Hanging from your knees, flying trapeze, and the joy of trying new things
Like flying? Hate heights? Read on to discover how trying something new—and looking a little goofy while doing it—can lead to the most rewarding outcomes.
The first thing I saw was the horizontal person. He had somewhere between zero and two percent body fat, and stuck out sideways from a pole—as if an F-5 tornado was trying to suck him out of the room. Moving with seemingly effortless finesse, he eased into different poses, simultaneously conversing with an equally fit girl who was holding one leg straight up by her ear. Both chatted casually as if it was a regular run-in at the water cooler.
My gaze then drifted to the hoola-hoops—“Nice, I can do hoola-hoops,” I thought. My eyes trailed upwards, following the web of ropes and bars dangling from the ceiling. Long bolts of silk swirled gracefully to the floor, legging-clad women artfully tangling themselves among the folds. Nets and mats lined every wall, and some guy bounced on a trampoline, alternating between front and back flips. Just feet in front of me, a towering ladder ascended upwards and upwards, ending at a narrow plank perched above huge safety net. The big kahuna.
“I did something like that in gymnastics class,” I thought.
But that was in the fourth grade. And I spent the whole time in the foam pit, refusing to go back…
Suddenly, I became very aware that I was merely standing on the floor—using both feet—and wearing a beige, cable-knit sweater that did nothing to bolster my confidence or sense of athleticism. After all, I had just willingly hopped in an Uber and ridden halfway across town to an unknown destination chosen by my scheming co-workers. In a wild brainstorming session on ways to show the importance of trying new things and stepping out of your comfort zone, we ended up with a grand plan: Send someone to do an activity for the first time, with zero knowledge of the destination. They somehow convinced me to accept the challenge and then chronicle my experience for the ZOZI Journal.
The Uber delivered me to the curb of an art deco brick building near San Francisco’s Inner Sunset district, its grand roof tracing the sky in a perfect arc. A sign out front read “Circus Center.” Here we go.
Entering the colorfully-painted foyer and passing through a pair of swinging doors, I found myself standing in the corner of a massive gym brimming with circus equipment. There were way more people in the air than on the ground.
After friendly greetings and nervous laughter, my classmates—Katelyn, Jeff and Jackie—began (you guessed it) our very first flying trapeze class. Knowing I wasn’t the only beginner put me at ease, as did our friendly instructors, Jennings and Andrew.
Things kicked off with a quick trial run on a low practice trapeze, hanging within reaching distance above our heads. Already more relaxed, I was getting more pumped by the second—and my face gave it away as I stepped up to grab the bar in a flurry of awkward excitement.
“Aren’t you smiley and excited to be here?” Andrew commented.
“Yeah! I mean, yeah…” I bashfully attempted to drop the smile and look a little more cool.
I swung my legs up, hooked them on the bar, let my hands dangle and relaxed my neck. My mind instantly flashed back to middle school, where every recess was spent atop monkey bars. “Still got it,” I thought, with a mental pat on the back for not completely losing all my playground street cred over the last decade.
When I was right-side up again, Jennings explained the protocol for jumping off the platform. “You’re going to stand with your toes dangling over the edge and do exactly what your body doesn’t want to do,” he said. “When you’re on the edge, you’ll want to lean back, but I want you to stick your belly out and lean as far forward as you can.”
We all tried, and we all agreed: Even trying on a practice block one foot off the ground, it felt uneasy to lean out. That five-second exercise was the first and last drill before attempting the real deal. The big kahuna.
As far as I know, in the history of the whole world, standing on the platform has always been the worst part of any process. The diving board at the pool before you splash in. The launch pad before you board the rocketship to Mars ( I assume…). The little spot at the top of the slide when you realize you don’t actually want to go, but there’s a line of bullies behind you. The ride ends up being fine, but those moments on the platform that seemingly last for eternity—they’re scary.
“I’m really excited,” I blurted out when I got to the top of the ladder, my eyes darting over the edge where I would be hurling myself shortly. “But I also automatically smile when I don’t know what’s happening. And when I’m nervous.”
I decided to stop talking.
Jennings secured a tight, sturdy belt harness around my waist, then waited for the “all clear” signal from the guy controlling the ropes a thousand feet below me. All the Circus staffers running the class were so calm and friendly, though, and I couldn’t help calming down too.
Then Jennings yelped, “Hup!” which is trapeze speak for “Go!”
Jumping into the air, hands clenching the bar and heart thumping in my chest, the calm I felt moments earlier was instantly replaced with soaring adrenaline.
Leaping off the platform is like picking up a fork from the prong side. Or seeing a red light and purposefully flooring it into the intersection. It’s one of the most unnatural experiences around.
But maybe that incredibly uncomfortable moment of forcing myself to lean over the precipice is what helped make that first swing feel so fabulous—even more exhilarating than expected. I listened for the cue and jumped. I swooped back and forth, back and forth, from one end of the gym to the other. I swung my legs up and over the bar (not gracefully, mind you), and hung from my knees. Then I grabbed the bar again with my hands and dropped my legs back down, plopping into the net—all without breaking my neck or having a heart attack.
Fumbling my way out of the net and joining my fellow flyers, we chatted about how liberating the experience was. Somewhere in the background, the next victim went sailing through the air.
“It’s kinda like eight weeks of therapy crammed into a few swings,” Andrew joked. “We can usually tell what stress you’re carrying around by how well you trust us up there.”
I laughed, but then flashed back to ex-boyfriends, Craigslist ads for cheap, livable housing in San Francisco, and the dentist who said getting a tooth pulled “wouldn’t hurt.” I worried for a second...could they really get a read on my past insecurities by watching my white knuckles clenching the trapeze bar?
What surprised me the most, however, wasn’t the anticipation of my heart leaping into my throat while swinging high up in the air. It was how uneasy I felt letting someone else be in total control. Cue eye-twitch.
But with each additional jump, that tension began to relax organically. I waited my turn and went again. And again. That feeling of whizzing through the air and hanging upside down—it never got old. It was like being Tarzan, an Olympic gymnast and Spiderman all at once. And my instructors and classmates gave words of encouragement the entire time.
(The other thing this experience made me realize? Don’t skip out on upper body workouts—you never know when you’ll find yourself careening through the air in a surprise flying trapeze class. As of right now, I'm a certified, Grade-A weakling. Sometimes my left arm shakes when I pass a new gallon of milk across the table. Note to self: Do more pushups.)
I felt like a million bucks just attempting to trapeze—my confidence rose every time I leapt from the platform, my need for total control lessening as gravity took over and loosened me up as I whizzed through the air.
The last two swings of the class brought the moment we’d all been waiting for (or fearing, depending on who you ask)—a chance to attempt the big move, or the “catch.” It was the same maneuver I’d been practicing, except this time, I’d release my knees from the bar in good faith that Jennings would be there to grab my forearms.
I failed the first time, throwing off the timing by getting my legs up too late and plopping into the net below.
On the last attempt, I jumped off the platform and swung, struggling to get my knees securely hooked on the bar. But instead of a gracefully executed ending, I flailed wildly mid-air, attempting a quick death grip on Jennings’ forearms before plummeting 15 feet face-first into the safety net (which is actually tons of fun).
I never successfully made the catch—but I’m already planning my next attempt. And this time, I’ll actually know the destination of my Uber.