Latest fitness craze is in full swing
Jennifer Dion is out for her “Saturday morning escape.” This means she is wearing one of her trademark black leotards, dangling upside down from a trapeze, her arms outstretched waiting to eventually connect with a “catcher” — a person on another flying bar she will lock arms with.
Ms. Dion is no wannabe circus performer. She is an interior designer and mother of two who attends trapeze school in a nondescript warehouse five miles east of Los Angeles International Airport. Eager for a little middle-age adventure, Ms. Dion likes the brief moment of weightlessness she experiences when hurtling through the air and the Barnum & Bailey alternative to her normal routine.
“This helps me get away from the kids, and I feel like the release of it also makes everything better at home,” she says. “It’s not easy, though. I’m a mom and not as in shape as I used to be.”
Ms. Dion is one of a growing number of Americans taking up the trapeze as the latest form of exercise and exhilaration. For a nation that’s evolved through every craze from Jack La Lanne to bungee jumping, now comes swinging through the air, even if not always with the greatest of ease.
Susan Davis, a physical therapist with Maryland Physical Therapy in Glen Burnie, Md., is a committed practitioner as well. She stumbled across the outdoor trapeze set up by Trapeze School New York at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and has been going there for four years. She had just had surgery on her knee for reconstruction of a ligament and knew that the skills involved in working a trapeze didn’t require much knee action.
“The trapeze was the first sport I could get back to doing because it is mostly an upper-body sport,” she says.
A gymnast from childhood, she recommends it for what she calls “core strengthening,” as well as being “great for helping with coordination and a sense of body awareness. Timing is very important, and doing what you are supposed to do at the right time. So it gives you skill at controlling your body and having a sense of where you are in space.”
Plus, she adds, “You don’t have to be in excellent condition to do it.”
In Los Angeles — the nation’s unofficial trendsetter for all things bodily — everyone from lawyers to teachers to movie stars are grabbing aerial bars. But the trend extends well beyond this sun-dappled playground.
“It is safe to say that trapeze has become a phenomenon, and it’s nationwide,” says Janet Davis, a professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin. “Things like Cirque du Soleil are now a pervasive part of the social consciousness, assuming a very central place in our culture, and the trapeze, anecdotally speaking, is at the center of this phenomenon.”
Little did the inventor of the flying trapeze, Jules Leotard, realize that what began in the late 19th century would one day experience a renaissance among everyday people. Even Club Med offers trapeze classes.
No sign identifies Ray Pierce’s trapeze school, just the faint whine of a swing that glides back and forth, 25 feet up. The school sits in a warehouse section south of downtown Los Angeles. The students perform on a rig outdoors. They take orientation classes inside.
“The first thing I tell people is that they have to learn to let go in order to fly,” says Mr. Pierce, a local trapeze guru whose wavy blond hair and rugged goatee evoke a sense of adventure. “Don’t fight the swing. Let the swing take you.”
Those words ring familiar to a growing number of Mr. Pierce’s students — including Rick Grandy, who’s playing the role of catcher for Ms. Dion today. Mr. Grandy, a dig- ital artist, first experienced the trapeze several years ago at a corporate outing.
“I’m not a former gymnast. Not a performer. I just think trapeze is fun and a great way to exercise,” says Mr. Grandy, who is transitioning to the role of instructor at Mr. Pierce’s school.
His girlfriend, Heather Cooper, is standing on the trapeze platform and about to perform a split — straddle the bar. Before pushing off, she yells “listo,” which means “ready” in Spanish, and then Mr. Pierce, who acts as conductor, responds with “hep” — trapeze talk for “charge.” Both words are traditionally said before any trick on the flying trapeze.
Ms. Cooper, an antitrust and trade regulation attorney, is a former gymnast.
“So I at times look for perfection,” she says. “But like practicing law, trapeze can be very technical.”
So technical that a couple of boutique gyms in Los Angeles have hired aerial arts specialists to teach “static trapeze,” which means the swing is hanging stationary from the ceiling.
Kristy Beauvais teaches static trapeze at Cool Baby, a facility in Los Angeles that organizes exercise classes for families. A year ago it was difficult to find a static trapeze offered in a gym setting, but Ms. Beauvais says more people are looking to the trapeze as an alternative way to stay fit.
Among her students is John Midby, a film-school teacher. Dressed in silver workout shorts and a black T-shirt, Mr. Midby hangs from the static trapeze and begins swinging his body in a circular motion. His legs spin like an eggbeater, whipping up the air beneath him.
“I started doing this for fitness, and then I realized how much fun I was having,” says Mr. Midby, beads of sweat on his brow. “My kids think I’m cool.”
That’s precisely the kind of thinking that motivated Arturo “Arano” Ortiz to recently stop teaching trapeze at Club Med and start his own consulting firm, Circus Services. After teaching at the resort company for nearly a decade, more people began asking Mr. Ortiz if he could recommend a trapeze school in their hometown.
“It amazed me how many people were getting hooked on trapeze,” says Mr. Ortiz, who thinks people are attracted to its uniqueness. “You certainly can’t find a trapeze rig everywhere.”
Ruthie Danziger of Los Angeles makes a soft landing in the safety net after swinging on the trapeze for exercise at an aerial arts school.