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Weekend Escape

San Francisco, in Full Swing

In trapeze class, a novice learns to fly with a little 'Hep!' from her friends.

January 06, 2002|LISA MARLOWE

SAN FRANCISCO — At 10 on a crisp Saturday morning, my sister Connie and I stood in our woolly socks in a cavernous former high school gym and gazed up. A silver-haired 64-year-old retired college professor in a turquoise leotard had just climbed a skinny steel ladder to a 30-foot-high ledge.

Eyes focused ahead and legs slightly bent, she grasped a gauze-covered bar with both hands. On the command of "Hep!" she swung out with a graceful arch, kicked her legs back, then brought her feet up and hung by the knees upside down, flying back and forth before dropping to the net below.

Forget skydiving, bungee jumping or hang gliding. This was the thrill I sought: the flying trapeze. This was the realm of the young at heart, a place of levity and joy--sentiments that have been all too elusive for many of us in recent months. When Connie and I walked through the door of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts that morning and read the sign, "Do Not Ride Your Unicycle in the Basement," we knew we were in the right place.

As a girl, I found nirvana high in the treetops, hanging by my knees. I never outgrew that yearning. A circus-themed weekend in August, centered on the San Francisco trapeze classes, let me fulfill a lifelong dream while letting go of stresses and sending my spirits soaring.

The adventure began on a Friday when I flew to Oakland to meet my sister, who lives in the Bay Area. We drove to San Francisco and checked into the monolithic Hyatt Regency at Embarcadero Center ($139 per night plus tax, though rates have since dropped on some weekends).

Wired about the next day's trapeze lesson, we skipped a fancy dinner and channeled our energy into a walk through the lively North Beach neighborhood. At Caffe Trieste we stopped for cafe crema and authentic Roman tomato focaccia, then watched a parade of leather-clad hipsters bop down the boulevard before we called it a night.

Harvard philosophy professor and author Sam Keen, an ardent flier who first learned trapeze arts at age 62 at the San Francisco circus school, has written about "the aerial instinct--the drive to soar above our present condition." It's the defining characteristic of being human, he says.

School founder Stephan Gaudreau shares the philosophy. The trapeze is a metaphor for risk, for overcoming self-imposed limits, he says. Some students use classes as a way of conquering midlife crises, shyness or phobias.

Many of the teachers are current or former members of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros. and other top shows. The school also develops talents for its own professional troupe, the New Pickle Circus, which practices and performs in the same space. Classes are offered in clowning, stage combat, Chinese acrobatics and other arts. The most popular by far is the flying trapeze.

The beginners' class is open to everyone and has no physical requirements. Surprisingly, upper body strength matters little. By the end of the 90-minute lesson, students should be able to perform a blind, upside-down flight into the arms of an instructor on a facing trapeze. Classes are limited to six and emphasize personal attention, so even the klutzy students can learn to fly.

Inside the gym we found an air of privilege, as if we had been admitted to a rarefied (albeit eclectic) club, one that included a kindergarten teacher, a waitress, a physical therapist and a stockbroker. After we had practiced with instructor Scott Cameron on what is called a static trapeze on the ground, Connie and I were eager for flight.

She ascended to the platform first, where a lithe instructor named Eric Vuillemey attached safety lines to her belt and assisted with takeoff. (The lines, held by another instructor on the ground, resemble the belaying ropes used in rock climbing.) In the air--as when earthbound--Connie demonstrated a dexterity that put me to shame when my turn came.

At the top of the platform, I grasped the bar. Then everything happened as if I were in a trance. With Eric's loud "Hep!" I swung out. The whoosh of air in my ears seemed to whisper "welcome." With the deepest pleasure, I was flying.

Timing was essential. My takeoff and back arch got better after a few tries. I managed to curl up my feet for the knee hang with ease, and it took only two tries to perfect my upside-down drop.

But when instructor Jennings McCown climbed hand over hand up the rope, wrapped his Superman legs around his trapeze and began to arc toward me with outstretched arms, my concentration took a nosedive.

He called "Hep!" That was my cue to take off from the opposing platform, hang upside-down and meet him midway, where he would grasp my wrists and I would let go of my bar. This was the idea, anyway.

The first two attempts, I was late; our movements wouldn't synchronize. Third try, we touched hands, but my knees would not cooperate. I was too scared to let go.

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