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Robert Taylor, an instructor at Trapeze School New York, heads for the nets on the roof of Pier 40.
Robert Taylor, an instructor at Trapeze School New York, heads for the nets on the roof of Pier 40. (David Arnold for the Boston Globe)

At 58, he takes to the air with the greatest unease

Email|Print| Text size + By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2007

I am barefoot in New York, four stories over the hum of West Side traffic, and I am literally suspended in time. The view around me includes the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, tour boats on the Hudson River, and the golden edges of a Jersey skyline frosted by the setting sun.

But I'm not thinking about the scenery.

I am headed southbound on the skinny steel bar of a flying trapeze. Approaching fast is a weightless moment when I will have to let go of everything, strike a Superman pose, and reach through the air for the hands of a man who has promised to catch me - if I do everything right.

It's a vertical sport in a vertical city. It is Trapeze School New York, where students learn about trust - in instructors - and the advantages of following advice, all against a studded urban backdrop that borders on surreal. Hanging from a trapeze bar, Gotham has never seemed so intimate yet expansive, so private yet devoid of walls.

"I've always liked the views in this city," Jeffrey Harris, a fellow student, would explain later. "I've just never taken them in upside down, spinning."

Since its founding five years ago, Trapeze School New York has launched tens of thousands of people - "fliers" in the art of "traps" - off a platform slightly larger than a serving tray. Students wear a safety harness and perform over a safety net. Despite the security, taking that voluntary first step into thin air comes hard, especially when the challenge is to do variations on maneuvers last attempted on a kindergarten jungle gym.

Traps takes some mental tinkering. This comes as no surprise to Jonathan Conant, 46, a co-founder of the school.

"I never thought of trapeze as a training ground for circus acts," Conant explained recently. "It is more a kind of temple for people discovering who they are." The sport can become obsessive. Ergo the school's motto: "Forget fear. Worry about the addiction."

To feed the addiction, Trapeze School New York, which operates from the roof of Pier 40, just west of Greenwich Village, has facilities in Baltimore, at the Jordan's Furniture store in Reading, and will open soon in Los Angeles.

Arlie Hart, an instructor at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, has a hand designing the school's rigs. As with Conant, Hart finds flying to be part therapy.

"On the trapeze I get 14 seconds of absolute focus when every other concern in life disappears," Hart said during a telephone interview. "The physics of the swings don't change, you do."

Hart was a computer software designer before making trapeze his livelihood; Conant scored music for television and film. Neither has looked back, which was my inclination late last month as I balanced like a wobbly ice cream cone on the takeoff platform preparing for my inaugural flight.

Tatiana Lingos-Webb snapped me into an array of safety gear. A lithe, congenial 26-year-old who once danced with the Boston Ballet, Webb grew up in Milton and had been an investment banker before taking up trapeze. Now let's see, that would be careers in film, programming, and banking, all discarded for trapeze.

Do we have a problem here with addiction?

My class included 10 students. Our goal for the next two hours would be to execute a "knee hang with catch." The three-phase maneuver requires fliers to hang from their knees at the far end of the first swing, then return home to dangle hands down at the end of the second swing, then swing back to transfer to an instructor hanging upside down on another trapeze. It just may be the oddest way in New York to travel 150 linear feet, downtown and back.

Almost everyone in our class - novices all - would succeed.

Our flock, besides Harris, 42, a resident of Albany who had learned about the school watching a television episode of "Sex and the City" taped here, included Michael McGuire, 31, an environmental activist from London, Jen Cressman, 24, a business developer from the city, and Christina Francisco, 26, a researcher for nonprofit organizations.

"I really wanted to do something different," Francisco said later. "My stomach muscles were sore for a week. But I will be back."

The challenge is partly a matter of physics. After the launch, centripetal force almost doubles your weight as you swing through the bottom of the first arc. In the next second, you peak on the far end of the trip, and momentarily go weightless. This is when the work, such as tucking legs over the bar, must get done.

Grace counts. The smoothness of a clean maneuver keeps the potential energy - stored when you climbed the ladder - powering the swing to its maximum. This is vital because for a catch, two trapezes must almost meet. Jules Léotard first made the point in 1859 when he successfully leaped from one bar to another above a bed of mattresses at a Paris circus, giving birth to the flying trapeze and a risqué style of clothing.

Webb had to coax my toes over the edge of the launch platform for the first flight. Then she held my back like a leashed dog as I leaned out to grab the trapeze and then stand over the void.

"Ready," she said.

I dutifully bent my knees. She corrected my posture. Chest out, back arched, bar held high. Lean into the air. Léotard would have been proud of everything except my shorts.

The command to go is "HET!" Jump at the cue, we had been told. Timing, which was not important at the moment, would be nonnegotiable when a second trapeze with the catcher entered the equation.

"HET!" Webb snapped.

I just stood there, the wind in my hair, the thrum of traffic far below on West Street, the Empire State Building aglow in its evening shades of oranges, and my toes glued to the front of the platform.

"HET!" she repeated.

"Het?"

Eventually it was shame, not obedience, that pried me loose.

And it is pride that spares details about my awkward attempts to contort a 58-year-old body into the positions that were needed to succeed at this most basic of trapeze tricks. I learned early that if I did not listen and carry out instructions, I failed. The instructors offering their terse commands had the perspective and expertise to make the physics work in my favor.

Several flights later, I had nailed the catch - albeit crudely - and experienced the greatest adrenaline rush I had ever had holding hands with another man.

He was Hal Anderson, 37, a part-time trapeze instructor, the catcher for our class, and an occasional skydiver.

"I guess I like being in the air," he said later during a grounded moment.

In fact, it was linking up with Anderson in midair that has brought me to my current challenge of striking that Superman pose and letting go of all.

I had decided to stay another day and take a second lesson. Now I am aiming for a second trick, called "la planche," which is French for "the board."

It is, once again, an exercise in trust. Anderson is the catcher, and on his command I will need let go of the bar, assume a prone position, and let momentum carry me to his hands. It is the end of the class, time is short, I will have but one try.

HET!

I release, I fly, our fingers touch.

And then I slip away. I would later learn that my error had been improper alignment. But this is no big deal. Because when I am next in New York, I will be putting aside two hours to nail "la planche."

I have forgotten fear. But I am a bit worried about the addiction.

David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, can be reached at northwester@comcast.net.

If You Go

How to get there

Trapeze School New York is located at the corner of West and Houston streets on the roof of Pier 40. The closest train station is Houston, four blocks east on the "1" train.

What to do

Trapeze School New York
212-242-8769
newyork.trapezeschool.com
One-time fee of $22. Classes run two hours, day and night, $45 weekdays, $65 weekends. The minimum age is 6. The school reports no history of injury beyond a rare rope burn or turned ankle. Participants don't even climb the ladder without a safety harness.

Where to stay

Both within a 15-minute walk of Pier 40:
Holiday Inn Downtown
138 Lafayette St.
212-966-8898
hidowntown-nyc.com
Starting at $459 per night.

Tribeca Grand
2 Avenue of the Americas
212-519-6600
tribecagrand.com
Starting at $604 per night.

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