Had they given me more time to think about it, I might have been more afraid. I was only there to interview people. But as it was, I found myself climbing up a narrow ladder to a tiny wooden platform 35 feet above the ground. I had just been given a list of instructions but the only thing I had retained was the fact that “hep” meant jump. From there, I figured I’d just wing it.
Former Ringling Brothers Circus member Peter Gold started Trapeze Experience 12 years ago. For the last two weeks, the company has been giving lessons at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. They’ll be there throughout Labor Day weekend.
Beth Baldwin was in the same boat I was. She came two weeks ago only to take pictures of her friends when she was talked into filling an empty spot in the class. Baldwin, who works for East Hampton Town, managed to find someone else to take pictures while she took the class. She currently has a photo of herself flying through the air hanging on the wall in her office.
“Climbing the ladder was the worst part,” said Baldwin.
When I got to the top of the platform I could see the tents and stables of the Hampton Classic behind me. But I had no time to enjoy the view. Before I knew it I was strapped in and was told to move forward and let my toes hang off the platform. Sure.
One would think that only a handful of people in the world have been on the trapeze. It’s not your typical recreational sport, not exactly tennis or basketball or even white water rafting. But Randy Kohn, my instructor, estimated that Trapeze Experience alone had probably allowed over 60,000 people to get a taste of the circus sport. A good majority of those turn out to be repeat customers; Diana Blackman was one such person. Kohn said a lot of people find it addicting.
“The rush, it’s just so much fun,” she said.
With the metal bar in my hand I looked below. Yes, there was a net there. “Hep” yelled Kohn and I immediately jumped from the platform. The first thought that went through my head was “I’m moving pretty fast here.” Then I heard Kohn scream “legs up.”
Wait. What does that mean? Oh yeah. I remember.
I pulled up my legs and hooked them like I did on the monkey bars as a kid, all the while swinging backwards in the air at a ferocious rate of speed. Or at least it seemed like it.
Kohn just graduated from Hofstra. He wasn’t a gymnast, or any kind of athlete really. He was a frat guy. But when he was 11 years old he went to a summer camp in Hancock N.Y. and flew on the trapeze for the first time. Every summer since, he’s continued to hone his skills, most recently working with Gold’s company. Kohn said they’ve had blind people, deaf people and even a paraplegic, take the class. He said they go to corporate events because the trapeze is a great way to provide leadership training and teach teamwork. Most importantly, Kohn said the trapeze is a perfect metaphor for life.
For kids he said “it’s a perfect way to face their fears,” and added that they feel proud of themselves once they climb up the ladder. And for adults, though many are afraid of heights, Kohn said the biggest fear is getting hurt and the life lesson is learning to take risks.
Mark Lowicht, a muscular man, runs an investment firm in East Hampton. When he was on top of the platform Kohn turned to me and said, “Watch, he’s going to do a pull up as soon as he jumps off. Big, strong guys always do a pull up.” He was right.
“I could’ve stretched for four days,” said Lowicht after his lesson, “and it’s not going to loosen me up. I’m not a loose person.”
I didn’t do a pull up; I’m not muscular. After I hooked my legs Kohn yelled “hands off!” I quickly let go of the bar and there I was, hanging upside down some twenty feet in the air swinging back and forth.
Lowicht wasn’t so quick to let go of the bar.
“Being upside down and swinging in the air is a little disorienting,” he confessed.
Lowicht eventually did let go, but he was right about the disorienting part. As I hung there swinging, I was told to arch my back, look behind me and I swear I saw the Montauk lighthouse. Okay, not really.
Then I was told to pull myself back up and unhook my legs. I was now back in my original swinging position.
“Okay, now for the back flip,” screamed Kohn. “Kick forward, kick back, kick forward, now let go and grab those knees!”
I was a little over zealous. I let go and grabbed my knees and held them. The only problem was I held too long. Instead of one back flip, I did two. Or really one and third, because before I knew it, I was doing a face plant on the large net below me.
After little 10-year-old Charlotte Cooper finished her lesson, she said she was “a little nervous.” But she was a natural. She had no reservations, no inhibitions and when the time came to try the catch, where another professional opposite you catches you after you let go of the bar, she made it, one of only a few.
“It was like you’re flying.”
Charlotte was dead on. And so was Blackman. It is addicting. Maybe I’ll quit my job and join the circus.
Top Photo: Ten-year-old Charlotte Cooper prepares to get “caught” on the trapeze last Sunday.
Bottom photo: Yours truly hanging on for dear life.
photos by Michael Heller