When I flew through the air, it was not with the greatest of ease.
But I did become the cautious, middle-aged man on the flying trapeze, thanks to an adult circus arts summer camp being held in Marine on St. Croix.
The program is being run by Sherri Mann, owner of Flying Colors Flying Trapeze, which Mann said has the only outdoor flying trapeze in the state.
Mann has been teaching kids in trapeze camps for about 11 years at her location near Big Marine Lake. But this summer she decided that people too old to run away to join the circus deserved a camp, too.
When I gave it a try, many of my fellow students were people who had some trapeze flying experience at facilities like Twin Cities Trapeze Center in St. Paul.
They were already familiar with tricks that have mysterious names like planches and straddle whips.
During our stretching warmups, some fellow campers were trying splits. I could barely touch my toes.
One of the campers was Katy Vandam, a 32-year-old swim coach from Minneapolis who started doing trapeze in March. She goes to Twin Cities Trapeze twice a week.
“I find it kind of like swimming, but in the air,” Vandam said. “It’s really freeing.”
Chelsea Pioske, a 30-year-old from Otsego, said the trapeze is a combination of exercise, adrenaline and meditation.
“You can’t focus on anything else when you’re up there,” she said.
Nettie Magnuson, a 59-year-old teacher from Minneapolis, came to the two-day, $200 camp to sample the trapeze and other activities including aerial silks, acroyoga and water sports like wakesurfing and paddleboarding.
Magnuson said she didn’t have any previous experience in circus arts.
“I’m not a heights person. I’m a ground person,” she said. But, she added, “I’m fascinated by the prospect I could do something different.”
From the ground up
When it was my turn to try the trapeze, the instructors first had me hang from a pullup bar on the ground to try to imitate the ideal body position to swing through the air.
I was told to imitate a green banana and form an arc with my feet slightly behind me.
“It takes a lifetime to learn a good swing,” said Shawn Klancke, who is Mann’s sister as well as being a trapeze rigger and a Minneapolis firefighter.
Then I had to hook my legs over the pullup bar to try hanging upside down. That felt awkward. It’s been more than 40 years since I’ve hung upside down from my knees at the playground.
Next I mounted the narrow metal Jacob’s ladder leading to the trapeze platform that was about 20 feet above the ground. There’s a net, of course, and I also wore a belt hooked onto safety lines.
With the trapeze rig set in the middle of an open field, I had a nice view of the clouds floating overhead, hawks and swallows flying by and neighboring fields.
“It’s like you’re flying in the sky,” said camp coach Katrina Nord.
But I was mainly focused on not falling off and following instructions: Toes to the end of the board. Grab the bar. Lean perilously over the edge while a coach holds onto my safety belt. Bend the knees at the command of “Ready.” Hop off when I hear, “Hup.”
And then I was whooshing through the air, hanging from my arms, swinging in a big arc until the coach told me to let go and I dropped into the net.
Next I was supposed to hook my legs over the bar during a midair swoop. But I missed the command to pull my legs up at the top of the first swing. That’s when you have a brief period of near-weightlessness and it’s easy to curl up and hang your legs over the bar. Something to do with physics.
I got it right the next time. And when the coach told me to release my hands, I was swinging through the air, hanging upside down from the knees, the ground rapidly zooming past below my head and dangling arms.
On my next turn, I followed the coach’s instructions as I was swinging from my arms and I swung my legs forward, back, forward and then I let go. Thanks to some more physics, I did a back somersault before I fell into the net.
Time to fly
The last lesson involved hanging upside down again. This time, when I reached the near-horizontal point at the top of the swing, the coaches told me to arch my back and extend my arms to an imaginary catcher.
That’s the person who would be swinging on another bar at the other end of the trapeze rig, ready to grab my wrists and snatch me off my bar.
Purely theoretical, I assumed, until Leo showed up.
Leo Ipsen looks like a high school kid because that’s exactly what he is, a 17-year-old who just finished 11th grade at St. Croix Prep in Stillwater. But he’s already an old circus pro. He’s been learning circus tricks for about 13 years with Circus Juventas, the St. Paul-based performing arts circus school for youths.
“It’s my job to catch people who fly across,” Leo said.
“The whole reason we swing is to get caught by a catcher,” said Klancke, who has been a catcher herself.
“Once you make that catch on the bar, that’s a cool feeling. You really get hooked,” said Oscar Cumpiano, a 27-year-old Minneapolis resident who was attending the camp.
On my next trip to the platform, I was still focused on not falling off, but in the distance I dimly perceived Leo swinging at the other end of the rig, waiting for a midair meeting.
I had my wrists taped and chalked to give Leo something to grab on. The coaches also made sure I wasn’t wearing a ring or a wristwatch that could result in an injury.
I tried to jump promptly at the “hup” command so my swing was timed to Leo’s. I swung my legs up onto the bar, but when I got upside down, I could no longer see Leo because I was swinging with my back to him.
On the return swing, I saw the platform rush away and the net racing by below. I rose up and arched my back and suddenly Leo swam into view with his arms extended.
Oh! There was a split-second image of my hands clutching at empty air. And then we swung apart.
Without enough momentum to try it again, I dropped into the net.
Learning to let go
But the coaches weren’t ready yet to send in the clowns.
“So much of trapeze is patience,” Klancke said.
Nord told me not to focus on grabbing Leo. All I had to do was to show up at the right time with my arms extended and he would do the rest.
“When you’re a flier, your only job is to look pretty and put your hands out,” Nord said.
So that’s what I did — at least, the hands out part.
I thrust out my arms at the peak of the next swing. This time Leo’s hands clamped onto my wrists like a pair of handcuffs. Without thinking, I grabbed his wrists back, straightened my legs and released from my bar. Now I was swinging below Leo on his bar.
After he dropped me onto the net, I flipped over the side and landed on the ground, feeling like Tony Curtis in the 1956 movie, “Trapeze.”
The batteries on the GoPro camera died when I did it a second time. You’ll just have to trust me.
Afterward, my arms were a bit sore from the swinging and the back of my legs ached a bit from hanging upside down. My neck got a bit tweaked from who knows what.
I’m not ready to get fitted for a leotard. But I was more than a little pleased with myself.