It was a hot, sticky June day in Southern California, but I was standing in the breeze on a small steel board 25 feet above Santa Monica Pier. As the trapeze bar was pulled up to meet me, I leaned all of my weight forward off the board and caught hold of it, now held in a precarious balance between board and bar. My legs visibly shook, my palms sweated and the distance between me and the net below seemed to go on forever. Then the call came: “Ready!” I bent my knees. “Hup!” Nothing happened.
My fear was taking over. I couldn’t let this keep happening. Already I had stood on the board willing myself to jump, and had let someone else go ahead of me. Beth, the instructor standing on the board with me had tried to reassure me that she was holding onto my harness and that everything would be fine. “Don’t worry! I’ve totally got you. You can’t fall.” I was determined to overcome my fear and do this.
I stepped to the edge of the board again. The bar was presented. I leaned out and grabbed hold. I felt Beth’s grip behind me. The call came: “Ready!” Knees bent. “Hup!” One tiny jump, a bunny hop, off the edge of the board, and I was sailing through the air toward the glittering, azure sea. An involuntary yelp escaped. Weightless at the highest point of the swing, I followed the call “Legs up! Knees on!” My legs tucked up higher than my head, knees hooked over the bar, hands off, and I was swinging, hanging from my knees. Hands back on the bar, legs back down, let go and falling to land on my back in the net with a soft bounce. It was over.
I had spent time in LA, and particularly in Santa Monica, before, and it was one of my favourite places to train. I train in circus arts at home in Ireland and abroad, and the lure of towering palm trees and golden beaches, as well as the high standards and large circus community, had drawn me back here once again. But while I’m comfortable climbing silks or commanding a static trapeze, I had never tried flying trapeze before this.
Santa Monica is a holiday paradise. It’s sunny streets are lined with endless shops, bars and restaurants, and lead down to a long, wide beach bordered by palm trees facing the blue Pacific.
This beach is the home of Santa Monica’s Original Muscle Beach, where every day a community of gymnasts, acrobats, yogis and exercise enthusiasts come to train. You see the same people there each day and come to know them by their first names. Everyone is friendly and supportive and interested in helping each other learn their tricks.
Next to this, the huge wooden pier stretches out across the beach and into the sea, and is filled with tourists and locals, shops and fast food outlets, a fairground and TSNY: LA, the flying trapeze school I was to attend for the next ten days.
Before and after classes I amused myself at Muscle Beach, making friends with locals, climbing ropes and learning to work the travelling rings – a long line of rings that users swing between, and those more experienced than me had worked pirouettes, tricks and spins into their swing.
There I met Joe, a traveller from Philadelphia who had motorbiked across America; Darren, who wore a tiger costume the first day I saw him on the rings and who gave me tips about grip and posture; and Mandy and Aaron, a couple who had met here at the beach and who were now teaching their four year old daughter to use the rings.
Trapeze classes were fun, and I soon found it easier to jump off the board, but the adrenaline rush of flying through the air never faded. By the second class, my fingers and palms were torn up and eventually my hands wouldn’t hold me up anymore, and I quickly learnt from other students to wear bandages to protect them.
Five times each morning, I climbed the ladder in the sunshine and stood on the board, allowing myself to be clipped into safety lines. Between turns on the trapeze I looked at books and posters and learnt about the different kinds of tricks and the progressions through them. The knee hang I had completed the first time round was just the beginning.
Once my teachers were happy that I was confident in the knee hang, I was allowed to try the trick with a catcher. This was another person on a second trapeze at the far end of the rig, who would hang upside down, swinging, and catch hold of my wrists as we met in the middle, as I dismounted from my trapeze. I would then swing beneath him until he let go and I fell to the net.
TSNY’s tagline is Forget fear, worry about the addiction, and it’s highly appropriate. The initial terror of standing on the edge of the 25 foot high board is quickly forgotten, and the addiction to the rush takes over. I couldn’t get enough. In ten days I took eight classes, in between training on beautiful, pale green silks in the sunshine and climbing ropes or practising the travelling rings at Muscle Beach.
The lifestyle of the people I met in Santa Monica is centred on the outdoors, on exercise and activity. It’s a healthy and happy lifestyle, so far from the alcohol culture I know so well at home, where the most common social activity is to drink in a pub. This is in part due to LA’s car culture, which makes heavy drinking less of an everyday occurrence than it is in walkable Dublin, and the warm weather also helps. Even when I met up with an old travel friend for an afternoon, instead of going for a pint we drove up to Hollywood Hills for a hike.
At the end of ten active, tiring and happy days, I sat at the boarding gate in LAX, riveted to the news of the ongoing count of the UK’s EU referendum while awaiting my flight to London Heathrow. While I was in the air, it would be announced that the UK had voted to leave the EU, but I didn’t know that yet. I would land in London the following day to find Heathrow Airport’s staff unable to talk of anything else. But for now, I was happily unaware of anything except that flying trapeze had become my new favourite (and most expensive) hobby. Sadly it’s completely unavailable in Ireland, but before a month had passed I would be back in London for more, this time flying high above Kensington Gardens.
When leaving LA in June 2016 I promised myself that I would be back within two years. Less than a year has passed and already I long for the palm trees against the sunset, afternoons at Muscle Beach and the camaraderie of the people there. I feel sure that I’ll be lured back again before two years is out.