already have our weight over the net, then at the call of “Ready” we would bend our knees and at “hup” we would take a small jump. After that we would swing across and at the far side of our swing they call “knees up” at which point we roll into a ball while looking up at the bar and slip our feet over the bar. With any luck, we get into this position by the time we have swung back toward the platform, then we let go with our hands and let our bodies fall backward and stretch out toward where the catcher will eventually be. Then we just put our hands back up on the bar, let our legs down, and let go and drop into the net when we’re told.
I’ve always been good at following directions. I grew up a rather quiet and obedient child, so when someone tells me to jump, I jump. I was the first in my family to go up. I got to the top of the ladder and onto the platform and was not very concerned with how high up we were. I was laser focused on doing what I was told, getting a feel for it, and nailing the practice knee hang. That’s exactly what I did.
I got off the net and got ready for my daughter’s turn. She was clipped in and climbing the ladder and all seemed to be going well until I saw her face at the top. That fear combined with her obstinate personality meant there was really nothing that would convince her to put her hands on the bar and go. It was heartbreaking to see, because she was the one who really pushed for it and was so excited to try it. But she is not quiet and obedient like I am. She was not going any farther in this class. She had to do the backward climb of shame down the ladder.
My son was up next. He is like me: quiet and obedient and generally easy to manipulate. He should have been the first child to go. But he got up there and I can only guess that seeing his sister’s freak out had poisoned his mind. My husband and I even shouted bribes up to my son for twenty dollars or whatever he wanted from the Lego store, but it wasn’t happening. And so it was that both my children backed down the ladder.
I was disappointed that they didn’t go through with it, but it was also important to me that they know their limits. That, and I wasn’t going to have them climb the ladder again and have to be coaxed by the instructors and their parents while the rest of the class waited for them.
The burden of the family’s success now rested on me. While it was great to have a large cheering section, every time I got to the top of the ladder, the whole world disappeared except for the instructors. Meredith was on the platform most the time, tying me in and giving me my signal to start. Chris was on the lines below and yelled up to me when I should do each move on the swing. Keene would be the one who I would be trusting to catch me when the time came. The rest of the class, the people passing by in the park — none of that existed when I got on the trapeze. Looking back later at photos, I am surprised to see the male student climbing the ladder and reaching the top just before I take off because I never had any awareness of anyone else in my presence except for my three teachers.
We did the knee hang twice and many of the students got it both times, though there were some exceptions. It definitely is not as easy as some of the students were making it look. I may have been getting too confident, because on my third practice I swung my foot up hard and instead of getting it under the bar it smashed into the bar and then rocketed away and my feet dropped. Once I was no longer in the prime swing position for getting my knees up, it was hopeless. So instead we moved on to the dismount that the students in front of me had just learned: the backflip. On command, we swing our legs forward, backward, forward and then let go, curling our legs into a ball and grabbing onto our knees. Once again, I did exactly as I was told and landed my backflip safely into the net with little effort. When you do what you’re told, the rest of it follows naturally.
But that miss had shaken my confidence.
I didn’t know how many times we were going to practice the knee hang, and I wanted to move on to trying catches. You don’t realize how much energy each little turn up there takes until you're back on the ground. I would be panting and need to sit and rest after my jolt of adrenaline. Then when we added in the backflips, I would also be dizzy afterward from the adrenaline/tumbling combo. We ended up doing five practices, and I completed the rest of them successfully. On the last turn, Chris asked if I wanted to try a double backflip. By that point I was ready to go back to stage one and just fall easily into the net, but I said yes because I do what I’m told. Also, I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried.
The double backflip is the same as a single except that, as far as I know, you stay tucked and hope to spin around an extra time before crashing into the net. I’m pretty sure he also pulls you a bit higher with the lines and lowers you more slowly so you have time to get around, but that’s just a guess. Whatever the trick is to it, it worked. My husband took the video of it but he moved the camera so that you can't see me on the second flip. But I promise you that I didn’t land on my head.
