I stood on top of a platform more than 23 feet above the ground. Harnessed, I placed my toes over the edge, placed a chalked hand to the bar, and on “hep,” I leapt off, unthinking. It’s an elaborate series of maneuvers, but I’m on autopilot. Grabbing the bar with both hands, I kicked back and forced my legs up and out at the front end of the swing. Kicking back once again, my right knee moved to my chest, and extending it in front of the bar, I arched into a split. On my catcher’s command (“hep,” once again), I let go and threw my hands out for him to grab. Swinging forward together, him suspended from the bar, me gripping his wrists, I kicked forward, backward, forward again, and then turned my body around to grab onto the fly bar as it returned to me. Feeling it solidly in my hands, I kicked up to the platform—but I balked when my feet hit the top, hesitated, and fell backwards into the net.
This was last week. But my first taste of flying trapeze was at summer camp at age 11. Then, climbing up the ladder was near-paralyzing. Swinging itself wasn’t frightening. It was only the ascent that was; I wasn’t used to it yet. But at 13 and 14, I swallowed my nerves enough to get myself to the top on a daily basis. Flying was always enough of a reward to inspire the next day’s climb.
But then camp was dropped from my summer and trapeze from my life. For the seven years that followed, my mind wandered to my days in the air and the tricks I never tried. I looked up circus acts online and places to take classes. But for those years, I never actually swung on a bar.
It wasn’t until last year that I decided to get the circus out of my system once and for all. So I finally signed up. When I announced to my parents that I was returning to trapeze, they were skeptical. My father pleaded that I not injure myself. Of course, I was not without my own concerns—I had been a small 14 year old, but by 21, a growth spurt and high school athletics had added five inches and 35 pounds to my frame, and my level of grace appeared to change at an inversely proportional rate.
My first day back, this past June, justified my years of mental gymnastics. At Trapeze School New York, with the bar in my hands again and my body suspended in the air, I performed two tricks I had done before—a knee hang and a set split—with a swiftness and deliberateness I had lacked as a child. And I finished that first day back with a move I had never before tried—throwing myself to a catcher before letting go and falling to the net.
The next month, I returned. It was particularly hot that day, and the class was half empty. Because the other flyers were tired, I was allowed more turns on the rig. The lead instructor brimmed with enthusiasm, constantly giving me extra instruction. That day, I learned three tricks, a one-handed take off, and a basic swing. One woman, a weekly flyer, told me to stick with it; flying seemed to come to me easily, she said.
With that, I came back repeatedly. Whenever I was home I squeezed in sessions, sometimes several a week. My parents moved away; I still returned to visit my brother, see doctors, and of course fly.
This semester, when I met a Harvard classmate who also flies, I made it to a sister location in Reading, Mass., which previously had seemed impossibly far away. I now fly weekly as part of a 10-week workshop that will end with a show in June.
One day in January, I was at an early morning class in New York for one last hurrah before returning to school to work on my thesis. Before I took off, an instructor cautioned me about the position of my shoulders: “I want to see you flying years from now, not just months,” he said.
Years from now? I had been so focused on conquering the small goals that I had not thought about the viability of trapeze as a long-term hobby. The non-immediate future was never a concept I considered when I started swimming, or tap dancing, or playing the guitar, or any of the other activities I’ve been lucky enough to try but usually give up on. Maybe trapeze will be different. I still brave the two hour commute for class, shamelessly post my flying videos on Facebook, and wear my oddly-located bruises and the rips on my hands with pride.
Maybe it’s the constant encouragement and investment from the instructors. Or that my swimmer shoulders and full split are simultaneously assets. Or that I’m not constantly faced with others who have been doing this since they burst out of the womb.
Or maybe it’s this: when I fly, everything else—thesis pressure, friend drama, the demons of post-graduation uncertainty—is evicted from my head and replaced with the self-reminders to sweep back hard, keep my toes pointed, and commit to the trick at hand. For just two hours, there isn’t room in my mind for anything else. I just have to make it happen, on command, again, and again.