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Trying the Flying Trapeze

Swinging on a flying trapeze was never a childhood fantasy of mine, so I'm not sure what I was doing leaning off a platform 24 feet in the air, holding a 7-pound bar in my right hand. With my left hand, I clung to one of the slender vertical cables that supported the platform. The instructor, who was poised next to me on the tiny plank, was telling me to step off into thin air before grasping the trapeze with my left hand.

Somehow I think he had heard all the protests – and the disbelief and the stark fear and the obscenities – before.

I had signed on to a Club Med vacation on Mexico's Pacific coast for the sun and the sea and to take a break from work and winter. The circus activities the resort offers were of little interest to me.

But you can hardly avoid the trapeze once you're there. It's attached to a large rectangular apparatus, with metal poles at the corners, and a safety net and a ladder, in a grassy area near the tennis courts. No big top.

A few days into the vacation I headed over to the trapeze to see what was going on.

First I watched. Those willing to try it were told to put on a safety belt while still on the ground and pull it as tight as possible. People of all sizes and athletic ability climbed up the shaky metal ladder.

They were hooked up to safety lines once they were up (way up) on the platform. It's actually called a pedestal, according to Bob Christians, Club Med's circus manager for the 23 participating clubs. The belt prevents a nasty neck-wrenching dive into the safety net below if something goes wrong. This is all standard equipment, even for those in professional circus training.

No matter what anyone did up there, everyone on the ground would clap enthusiastically. If the instructors shouted, “That was his first time!” the applause was even louder.

I couldn't help thinking, “I can do that.” That turned into: “When else am I going to try it? Where else?” Solid-ground-loving gal decides to take the plunge. I got in line.

Everyone who went up managed to do something. They jumped off. They swung by their hands. They hung by their knees. No one got off the line, and no one got hurt.

It actually looked kind of easy. Yet, when it was my turn to climb the ladder, my hands were sweating badly. I dipped them in the powdered chalk provided at the base of the ladder and started to climb.

As the people below got smaller, wooziness set in. I stopped for a second, hoping it would pass, but the inch-thick round metal rungs dug into my bare feet.

They had told us not to look down as we climbed, so I concentrated on my hands and started up again, staring only at my white knuckles as they wrapped around rung after rung.

Finally I was high enough. I reached out with my right foot across a two-foot chasm until it touched the platform. Then I stretched my right hand out and clutched the vertical cable holding up the platform I needed to step on.

The pedestal wobbled. Whoa. I waited, clinging to the cable with both hands. I considered wrapping my legs around it. Anything to feel some security. There sure was a lot of air up there.

The instructor motioned to me to step to the middle of the pedestal – time for my quickie training session. He hooked the safety line to my belt.

This is when the instructor told me about the jumping-off part. Mainly that I was going to do it. Very soon. Just as soon as he called out, “Hep.”

I didn't know what to look at. The fear was excruciating. I wanted to jump, even if it meant permanent damage. I had to get off that wobbling platform. The ground was coming in and out of focus beneath me.

I leaned out into the air, toes over the edge of the platform, hips jutting forward, stretching with my right hand to hold the trapeze out. With my left hand I held on behind me.

The “Hep” came. I took a little hop and … I was off. Amazingly, my left hand had grasped the trapeze before the real heavy-duty swinging began.

And then, instantaneously, my fear evaporated. I was not, as I had feared, twisting by one arm or careering toward the ground.

The fear was replaced by the rush of having taken the leap.

All I could think was, “Hey, here I am, swinging over the crowd, flying through the air with the greatest of …” well, you know. I gripped the bar tightly. I knew I wasn't going to fall now.

The swing continued out. As I neared the weightless height of the arc, the instructor on the ground shouted, “Knees up!”

I pulled my knees through my arms and up over the bar. It took some maneuvering, but I made it in time, before I swung back almost to the platform.

“Hands off!” I let go with my hands and swung back out by my knees.

“Head up!” I arched my back and looked ahead of me. I saw an empty second trapeze, an omen of things to come.

I flipped onto the safety net and accepted the applause meted out to a first-timer. My hands were trembling – a combination of adrenaline and the tight grip. I stayed to watch some others.

One 6-footer let go of the trapeze just after take-off, speeding in a beautifully splayed freefall toward the net below. Just in time, the rope of his safety belt was pulled taut by the instructor on the ground attached to the other end. The instructor was pulled into the air several feet, but he saved the guy from a face full of net.

A 12-year-old climbed up the ladder, but he was too little to reach the trapeze from the platform. The instructor dangled him by the waist while he hung onto the bar.

Those using the flying trapeze have ranged from 3-year-olds to people in their 70s, Christians said. One guy was so large they had to attach two safety belts together to get it around him.

Three days after my first attempt, the instructors told me I was ready to do a “catch,” a more intricate move that the hard-core can graduate to after perfecting the swing. An instructor got up onto the second trapeze.

My turn came. I climbed the shaky ladder once again.

The “Hep” came and I leaped off. I swung out, pulling my knees up and over the bar, and swung back. I took my hands off.

And then, as I swung out again, I arched my back and picked my head up.

And in rather slow motion, it seemed, as I reached my hands up, the instructor on the other trapeze swung toward me. We met for a moment, knees on our respective trapezes, faces to each other.

He reached out and clamped his hands on my wrists. When I felt that, I clamped my grip on his wrists.

Suddenly my trapeze was gone and I was swinging out with him, holding fast.

Peripheral vision revealed trees going by. As we swung back, me backward, and rose skyward, he called out, “Push off!” I let go of him and did a half turn.

By some miracle, my empty trapeze was swinging toward me. (It has bonked some people in the face at that point, I've been told).

I was able to grab it – legs sloppily apart, I learned later from photos taken by a Club Med photographer – and swung away from the instructor on the other trapeze. The applause was deafening.

OK, maybe that's the way I remember it. I know there was some clapping.

And I know, certainly, I don't feel that sense of accomplishment after a day at the office.

First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved

2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.