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The Swing Set

Last year, Trapeze School New York was a novelty. This year, high-flying locals and tourists have made it a fixture.

By Luba Vangelova
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2003; Page C02

Nothing focuses the mind as effectively as terror. That's why at this moment, the only thing I'm aware of is that I'm about to step onto a tiny, 23-foot-high platform on a pole from which there is no easy way down. And that leaves only one obvious thing to do: hyperventilate. That, and question my sanity for deciding to try one of Manhattan's hottest crazes -- aerialist lessons.

Since opening last year, Trapeze School New York has become a bona fide Thing to Do in the city. Media attention has been a near constant; corporations have lined up to send employees on team-building swings. Weekend classes routinely sell out, not just to New Yorkers but to increasing numbers of tourists eager to play Spider-Man for a few hours.

Catching on: Trapeze School New York has become so popular the owners hope to find an indoor space for winter. Above, an aerialist stretches for a mid-air catch. Below, a student practices in Manhattan's Lower West Side setting.

Flying in Manhattan
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SWINGING THERE: Trapeze School New York operates daily from May to early November (depending on the weather); the owners currently plan to close Nov. 2 but are searching for an indoor space for possible winter classes. The school is in Hudson River Park, by the West Side Highway between Vestry and Desbrosses streets. Trapeze classes cost $45 to $65, depending on day and time; weekend classes often sell out. Children under 12 must be accompanied by a parent. Juggling and jestering classes are arranged on demand; the price depends on the number of students. Info: 917-797-1872, www.trapezeschool.com.

STAYING THERE: You don't have to head across the Hudson to get a decent hotel deal. Intimate places within a short cab ride of the trapeze school include the renovated Chelsea Lodge (318 W. 20th St., 212-243- 4499, www.chelsealodge.net), whose cozy yet bright doubles cost $105, and Second Home on Second Avenue (221 Second Ave., 212-677-3161, www.secondhome.citysearch.com), an East Village bed-and-breakfast where doubles (with shared bathrooms) range from $85 to $150.

EATING THERE: Two restaurants that have earned rave reviews (from critics and trapeze school students) are within a few blocks of the school. Sosa Borella (460 Greenwich St.) is a fun and trendy Argentine eatery that offers an interesting range of lunchtime sandwiches (such as dry-cured filet mignon) starting at $7, as well as hearty dinners followed by dulce de leche and other desserts (a three-course steak dinner for two with wine will set you back about $80, plus tax and tip). F. Illi Ponte Ristorante (39 Debrosses St.) is a traditional and elegant Italian restaurant with a great view of the Hudson River and the trapeze school; its pasta dishes start at $19.

INFO: NYC & Co., 800-692-8474, www.nycvisit.com.

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The week before I showed up, no less a Gotham icon than Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie Bradshaw, took lessons for a "Sex and the City" episode. Now the school, which normally dismantles in the fall, is looking for an indoor space big enough for year-round classes.

All of which means that Brian McVicker, the instructor waiting on the platform with me, knows how to handle a scared beginner. He tells me to grab a rail post and take a few deep breaths while he hooks a set of ropes to my safety belt. I calm down enough to admire this unique view of the Statue of Liberty in the middle distance. I'm told to chalk my hands, plant my toes over the platform's edge and lean forward at a 45-degree angle, with my right arm outstretched and my left clutching the rail post. McVicker promises the ropes will remain taut as I simulate Lady Liberty in mid-topple.

I assume the position, then grasp the bar, first with my right hand and then the left. "Okay, jump!" the instructor says. I hesitate for a moment before hopping off the platform. The scream I hear seems to be coming from my throat. At least it assures me that I'm still alive.

As with most scary things in life, the anticipation proves far worse than the act. I swing back and forth a couple of times, before heeding another instructor's shouted directions to lift my legs and hook my knees over the bar, as we had practiced at ground level. Still on cue, I let go with my arms and swing upside down for a few moments. Finally I right myself, kick back and forth, grab my knees and backward-somersault into the net.

