Circus arts: Danger from above

There’s no clowning around in Sky Gym’s aerial classes
The author poses on a trapeze at Sky Gym
The author poses on a trapeze at Sky Gym

“I don’t mean to sound grim, but people die doing this,” the bald man says, his goateed face looking grave and his legs folded into lotus position.

“This is dangerous. There’s nothing that’s going to take that danger away.”

This momentarily silences the nervous giggles of two tweens.

“I hope that you are afraid of getting hurt, because if you’re not, you’re the person who is going to get hurt, without a doubt.”

The man, who calls himself Myster Porch, continues: “It’s going to leave bruises. It can leave marks.”

A woman cautiously raises her hand.

“So … is there anything that’s … fun about this? You’ve told us a lot about what’s scary … but why are we here?”

Porch nods wisely and says only she can know why she decided to attend Sky Gym’s “Intro to Aerial Dance.”

The class acquaints wannabe Cirque du Soleil-ers with swinging on trapezes, spinning on suspended metal hoops, and dangling, stretching and spiraling on long strips of fabric that hang from the ceiling.

And, of course, the class acquaints would-be acrobats with the very real dangers associated with the art.

The small and relatively cozy Sky Gym may not be as tall as a circus big top, but the facility’s ceilings are twenty-eight feet tall. And the mats on the floor are only 1 ½ inches thick.

“That doesn’t add up,” Porch warns. “Only you can keep you safe.”

After our “Scared Straight” talk, Porch takes us out onto the gym floor for a quick warm-up (mostly jumping jacks, rolling shoulders, stretching wrists) and some instruction on swinging from the silks.

I twist one silk around each wrist, twice, and then hoist myself up and tuck in my knees. Yeah, it’s much tougher than it looks. It’s essentially an only-slightly-assisted pull-up. My partner and spotter, Mikey, pushes me like I’m on a rope swing at a lake.

Then we all take turns doing basic moves on various pieces of apparatus: standing or sitting on knotted silks, sitting on the trapeze, and climbing on to and lying back on the lira (the metal hoop). The last, a co-instructor says, should feel like a metal thong in your rear (it does).

Porch tells us that audiences never clap at the right times when watching an aerialist. They don’t realize that actually getting up on the trapeze—swinging your legs up onto the bar, hanging by your hands and knees, then reaching for the ropes and pulling yourself into a seated position—is one of the most strenuous parts of any routine.

He’s not kidding. I work pretty hard on my upper-body strength, but these moves make me ache, particularly in my shoulders, lats, and hands. While this isn’t a cardio-intensive activity (at least at the beginner level), it’s definitely a workout for your arms, shoulders, back, and core.

When I attend the follow-up class, which focuses on just the silks and moves like the “Lady in the Moon” and “the Gazelle,” the effort and pain increase ten-fold.

I put a knot in the bottom of my two silks to create a U-shape that I can stand on or sit in. Then I put one foot on the knot, stand up, then shift the weight to the other foot while wrapping one silk around that ankle.

Then I hold on to the other half of the hammock with both hands and swing my body through the two silks until my ankle is wrapped three times. With each wrapping, I have to use my arms to pull my body through the silks.

My “Lady in the Moon” looks more like “Panicking Trussed Pig.”

Porch is right about another thing: It’s not the climb onto the trapeze, or the hoisting and pulling I do to get set up on the silks, that I ask Mikey to take a photograph of.

I ask him to take a shot when I’m already sitting on the trapeze bar, perched like a perfect parakeet. My arms push the ropes to the side and I position my legs like I’m doing a modified stag leap.

It’s the easiest thing I’ll do all day.