Finally we were up to catches. The only difference at this point was that we were to hold our hands a certain way and chalk our hands and arms up good so that we were easy to catch. Then once we were safely in Keene’s hands we just released our legs from the bar and let him swing us out and back and then he dropped us in the net. Easy peasy … as long as I didn’t fail at getting my knees up again.
There were three women in front of me, and all made their catches. One required an extra swing to get her knees up, but she still did it. They were making it look easy. When it was my turn I climbed up and went back into good listener mode. I could do this. I had to do this. If I didn’t, everyone there would soon see a very ugly side of me.
I got into position and put my toes over the board and my hand on the bar. Then I put the other hand on the bar and listened for the command from Keene, who was in the swing and preparing to meet me. Just as before, at the command of “Ready” I bent my knees and at “hup” I descended into my swing. I got to the far side of my swing and at “knees up,” curled into a ball and got one foot and then the other over the bar and to my knees. At the top of the swing at “hands off,” I lowered myself down and then stretched back as best I could. I looked for Keene and saw him swinging toward me. It was like watching a video tape in that squeaky, fast forward mode where you can see all the action but it happens so fast that you can’t linger or examine any part of it. You have to know what to do and be fully committed, showing only determination and no fear. Keene called “reach here” and “gotcha” so fast that I swore he said that he had me before he did (the video says otherwise) but when I heard the word “gotcha” I knew I had done it. Once he had his hands around my arms I let go with my legs almost without thinking. He swung me out and back and then we let go and I dropped easily into the net.
I did it! I did it, I did it, I did it! No one would ever be able to take that away from me.
We had one more catch to go, and I was as stressed about that one as I was about the first one. What if I can’t get my knees up again like that time during practice? I wanted to leave there not feeling like I had messed up at the end. I wanted to believe that the catch wasn’t luck but skill. I had to make the second one too. I just had to.
This time I was aware of one thing in the outside world besides my instructors. As I climbed the ladder I could hear Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger” playing. Kelly Clarkson has never let me down. I couldn’t let her down!
Once more, just like before. Only I think I may have actually gotten my knees up even more quickly this time. I made the catch, I dropped into the net, and I think I smiled my first genuine, relaxed smile in two hours. I had successfully completed the flying trapeze.
I’ve never been the type to enjoy watching myself on video, but this time I couldn’t get enough. I watched the videos my family took of the trapeze catches at least twenty times that day and many times since. The whole event happens so fast that there are things I didn’t even realize until it was over and things I can’t remember even though I keep reviewing it in my head. For one, I was supposed to grab onto my catcher’s arms and squeeze as tightly as I could. I have no idea if I did that. I wouldn't even know that I’d grabbed his arms at all if I didn’t have the pictures and video to prove it. I was only focused on him grabbing me. I also was surprised to see that sometimes I grabbed onto the trapeze bar with my thumbs around the bar and sometimes with them sticking next to my fingers. They never said which way to do it and it wasn’t something I even thought of as important until long after the fact.
It’s been a couple days now and my entire upper body has never been so sore. It hurts to turn the steering wheel in my car or to put my hands together behind my back. I also have bruises in places that have never been bruised before, like behind my knees and, strangely, on the backs of both arms above my elbows (maybe from landing in the net after the backflips?). But I gained so much from the experience, including a newfound confidence, the knowledge that I can push myself to accomplish seemingly unreachable goals (and the seemingly unreachable arms of a trapeze partner), and the reminder that some moments, while so momentous and crucial, rush past us in the blink of an eye. Thank God for the video.
My husband bought me the professional photos as my anniversary gift.
Chalking up. Keene was on the board here but later would do the catching.
Just going for a swing, 23 feet up.
"I can see Lake Michigan from here!"
The first catch. Looks like I did grab for his arms after all!
The easy part.
My 9-year-old daughter took this pic. Pretty amazing shot.
She may not be a trapeze artist but she is one heck of a photographer.