In the short distance, it loomed: an aluminum dinosaur. No. A giant Tinkertoy set, assembled by giants.
I turned to Yates and looked to her for a shred of enthusiasm. Mine was nowhere to be found.
"No turning back now," I said.
"This is going to be so much fun," she answered.
Despite my trepidation, an atmosphere of lightness surrounded Trapeze High, no pun intended. As the staff and the day's other fliers gradually showed up -- and there would be nine of us swinging from the bars that morning -- jokes and ironies began flying around even before people began flying around.
Introductions were hardly finished before David Ayers and I realized we had a prior connection, a six-degrees-of-separation type of thing. I wore my Fish Drum T-shirt to fly -- on the back it reads, "Poetry at gunpoint" -- hoping to channel the energy of my poet/acrobat friend, Suzi Winson. When David Ayers caught sight of the shirt, he sounded surprised. "Do you know Fish Drum?"
Turns out Ayers learned to fly with Sam Keen, the same man who taught Winson and the writer of the definitive book (Learning to Fly) about trapeze as a metaphor for life. And Keen, Ayers, Winson, and a few other fliers met once in Paris, years ago, and had dinner together. Yet another vignette from the chronicles of "It's a Small World After All (Especially When You're Swaying Around Above It)."
"First things first!" an instructor was saying. "You have to sign one of these nifty waivers. They say, 'If you mess up it's your fault, and if we mess up it's your fault.' "
I tried to focus on details, to stifle my anxiety.
Trapeze rigs are made of aluminum, cables, ropes, and the net. I would find out later that it takes about four hours for a team of six to dismantle one of these things and six hours to put it back together. The stanchions on the rig at Trapeze High soared to 31 feet in the air. The platform was over 22 feet off the ground. And looking at it, spread along the side of a horse-populated field, I wondered how anyone could have come up with the concept for such a thing. I pictured extraterrestrials planting the idea in somebody's head, like the alien monolith teaching apes about tool use in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In reality, the trapeze was initially demonstrated by its inventor, Jules Léotard, in Paris, on November 12, 1859. His rig was made of three trapezes, and he leapt and swung from one to another in a variety of positions -- a 12-minute act -- before somersaulting and alighting on a safety platform below. According to renowned circus writer Reg Bolton, Léotard's act "might be considered some kind of advanced training drill in the circus schools of today, but in his time, it was, by all accounts, magnificent." Jules Léotard became one of the world's first megastars. He appeared all over Europe and the United States and was the focus of enormous admiration.
In 1868, Léotard was feted in a still-famous ditty:
He flies through the air with the greatest of ease
That daring young man on the flying trapeze.
And if that weren't enough, Léotard also became a timeless maven of functional fashion. His one-piece outfit has been worn by acrobats and gymnasts ever since. Of course, this body-hugging costume bears his name even now.
A leotard or two was in attendance at Trapeze High that day. And I was the only male flier. (Word to all you adventurous male singles out there: it was just the teachers, a small audience of friends, a bunch of athletic girls and women in leotards and tights and sweats, and yours truly.) My fiery nerves were doused at once in a cooling dose of male pride.
As I signed my waiver and looked around, doing my best version of "nonchalant," I met the people in whose hands I would place my life that sunny day.
The instructors at Trapeze High wore simple T-shirts with the school logo and, at least at first, no tights. David Ayers did sport an authentic brown cowboy hat with a long showy feather, which only half-concealed cascading wisps of silver hair. He was able to keep his hat on because he spent the entire class on the ground pulling safety ropes. The safety ropes attach to beginning fliers by way of loops on their harnesses.
"I used to work up on the platform," he told me, "but I like it a lot better down here. From here, you can really see the faces of the students as they transform from abject fear to ecstasy."
Up on the platform was Ayers's 15-year-old son Jacob and his wife of almost two years, Lindsay Van Voorhis, who is 51. They were the "board muffins." Board muffins work the platform for the fliers, holding the fliers as they lean, helping them to chalk their hands, and catching the swinging bars with a long hook called a "noodle."
Van Voorhis and Ayers met because of the trapeze. They opened Trapeze High together in 2002. Jacob (who is Ayers's son from a previous marriage) started flying when he was only 3. Said David Ayers, "It scared him resoundingly." But young Jacob was always around the trapeze, and when he started flying again at 13, he got very good at it very quickly. "Now he can do all sorts of tricks," said David Ayers glowingly. "He's already even a pretty good catcher."
The Ayerses are a true acrobat family, in the great tradition of familial aerialists. The Alvarezes, the Codonas, the Valencias, the Caceres, the Vargases. Even Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, from the Batman and Robin comic books, was from a trapeze family, the Flying Graysons. It's strange, but I would bet the net and both swinging bars that no other activity in the world becomes a family activity the way trapeze becomes a family activity. I don't pretend to know why. Except that if one person in a family has a good acrobatic body type, then other people with the same genes may also be built to fly. And there's the addictive nature of the trapeze. Imagine if your parents swing and catch each other on their days off, as a bonding experience. You think when you get old enough to hold a bar, you won't want to do the same? And how cool would that be? Having a trapeze rig in the back yard, where your family flips around before dinner and on the weekends.