Whee! Also, There’s a Net

July 19, 2009 at 2:33 pm Leave a comment

Don’t do Jane Fonda, don’t do Jane Fonda,” shouted Evan Armbrister as I swung on a trapeze 23 feet above ground. Clearly I had been pegged as a “flier” of considerable age, one capable of flashbacks to the Jazzercise era of leotards and leg warmers and “hot cross buns.”I had flubbed his instructions once again, raising my legs high (so stylishly, I thought) rather than hooking my knees over the bar and hanging upside down. I hooked at the wrong time, swung at the wrong time.

“You’re not listening,” said Mr. Armbrister, an actor and former kung fu instructor, who held tight to the ropes that clamped on to my safety harness.

I dropped to the net, my hands coated in chalk powder, and stole a glance at Coco Sacks. She has no trouble listening. “Can we do a couple of back flips?” she asked.

Coco is 9. She lives in Seattle and has made outdoor trapezing in New York a yearly pilgrimage.

Who can blame her?

Flying through the air on a trapeze alongside the Hudson River, even badly, as the sun lingers high and the downtown skyline stares you straight in the face, offers up a kind of New York nirvana. For a brief moment, you float above the din and chaos without forgoing the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment. You feel the city slipping serenely away.

Every summer, the Trapeze School New York pitches a rig and stretches a net across part of the roof along Pier 40, luring a curious blend of people seeking to swing al fresco:

Thrill-seekers eager for the next jolt (many of them regulars). Stilettoed work friends looking to trade one kind of happy hour bar for another (at least today). Tourists trying to squeeze one more novelty into a week’s vacation. Children who aspire to take jungle-gym swinging to the next level. Gypsies at heart who once romanticized the life of a circus artist (that last category would be me).

Then there are those people — a surprisingly large number, really — who arrive in their yoga pants to grapple with a fear of heights. They come ready to vanquish their phobia as Carrie Bradshaw did in an episode of “Sex and the City.” They come for catharsis.

“There is nothing better for anxiety than exposure, and taking smart risks,” said Hilary Levine, speaking like the Upper West Side psychologist she is, and one with absolutely no fear of heights to boot. “It’s a wonderful exercise in personal growth.”

Pass the chalk. Dr. Levine was there with a friend and fellow psychiatrist (detect a pattern?), Alexa Albert, Coco’s mother, who squinted up into the sun as her daughter effortlessly sailed skyward. Dr. Albert is an acrophobe. Yet last year she climbed the seemingly endless metal ladder to the narrow platform high above the ground, where the trapeze taunted her coyly.

“I was terrified,” she said. “Literally. I felt terror. But I did it, and it was exhilarating. The feeling, the sensation, catches your breath. There is nothing else like it. It numbs any fear you have.”

Exhilaration, though, was not quite in the cards for Talia Silverstein, an 11-year-old from Port Washington, on Long Island, who arrived with her mother, Mara Silverstein.

“None of my friends would do it with me,” Talia’s mother confided. “It’s the whole height thing.”

Two years ago, Talia trapezed and loved it. This year, not so much. After she climbed up four rungs of the ladder, a look of unmistakable anguish clouded her face. She climbed down, hesitated, then climbed back up. Bravely, she reached the top. The view from there — the Woolworth Building, the Statue of Liberty’s torch at night — is riveting. But, really, fliers are so hyper-focused on the task at hand, the view could be of a shopping mall in Sioux City and it wouldn’t matter.

Fortunately, Jamielee Smith, a trapeze teacher, was on the platform. Ms. Smith is a high school drug and alcohol counselor during the school year, a job that has trained her to listen, to coax, to provide moral support.

“You’re safe,” Ms. Smith assured. “I got you.”

But the hard part lay ahead. After the vertigo-inducing climb, Ms. Smith secures a safety line to a flier’s thick leather belt. Then she holds the back of your belt with her hand and sweetly asks you to lean forward, way forward, beyond your center of gravity, so you can grab the trapeze bar with both hands. All of us had practiced this effortlessly on the ground, which is akin to racing a Formula 1 car on a Wii console.

It is at that moment, when you are leaning forward, placing full trust in the tiny Ms. Smith to keep you from plummeting, that some people feel the churn of panic and refuse to follow the next command: “Hep,” she says, circus-speak for hop off the edge of the board, a word that can trigger either transcendence or nausea.

“Close your eyes if you want,” Mr. Armbrister instructed Talia helpfully from below.

Talia shook her head no several times. Then, taking his advice, she closed her eyes tight and hepped.

“That’s one of our prerequisites: Being able to make people comfortable in a very unnatural situation,” said Matt Russo, 22, who has a degree in neuropsychology (again) and now manages the rig. “Jumping off a 23-foot platform to an uncertain end is not natural for most people.”

It’s all about perspective. Having spent a lifetime in turbulent Jerusalem, Benjamin and Almog Hassidim, two brothers, seemed quite at home on the trapeze bar. Only their baggy mid-calf shorts gave them up as novices. They hooked their legs and swung upside down just as Mr. Armbrister instructed.

“I loved it,” Benjamin said. “Extremely.”

“It was too short,” Almog complained.

A 10-person class, which costs $50 to $70 depending on the day and hour, gives each flier three or four turns at the trapeze. For those who manage to hook, hang upside down and swing successfully, it all leads up to the grand finale: the moment when Randy Winner, a former dancer with a formidable grip, hangs upside down opposite you on his own trapeze to catch you in the air as you, also upside down, arch and swing toward him.

“I’m learning a thing or two up here,” Mr. Winner said, laughing, after he managed to catch yet another flier who had failed to get the timing right. “I’m learning to adjust.”

Then — plop! — you drop on to the net one final time, ready to do it all over again.

New York Times


Entry filed under: Manhattan.

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