Trapeze lessons raise the bar for thrills

July 25, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Four women soared through an overcast sky yesterday during the inaugural class of the trapeze school at the Inner Harbor, experiencing thrills once available only to circus acrobats or those visiting exclusive resorts.

Columbia physical therapist Susan Davis, 36, said her heart had been pounding since she got in the car to drive to the class. "I'm a little nervous," she said as instructor Scout Day hooked her guide lines on. "Are you sure I'm ready for this?"

However, on her first try, Davis wrapped her legs around the trapeze bar, released her hands and safely reached Brian McVicker's outstretched arms. She unlocked her knees from the bar, swung through the air and finally landed softly in the safety net.

"Susan, welcome to trapeze school," said McVicker, president of the new school.

The Trapeze School of New York has opened its first franchise, TSNY Baltimore, through an arrangement with the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. As of yesterday, more than 20 people had registered for two-hour classes on the 23-foot-high trapeze rig on the east side of Rash Field, next to the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

Amy Franklin, 28, a teacher in Kuwait attending a graduate program at George Mason University this summer, had taken a class more than a year ago in New York and so wasn't expecting to be scared. Although she placed her 10 toes off the platform and leaned forward, grabbing the bar with both hands as instructed, it took her three tries to finally respond to "Hep!" - the command to jump off.

"I was scared all over again," she said afterward. However, "it felt good to be reminded of that fear again. It's good to know you have some boundaries."

`Why can't we?'

The pilot program will be offered through November. As part of the school's $2,000-a-month lease agreement with the city, about 700 children from programs at Baltimore's recreation centers will have a chance to fly as well, said Kimberley A. Flowers, the city's recreation and parks director.

She contacted the New York school's president after seeing it featured on an episode of Sex and the City.

"I just thought, `If New York has it, why can't we?' " Flowers said.

McVicker said almost anyone can take the course, describing it as a lesson in fear management. Many students come with different phobias - fear of heights, of unknown experiences, of one's own limitations.

It's a feeling McVicker said he knows well. Despite years teaching rock climbing, skiing and trapeze, he lives through his fear of heights every day on the job.

"What I'm really doing is managing fear," McVicker said. Students "find out they can, and they do, take the steps to work through their fear, to try to challenge themselves."

For some, the biggest fears may have developed recently, given two incidents at other Inner Harbor attractions. In March, five passengers drowned after a Seaport Taxi ferrying passengers to Fort McHenry capsized. On July 17, a balloon ride near Port Discovery lost control and hit the Baltimore Police Department headquarters, injuring four of its 17 passengers.

"In light of those tragedies, the trapeze school especially will be one that is closely monitored and very safe," Flowers said.

"Everything has the possibility of a freak accident to it," said Kitty Bohon, 40, a computer network administrator and computer artist who took the trapeze class yesterday.

She loved trapeze so much when she tried it in March at a resort that she bought a discount 15-class pass to the new school. But the Parkville resident could not persuade anyone to accompany her.

It didn't occur to her to worry about danger at the Inner Harbor, but Bohon said that "it came to everyone else's mind" when she suggested it.

`Err on side of safety'

McVicker said he regularly monitors online weather satellite reports. When there's a significant threat, school officials cancel classes and refund fees, which range from $40 to $65 per class.

"We can fly in a certain amount of winds," he said. However, he added, "I will always err on the side of safety."

For protection, students wear padded belts with guide ropes at all times - even when climbing the ladder to the platform. And school staff act as spotters, bracing the harnesses during the swings and supporting about 40 percent of the student's body weight, McVicker said.

After all the students put on belts and signed waivers, McVicker started yesterday's 9 a.m. class with three basic safety rules: Don't walk under the net; don't walk into the cables holding up the net; and do what you're told, when you're told to do it.

"Timing is everything," said instructor John Haughey.

Next, McVicker helped the women hang by their knees from a bar six feet off the ground. He held their belts as they pointed their toes, arched their backs and stretched their arms to an imaginary catcher. Then they each ascended the platform and practiced getting their feet over the bar of the swinging trapeze and other maneuvers.

After each woman had gotten several turns, McVicker, clad in striped tights and a blue bandanna, clambered up to the catcher's swing.

Minu Aghevli, 27, of Beltsville successfully completed a "set saddlewhip" release - with her legs fully extended and braced on the bar outside her hands - into McVicker's arms.

A former platform diver, she found the same meditative focus swinging on the trapeze that she did while executing a dive. "There's the sense that when I do this, I'm fully in the moment," she said.

Davis said she would like to come back, although she thought the classes were expensive. She found she didn't need a lot of upper-body strength, though she doubted she would have performed as well had she not taken gymnastics from age 7 to 17.

"It felt very natural," she said after the class. "There's a moment when you're thinking, `Why is this taking so long? Where is he?' And then all of a sudden, he's there and he's grabbing you."

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