The onlookers' applause brings me back into my environment as I crawl to the edge of the net, grinning from a mixture of relief, elation and amazement. On hand to help me dismount is Jonathon Conant, the acrobat who started this trapeze school four years ago in Upstate New York.

Conant's school taught complete novices how to be acrobats, so they could experience the thrill of overcoming their fear and of sailing through the air. Wanting to introduce more people to the experience, he teamed with two business partners and relocated the school to the edge of the Hudson River, on Manhattan's Lower West Side. A professional dancer and stuntman who discovered "flying" while vacationing at a Club Med, Conant is also a self-improvement aficionado who saw the school as a good vehicle for injecting some needed whimsy into post-9/11 New York.

Filming sessions aside, the two-hour classes typically include up to 10 students, either novices or experienced acrobats who want to practice more difficult splits, somersaults and catches. Most of the beginners, men and women alike, admit to at least a jolt of fear on their first ascent. But when I go looking for someone to commiserate with after my harrowing first routine, I manage to find one of the fearless ones. "No, I love heights," says Michael Levy. "I've been skydiving. This isn't really high." I nod in a futile attempt to appear equally nonchalant.

After two more turns (during which my terror diminishes but doesn't entirely disappear), I'm performing each maneuver right on cue. So when I dismount after my third turn, McVicker, now manning the safety ropes, tells me: "That's a catchable trick." I'm not sure whether to be excited or terrified.

I seem to have opted for both by the time Conant arives a few minutes later. Clad only in white leotards with a white bandanna knotted around his head, the tanned, toned and goateed Conant looks like a cross between Blackbeard and Baryshnikov. He agilely scales a rope dangling over the far end of the safety net, then shifts across to a trapeze bar. The idea is that Conant and I, swinging upside down and in sync, will come close enough above the middle of the net to grab each other's wrists. At that point, I'm to unhook my knees from the bar and swing in tandem with him. That's the theory, anyway.

The timing is crucial. On my first attempt, it's the safety line handler who's a little off, so Conant and I only manage to give each other midair high-fives. The second time, I hesitate just a moment too long before hopping off the platform, so the catch is called off before it's attempted. The third time we connect again, but not solidly enough to convince me to let go with my legs.

"Not everyone can get caught on their first day," he says consolingly as I dismount, although several other beginners in my class managed it. I end the session with slightly sore muscles, an assortment of small bruises and a determination to come back and perfect my catch maneuver.

But the afternoon isn't over. Some clown is waiting for me under a small awning near the office. It's Ambrose Martos, copy editor by day, professional clown by night. Today he's filling in for the school's regular jester, who was called away to work a parade.

"Everyone's got a clown within him," he tells me and my friend George at the beginning of the hour-long workshop. "It's about finding the inner kid and letting go, yet remaining aware and in control."

We first stretch our facial muscles and practice making exaggerated expressions. Then we hone our improvisational skills by tossing invisible "balls of sound" to each other, mimicking the previous thrower's sound, then coming up with our own. We also work on our observation skills by walking in random directions under the awning, moving faster and faster while trying not to bump into each other. The fact that such simple exercises actually make us laugh underscores the potential humor in almost every situation.

We work on physical expressiveness, experimenting with different gaits and miming our way through outrageous scenarios involving Godzilla and giant kleptomaniac rabbits. Martos suggests observing our fellow humans for inspiration. Most people look relatively normal, he says, but "luckily we're in New York." As if on cue, a woman with a little white dog wedged into a strap-on baby carrier strolls past. Some people don't need jestering classes.

It's been a productive weekend: I've learned some trapeze maneuvers, gotten in touch with my inner jester and started taking my juggling skills to the next level. (We had taken a half-hour juggling workshop the day before, where I was introduced to two-person juggling.)

A few days later, I receive an e-mail from the trapeze school, alerting alums to a forthcoming audition for theater performers with "circus skills." I'm tempted, but can't fit it in. The one thing I haven't learned to juggle is my schedule.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company