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Fitness Bound

A Fantasy Workout the Barnum & Bailey Way

June 03, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, he floats through the air

With the greatest of ease,

This daring young man

On the flying trapeze ...

I had loved this man since I was a child, just like the girl who ran away to join the circus with him in the song. Old fantasies die hard, so the other Saturday I signed up my husband and myself for a Circus Sports class at Crunch fitness club in Hollywood.

The class description said students would "fly through the air tumble forward and backward ... and spend a lot of time upside down." Could it be true?

There comes a time when your body says it doesn't want to hang upside down, swing from the rings or do headstands or cartwheels. For most people that occurs around age 6. But it sounded as though the circus class would let you defy gravity, age and your own diminished adult expectations.

My husband and I arrived in loose clothes, ready to tumble. As the yoga class before us ended, the three circus teachers rushed into the glass-walled classroom to unfold mats and unfurl the rings and trapeze concealed in the beams.

There were 15 of us--11 women and four men. The first 20 minutes would be warmups, the next 20 tumbling, and the final 20 would be spent--at last!--on the rings and trapeze, explained Robert Carreiro, one of three teachers for the class. Besides Carreiro, who is 60, there was David St. Pierre, 34, and Paul Naylor, 29. All three are retired national gymnastics champions.

Quickly it became clear why there are so many teachers.

We ran through a conventional cycle of sit-ups, push-ups and stretches to limber us up. Within 10 minutes they had the whole class doing backbends. Upside down, I sneaked a peek to my left. The woman beside me had her feet practically to her ears, her back arched into a perfect bend like a wishbone.

"I do contortion," she explained during a break. I felt a pang of fear. This is L.A. Had we wandered into a class full of stunt people?

As it turned out, while there were some bolder, exhibitionist types in the class, most students were just average people with an outsize fun-seeking streak.

"Now for some feats of great courage," said Carreiro, and we lined up, excited as circus-goers.

It started simply. We were asked to do somersaults down the mats, like toddlers. But even a somersault can be dangerous for an uncoordinated adult. The teachers stood by, ready to spot. Some students rolled over easily, tumbling at high speed down the line of blue mats. Other adults seemed to have forgotten how to bend their necks, and got stuck on their heads like inverted Buddhas. They would have flopped over on their backs if the spotters had not been there to fold their rigid bodies into submission and ease their landings. Students finished their run of somersaults looking dizzy. I almost walked into the glass wall.

From there, the class rapidly divided into regulars (acrobatic, advanced) and first- or second-timers (clumsy, timid). Newer students yelped with terror and delight as they were pulled upside down and into unusual positions.

We graduated quickly to cartwheels. Then one-armed cartwheels. Then round-offs. Then handstands with a roll-out. Always, the spotters were there to coach and to catch.

I recovered from my own cartwheels just in time to see two men hoisting my husband's legs into the air, helping him spin onto his hands, up into the air and over. He did a cartwheel! One student commented on how amazing it was that muscles could store memories of how to do moves learned long ago. One student, Mark Workman, flew down the mat with speed and grace, intimidating many of us. The former wrestler, who refused to reveal his age, said he had learned all his tricks here.

"This class reminded me of being in third grade," he said.

Many in the class were newcomers. Jennifer Li, 29, had never danced or done gymnastics. "It just looked like so much fun," said the writing teacher.

The tumbling portion of the class climaxed with front handsprings. I couldn't believe that they were going to let people run down the mat and try this without signing waiver forms. The first few people seemed to be ex-gymnasts. Then people grew more timid, more real.

One guy landed on his feet with a thud so jarring I was sure he had broken a vertebra. But he just jogged back into line. When another guy launched into his handstand, the spotters lifted him in slo-mo, like a levitating magician's assistant, and carried him to an upright landing position. The class erupted in applause. Now, that was something that would never happen in an aerobics class. The cool thing was that with the help of the spotters, you could get the feeling of the move, even if there was no way on God's Earth that you would ever be able to do it on your own.

Twenty minutes to go and, finally, the airborne portion of the class began. We formed two lines before the trapeze and the rings.

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