The fourth instructor that day wasn't related to the Ayerses, but he was the comic relief. Kevin Six, aged 40, is as nimble with his wit as he is in the air. Almost nothing was said or done that didn't receive a light, good-hearted comment from him. When one of the youngsters asked him what he thought of her flight, he said, "I didn't see you. I was flirting. I mean, I was teaching those girls how to catch!"
Six was also the designated catcher for the day. Later, he would recount how he decided to become a catcher, which, incidentally, is one of the most unappreciated, difficult, and injury-prone jobs in the circus. Spinning knees and elbows and feet are flying at you in midair, and you are hanging from the bar upside down, swaying and waiting for the single, perfectly timed moment to pluck a flying acrobat from certain failure. To me, it sounded thankless as well as difficult. You're either good at it, which is expected, or you're not, and someone might get hurt.
But Six realized that catching was his calling the day he saw a "good-looking" female flier attempt a trick called the shooting star, and instead of being caught successfully, she flew, widely splay-legged, straight into the catcher, thumping him square in the face with her crotch. "Yep," he deadpanned. "I knew it that day. Catching's for me."
The educational proceedings at Trapeze High began down here on safe soil. In "ground school," they put the harness on me, a tight belt, easily the most constricting thing ever to come in contact with my body.
"Tighten it as much as you can," Six sounded as though he was joking, but he wasn't, "and we'll come around and make it even tighter." Then they showed us how to arch our backs, bellies out, and put our arms in the air and look up. They also taught us how to hold the bar and flip ourselves upside down. Then they taught us how to land.
Landing correctly is a skill in and of itself. The trick is not to let any skin touch the net; that is, not your hands or the back of your neck or your elbows, and certainly not your feet. You want to land on your butt and your back, cradled and swallowed by the elastic mesh. This is yet another trapeze-related action that goes against intuitive thinking. You have to resist the temptation, after you let go of the bar, to put your feet or your hands out beneath you. You have to let go and trust the net.
(As an aside -- an interesting myth regarding the trapeze net: we're told that the trampoline was invented after a Frenchman named du Trampolin conceived of the trapeze safety net as a means of recurring propulsion. Whether or not there's any truth to this tale about the origins of the trampoline, it does illustrate the springiness of a trapeze net.)
So after about two minutes of ground school, they told us that we were ready to climb up, strap in, and sway. Well, at least some of us were ready.
I promptly took up my post in a shaded chair with a notebook and pen and watched the others swing.
Chi Luu, 21, brought an entourage of eight and a video camera, two digital cameras, and a healthy dose of trepidation. It was her birthday, and she wanted to do something "in the air." After her first attempt at swinging, she almost fainted. Her friends and family rushed around her as she swooned, but in a moment, after she started breathing again ("Everyone forgets to breathe their first time," said Six, matter-of-factly), she shook it off and said she was ready to go back up for another try. One of her friends, Jamie Lee, 25, decided she wanted in on the action also. I felt an overwhelming urge to pack up my gear and quietly disappear.
Amanda Markee, 19, home from college, was a self-professed "Club Med professional." She'd flown dozens of times. Her sister, Josie, 14, was a frequent flier as well. "It's a rush," she said. "I love being up in the air." The Markee sisters exhibited excellent form, arched backs, pointed toes, and plenty of flair and style. They even executed a trick called "splits," where they hold on to the bar, swinging upside down with their legs open scissored above them. They even leapt from "splits" into the catching arms of Kevin Six, probably the most acrobatic moves of the day.
It seems most folks discover the trapeze at a Club Med. Among the commonplace summer camplike activities organized at Club Meds throughout the world -- swimming, running, horseback riding, archery, golf -- they also offer trapeze. Several of the people with whom I flew for the first time got their trapeze indoctrinations at a Club Med.
Eventually, Suzi Winson explained to me, in an e-mail, "Bob Christians is the guy who brought trapeze to Club Med and is in charge of all the rigs in Club Med worldwide. He owns them and rents them out. He made trapeze a recreational sport, whereas before then it had really only been done in its classic form in the circus."
Allison Maslan, 42, a homeopathic physician by day, never thought about the trapeze until she was in her late 30s. "I used to be a gymnast," she said to me. "And when a friend first told me about the trapeze, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' But now, after five years, I think I've been up about 500 times. I just wish I'd discovered this as a young girl. I definitely would have run away with the circus."
Maslan did a full somersault without safety wires, was caught by Six, and then almost, almost was able to return to her bar. It was the closest thing to a completed trick we would see that day. Ayers later explained, "Completing a trick means you end up where you were, without safety lines. Swing, release, return to the bar, return to the platform, then 'style.' Then you feel like God." To "style" means to put your arms above your head, put your chest out, and smile for all you're worth. Van Voorhis told me that acrobats style so that the audience knows when to applaud. "Otherwise, it's a lot of visual information for the crowd to process," she said. "And in a real performance, there aren't many stopping points when it would be obvious to applaud."