On a Friday morning in March, music rings out from a large tent-like structure on West 30th Street. One canvas flap is thrown open to the street on the unseasonably warm day. A pedestrian spares it a curious glance—and stops in his tracks.
A woman has just leaped from her perch on a 20-foot-high platform and is swinging her legs up onto a trapeze. She dangles for a moment upside down, then kicks her legs out, somersaults in midair and drops like a stone into the springy net below. Calling Trapeze School New York an institution of continuing education might strike some as a little odd, but instructor and front office associate Laura Valpey thinks it’s a fair assessment. The way she sees it, a class doesn’t need to be career-oriented to be an enriching experience, one that is worthwhile entirely on its own merits.
"For most people there isn’t some big end goal in mind, but there is consistently the challenge," Valpey said. "It’s the little victories. It’s totally gratifying."
Gratifying… and addictive?
"Completely," she said, her freckled face breaking into a grin. "It’s ridiculous. I’ve been threatening to take some other class, but why, when I could be flying instead?"
Flying. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of possessing this superpower? Many adrenaline junkies skydive and bungee jump, but those involve falling more than flying. Swooping through the air on "the flying trapeze," in the words of Bruce Springsteen, may be about as close as we can get to the sensation.
"Next flier up!" an instructor shouted from the platform above.
A dozen people, most in their twenties and thirties, were taking turns swinging on the single trapeze currently rigged above the net. Some had obviously done this before and flew with the greatest of ease. Others, not so much.
One first-timer whiffed the somersault and flopped into the net, causing a ripple of good-natured laughter. "We’ll try that again," instructor Hal Anderson said encouragingly as the student wobbled over to the edge of the net like a newborn giraffe.
Anderson, Valpey and the other instructors have lean builds and the strong forearms typically associated with rock climbers. On the far end of the facility is a trampoline, where one of their colleagues bounced with the grace of a dancer before scurrying up a Spanish web rope. He looped it around himself and contorted his body in midair, touching his foot to his forehead like a performer in Cirque du Soleil.
Occasionally, one of the instructors will demonstrate a technique.
"See how his legs aren’t swinging around," Anderson said, pointing. "He’s hanging straight."
The students watched with raised eyebrows.
"It never looks difficult, and it’s not that high," said Tal Goretsy, 35, of Chelsea. "But seeing the net below, all the patterns with the carpet—and you’re leaning forward knowing they’re about to let go…" He rubbed his face, leaving a trail of white chalk on his cheek. "I’m a little nervous, actually. I’m up next."
His classmate Jo Decal, 32, shared the sentiment.
"It’s good because it’s out of my comfort zone," she said. "I’m an active person but this is totally different from anything else in terms of energy and strength. It’s fun, but I’m really scared. I almost puked."
Nearly all of the students, however, hopped down from the net with huge smiles on their faces after completing the day’s trick. A poster hanging by the door illustrates the hundreds of possible aerial maneuvers, from the simple to the death-defying.
There’s "Backend Gazelle," "Shooting Star" and, memorably, "Upright Reverse Suicide."
A television sits nearby where the instructors play videos of each attempt, helping the students break down the movements they are trying to master.
"It’s an amazing teaching tool," said Valpey. "It can all be such a blur up there. It’s over before you even realize what you did. Seeing it really helps."
Many people come in to try it once or twice, but the school offers extended courses and discount rates for those who want to build their skills over time. For many, it has become a big part of their social lives. One group holds regular costume nights with ever-changing themes.
Trapeze School New York is open year-round, but in the upcoming summer months it will be operating at two additional locations: one on Governors Island and one on Pier 40, near Houston Street.
All skill levels are welcome, Valpey said, emphasizing that people with disabilities can enjoy the trapeze, too.
"There’s a woman who has had some serious health issues who comes in all the time," she said. "It’s a little harder for her, sure, but she keeps coming back."
And why not? When simply walking is hard, flying must seem like a dream.