Thursday, December 14, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 15, Trapeze Lessons

Tucked away in a strip mall in a not-very busy section of Germantown is a world where everyday people can soar to the air with the greatest of... well, what's the opposite of ease? Difficulty? Strenuous exertion?

Welcome to Air Play, a self-described training center for circus aerial skills, arguably the most unique fitness center anywhere in Philadelphia. (

When I started this project, this was one of the things I was looking forward to doing the most. But when I started reading up about what this would entail -- some semblance of physical strength, body coordination and mild athletic ability -- I immediately said "fuck no."

Stepping up to the plate for the actual participation part of this project was Matt Holmes, an all-around good dude who spends his nights as one of the members of Philadelphia's improv institution Rare Bird Show (

We were both intimidated when we walked into Air Play. A bearded man was doing a split on a wooden bar suspended about eight feet in the air, doing flip after flip after flip. Ballerina-sized women were dangling from ropes, upside down while slightly spinning, maneuvering using only one arm as John Tesh-type music blared in the background. Imagine it as a cross between a jungle gym for adults (not in that way) mixed in with your worst memories of middle school gym class, with ropes dangling from floor-to-cieling.

Matt began warming up as I began cackling at him in the background. Even his stretches looked unbearable -- these weird bending moves that looked like something one would see in a human pyramid at Abu Ghirab.

But while the stretches looked painful to me, the people scaling the ropes and the swings looked very average. Almost all of the participants were girls in their 20's*, except for one extremely Mom-ish looking middle-aged woman. None looked super athletic, but all of them were able to do all of the movements, spins and what-not without any noticeable difficulty. How hard could it be?

The first thing Matt had to do was climb a rope. It sounded simple enough, and he managed to do so the first time without too much struggle. But then he was told to do this repeatedly, while also trying to master how to do this weird foot-knot trick with his one foot, enabling him to do more involved tricks later on. Matt had difficulty with the repeated climbing.

"I have lost all the strength in my arms," he said. "But coordination is more of an issue than strength. Figuring out where your feet are while hanging from a rope is really hard."

Meanwhile, the women in the class were working on something called the "Schwarzenegger Decent," which involves scaling a rope, wrapping it around a foot, turning upside down by going backwards and slowly decending the rope using only one leg to control your body.

This sounds dangerous, but at no point during any of this was anyone even close to getting hurt (unless you count me, when I stood on a chair to take pictures.) Shana Kennedy, the operator of Air Play, said that there have been no injuries from falls at her studio -- protective mats are everywhere, all of the participants are incredibly helpful and the instruction is so tight and detailed that noone came close to losing control at any point.

(Shana did add, however, that people have recieved some minor injuries from the repetitions of certain exercises -- stuff similar to carpal tunnel syndrome or a muscle strain. Also, rope burns and callouses can also be expected. Matt's feet and hands were bright red before too long.)

The ropes were soon replaced with trapeze swings. Matt was shown the first trick he was to do -- pulling himself up on to the swing, flipping backwards into a tuck position, and eventually configuring his body so he was hanging upside down by his knees. At one point, I thought Matt's arms were about to rip off, as he was hanging with his face towards the mat by his arms going the complete opposite direction. But by the end, he was really starting to -- and I'm honestly searching for any other phrase/cliche that fits here, but I'm stuck and I need to get to sleep -- get the hang of things.

"People can bend that way," said Marie, one of the regulars at Air Play.

The class member who seemed to be doing the best job was Alice, the aforementioned 50-ish woman. Alice had previously taken a juggling class ("They have one on Monday nights! You should look into doing that!") while also teaching and practicing painting. While involved in juggling, she saw a woman on the trapeze and was inspired.

"She was so strong and so capable," Alice said. "So I painted her. I told a friend about my painting, and then she told me about Air Play. It looked like so much fun, and I had to give up judo, so I gave it a try. And I've been here since."

Matt thought it was a blast, as sore as he was afterwards.

"I've heard that after you exercize, you get energized from the adrenaline. I am very awake right now," Matt said.

Kennedy -- who attended a circus training school in England when she was 19 (originally, she too was a juggler, but she, in her words, "fell into" doing trapeze) -- said most people come to AirPlay seeking a different but intense workout. But a lot of other people also come for bragging rights.

"People like to tell their friends that they're taking trapeze classes," she said. "I hear all the time from my students that this is what they look forward to doing all week long, that this is their therapy."

* -- Not to be a jerk, but the girls at Air Play were all on the high end of the attraction scale. Wouldn't be fair for me to write about Air Play without noting that for the article.

(EDIT: Pictures of Matt in action and Air Play in general are coming tomorrow.)
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