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Frequent fliers

The popularity of the trapeze is soaring. And why not? It's fun -- and a good workout.

June 20, 2005|John Rosenthal | Special to The Times

Whether you're hoping to add some zest to your workout or just looking for a fling, there's never been a better time to try the flying trapeze. With more than 50 trapeze schools and camps around the country, just about anybody can be a swinger.

There is no national governing body keeping statistics about trapeze use, but people who run trapeze schools say that the sport is enjoying unprecedented interest. Tim Holst, vice president of talent and production for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has "no doubt that flying trapeze is more popular in this country than ever before. Everywhere I go, I see trapeze acts."

The idea of giving trapeze lessons to the general public dates back to 1983, when Club Med opened a rig at its now-closed Eleuthera, Bahamas, location. But most people in the industry say the biggest upswing started in August 2003, when Sarah Jessica Parker's character took a flying leap in an episode of HBO's "Sex and the City."

"In the past, you had to be born into the circus," said Ray Pierce, who owns and operates Hollywood Aerial Arts, a trapeze school here in the Southland. The average person simply didn't have access to tightropes and unicycles, much less the elaborate rigging and netting of the trapeze.

"But now, anybody from students to CEOs can fly through the air," Pierce said The great majority of his fliers are perfectly grounded people who have little interest in running away and joining the circus.

David Ayers, owner of Trapeze High in Escondido, said his students have ranged in age from 4 to 80, including a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. "He took six lessons and finally got up the ladder and was able to swing," Ayers said.

Now here's the best part: In addition to being an adrenaline rush, flying on the trapeze can be good exercise.

Even if you do nothing more than climb up the 30-foot ladder to the trapeze platform a dozen times during the course of an hour, you'll get a StairMaster-worthy workout for your quads, thighs and calves. And if you have no fear of flying, you'll work muscles you never knew you had.

"At a gym, you work certain parts of the body," said Julio Gaona, owner of the Flying Gaonas Trapeze and Circus Arts School in Chicago. "On the trapeze, you work all your muscles in one swing."

Gaona's brother Richie, who offers trapeze classes at his home in Woodland Hills, said even people in top physical condition were amazed at the workout they got from flying. "I've taught all kinds of fitness instructors -- yoga, Pilates, people who work out all the time -- and they all come back a day or two later and say how sore they are."

The biggest benefit of trapeze comes from the fact that you're holding the entire weight of your body from your hands or your knees. That builds strength in your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps and especially your latissimus dorsi (a.k.a. your lats, the big muscles in your back that extend up under your armpits).

"Lat work is what gives you the trapezoidal shape that everybody wants these days," Pierce said. "You can do push-ups all day and you'll never work your lats."

Jonathan Conant, owner of Trapeze School New York, the outfit that hosted the "Sex and the City" episode, agreed. "Women say they like their shape better from doing trapeze because they're more nicely defined in the shoulders and lats."

Flying on the trapeze also helps develop the elusive "core strength" that's such a buzzword in exercise circles these days. Kicking your legs back and forth to build up your swing, threading them between your arms onto the trapeze bar, and keeping both sides of your body balanced all build abdominal strength. Plus the moves are a whole lot more fun than sit-ups or leg lifts.

"I hate working out, and I especially hate working my stomach muscles," said Ryanne Plaisance, an actress and a frequent flier at Hollywood Aerial Arts. "But this is fun. I feel very light. It's a great feeling to be weightless."

It's that kind of enthusiasm that keeps people from quitting trapeze as they do with repetitive forms of exercise such as jogging on a treadmill or lifting weights. In fact, Conant said many of his regular students also practiced yoga, rock climbing or Pilates to build even more core strength so they that can improve their flying.

"We see lots of people falling in love with the sport, and dedicating a lot of time and money away from the trapeze to get themselves more limber, lose weight, and get more done on the trapeze."

The trapeze is not for everyone, however. Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise, cautions against flying for people with orthopedic ailments or shoulder, wrist or elbow injuries, because those joints bear so much weight. And he suggests that people with hypertension remain grounded "because of the periods where you'll be suspended upside down," which can cause blood pressure to rise.

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