Life's lessons from the trapeze

SUN JOURNAL

Flight: A few die-hard amateurs spend weekends in Connecticut testing their courage, self-confidence and athletic skills.

October 14, 1999|By Rachel Gottlieb | Rachel Gottlieb,HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Rochelle Friedlich climbs 24 feet to the trapeze platform. She reaches for the bar with one hand. Takes flight. Grabs hold of the bar with her other hand. Then she soars.

On this, her first day flying on the trapeze, the 39-year-old Manhattan attorney is flexing beyond a swing. She means to execute her first trick: flying into the arms of a catcher who is hanging upside down and swinging.

Friedlich hoists her legs over the bar, lets go with her hands and drops backward, leaving her legs curled around the bar.

The moment comes. The catcher yells for Friedlich to release. Fly.

But there is no letting go.

"She was thinking about the catch," instructor Gary Estrella says from the ground the instant Friedlich misses her cue. "She forgot about her legs."

It's one of the life lessons of the trapeze. Fliers have to concentrate on their own moves, their form. They can't worry about what the catcher will do. They must trust others on the rig to execute their roles. And they must trust themselves.

Amateurs around the world are flocking to the few places where they can learn to fly on the trapeze, testing their courage, concentration, trust and self-confidence, and learning to make mind and body work together.

The outdoor rig at Club Getaway in Kent, Conn., is one of those places. The regular fliers there took their first leap while on Club Med vacations. When they returned home, they looked for the nearest trapeze. About a dozen die-hard fans from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and beyond make the trip to Kent every weekend.

Judi Daniels, 28, a Hartford sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, left a forlorn boyfriend behind in New Jersey on a recent Saturday. He wanted to cuddle; she wanted to fly.

Jennifer Lamphier, a 31-year-old oral surgeon in New Jersey, passed up a weekend with her friends at their time-share in the Hamptons on Long Island. "My friends are like, `Are we ever going to get you back?' No. This is more fun."

Simone Pam, a 28-year-old Manhattan attorney, bucked her boss' pleas to put in extra hours at the office. She brought her work with her.

David Katzenstein, a Massachusetts resident, takes first place for extreme dedication. He sold his food-flavoring factory to clear his schedule. "It wasn't fun. I want to do something passionate with my life. I want to focus more attention on trapeze."

The others flirt with danger, but the risks Katzenstein takes are more profound: He's missing four fingers on his left hand. The thumb on his left hand does little more than help him with balance. As he sails through the air, "I'm gripping like death with my right hand."

Katzenstein's dexterity and strength are the stuff of legend in the intimate world of trapeze fliers. When he travels to a distant trapeze, fliers are thrilled to meet him.

"Everybody goes, `Oh, I've heard of you.' It's like a gunslinger walking into town," he says.

Katzenstein's intensity is typical of the amateur fliers who work for years to add height and graceful fluidity to their swing. Again and again, they wait their turn to sail from the platform and practice somersaults, catches, layouts (a somersault with the body straight rather than tucked), aerial back splits and other tricks.

They watch each other, critique style and technique and cheer for victories. Success is defined by the challenge, the elegance of a limber body finding its way through the air, and even by the form of a fall.

Each one excels at a different trick. Some are better at splits, others at turns and somersaults. Daniels performs a maneuver unique in her group. She swings forward, hoists herself up so her hips rest on the bar. "Then I kick forward. I kick backward. I do a front flip, and I get caught."

It's beautiful. And it thrills her peers on the ground.

The experience is different for everyone. Some don't dissect segments of a swing or have favorite moments. For them, each part is a piece of the whole.

Katzenstein is keenly aware of each segment of a swing because each component puts different demands on his few fingers.

"There are three moments in each swing," he says. "When you reach the high point of each swing, you don't feel any forces. You're not going up; you're not going down. There are two peaks where there's nothing, and the bottom where there's everything.

At the bottom, he says, "there are up to three G's of forces on your body. All the forces are at maximum -- the sounds of the air going by are at their maximum. It's like holding a tiger by the tail with my hand challenge. I'm just screaming to hold on with all the centrifugal force pulling on your body."

Estrella has noticed that most of his regular students are high-achieving professionals. They're problem-solvers and risk-takers. Doctors, lawyers, a Broadway producer, captains of industry -- people who are at ease exerting themselves and taking pride in a hard-won triumph.

There's always more to achieve, Estrella says. "You do a double, you want to do a triple."

On the trapeze, Estrella says, fliers grow in ways that they take back to their jobs and lives. "People come here, and they don't trust themselves. They're probably the same at the workplace."

After one day on the rig, Friedlich can see how the trapeze will affect her life. "I'm reminding myself that I can do more than I think I can do," she says.

Others, such as Paul Cannon, the rig's 34-year-old catcher from England, find the aerial stunts invigorating rather than spiritual, a thrill in the air that can't be matched on the ground. He enjoys the keen focus that catching others requires.

Catching can be risky. The flier can collide with the catcher.

So Cannon watches the fliers' bodies and their hands. "You don't think of anything else," he says. "You're completely focused. It makes you feel intensely alive. You come down from the trapeze and you know very intensely you're alive, and you're very happy about it."

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