If you've ever wanted to summon your inner acrobat and try flying trapeze, now's your chance. The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts just opened the city's only permanent outdoor flying trapeze school in West Mount Airy and is now offering lessons for the public. Attendees can soar through the trees and learn tricks of their own, all over a safety net that catches you if your hands happen to slip.
I showed up to a class on a recent Wednesday morning to give it a shot (and to see if it was as scary as it looked). It turned out to be one of the most exhilarating and terrifying things I've ever done on this job.
"People come because this is something they've dreamed of doing their entire lives," Mary Kelly Rayel, the director and main instructor of the school's trapeze program, said. "Maybe they come and take one class. But I also have people come thinking, 'I'll try it once,' and they're with me for eight years. Everyone's experience is so individual and no two people are the same."
In the past, Philadelphians have also been able to take classes from Rayel at a pop-up trapeze school at 5th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. She also runs Fly School Circus Arts in Bucks County during spring and summer.
Rayel, who has been performing and teaching trapeze for 28 years, starts her beginner students on a trapeze bar close to the ground to get them used to the feeling of hanging from one. After buckling everyone into safety belts, she used it to show us how to swing our legs, point our toes and hook our knees over the bar before letting go of it to hang upside down.
"Now we're going to go do all of this on the actual trapeze," she said breezily after about 20 minutes of walking us through the basics, gesturing to the ropes-course-like setup I had been studiously ignoring. "And I'll tell you to let go and grab your knees after we've gone through all of us, and you'll do a backflip."
Jaws hit the ground. For all of us, this was going to be our first time on a trapeze and Rayel was telling us that we were going to have to hang upside down and do a backflip? Impossible. I'm not afraid of heights, but in that moment, the 23-foot-tall metal platform off which we were to jump seemed as tall as the Comcast building.
But somehow Rayel coaxed us all into climbing up the ladder with wobbly knees and taking the leap of faith off the platform. (There were definitely some tears and lengthy pep talks that first round.) As I made myself grab the bar with both hands while leaning forward, I realized that if I didn't jump within the next 30 seconds, I wasn't going to do it at all. Don't think, I told myself, and hopped off.
Suddenly, I was whooshing through the air. The leaves above me became a green blur and somewhere far away, I heard Rayel tell me to hook my knees over the bar and let go. (My body complied as my mind raced to process what was going on.) And then — to my great surprise — I did a backflip and landed in the net, unscathed.
"For some people, the mental hurdle is the ladder," Rich Chapell, one of Rayel's students who helps her out during lessons, said. "For others, it's the jump. Or putting the second hand on the bar. We just try to break it into small steps for everyone so it's manageable."
Over the next two hours, I did more backflips — to my surprise — and eventually became comfortable hooking my knees over the bar on the first swing. At the end of class, Rayel had me work with a catcher, a person who catches the "flier," for the first time. And even though everyone I took the class with ended at different points in their trapeze journey, we agreed that we felt supported and safe throughout the whole process. Everyone was proud of something they had accomplished.
Trapeze uses your upper body and core strength, so it's a full-body workout. My back, abs, and arms were sore for a few days afterward, even though I was only on the trapeze four times during the two-hour lesson. Lessons also include people of all levels, but Rayel tailors instructions to each participant. (Maximum weight for participants is 250 pounds. Participants concerned about other health risks should consult with their physician before participating.)
"The one thing that I like to have people remember is that everyone has their own experience here," Rayel said. "Some people think they're not strong enough, tall enough, small enough, big enough. They put limitations on themselves and the thing to remember when you come to do flying trapeze with us is to just bring yourself, bring who you are, and wherever you start, that's your starting point and you go from there."