I have always wanted to run away and join the circus. My father used to sing about the daring young man on the flying trapeze to get me to fall asleep, but it just gave me big dreams. At Long Island City’s Circus Warehouse, I learned it takes more than a dream and a flashy costume to become a performer. You have to have talent, and it helps to be born into a family of performers. Still, as I jumped off the edge of a 20-foot-high platform, grasping the bar of the trapeze, I thought I had a chance. Then I started screaming.
Veteran circus performer Gino Farfan held the rope attached to my harness so that I would tumble gently into the catch net below. Like some shell-shocked Tarzan, I crawled along the rough rope net, flipping over the edge to stable ground. My heart was beating fast, and only half because of the intense cardio workout that swinging in mid-air provides.
For Farfan, grabbing the bar without a harness, holding on with one arm and performing aerial somersaults comes naturally. He was born into a family of flyers and started training at age 6. By age 8, he had his first trapeze job, and at 10, he was performing with his family, “The Flying Farfans,” in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. At 14, he became the youngest person to catch a person performing a three-and-one-half rotation somersault, a record he holds to this day.
Not everyone in my class was as experienced. Like me, Nick Prueher had never been on the trapeze before, but unlike me, he had talent. By the end of the class, Prueher was doing flips. He lives in the neighborhood and said he would definitely come back for more mid-air action.
Determined not to be deterred by my first terror-filled flight, I mounted the platform again and leaped off, soaring through the air of the lofty warehouse. Farfan instructed me to kick my legs out and tuck them in while swinging back and forth. The goal was to maintain momentum and keep my arms and grip rigid. It was like doing crunches. Ouch! As the third activity in my quest for physical fitness, this one definitely got high marks for its afterburn. In the days following, I couldn’t laugh without my stomach muscles remembering the trapeze.
Classmates insisted I had done a good job for my first time on the bar. “When they said to hop of the edge of the platform, you really hopped,” said Ruthie Scarpino, a work-study student at the school. Scarpino started out in gymnastics and found her way into the air recently, but she was able to do tricks.
Tess Emerson in her fuschia shirt and black leotard — a garment which takes its name from one of the first famous trapeze performers, Jules Leotard, for whom the song “The Flying Trapeze” was penned in 1867 — is on her way to becoming a circus professional. Farfan is training her to catch flying performers. If she gets a job as a catcher, she would be one of the only women to hold the position in the business. Emerson’s boyfriend is already in the circus, playing in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey band. They could start their own circus dynasty one day if she gets her dream job.
Emerson flies but said she feels more secure sitting in the catcher’s seat with its over-shin bars. When catching, she swings upside down, adjusting her body and timing to grab onto the hands of other performers. In order to catch, you have to know how to fly, but Emerson said catching feels more stable to her. When flying, “you just have to let go and hope for the best,” she said.
Another classmate, Brooke, said she fell in love with the trapeze after a friend of hers had an aerial birthday party. Brooke was a fast learner and became addicted to the sport. One of the more talented students in our class, she flew through the air with the greatest of ease, spinning and reaching out to connect with Emerson.
Each student had his or her own reason for taking to the air. “Lots of people come because they want to try it, because it’s something new and fun and crazy,” said Scarpino. It is nice to be able to conquer the fear associated with jumping from a tall structure, and watching other students in the class soar is a show in and of itself.
Circus Warehouse director Suzi Winson said she got into aerial acrobatics after years as a professional dancer. “I had to get off my feet,” she said — as per doctor’s orders. Winson met a guy through social activism in the San Francisco Bay Area, he invited her to use his trapeze and turned her on to the sport. In addition to the rig at the warehouse, Winson has an outdoor contraption in upstate New York that students use in the summer. “You look up and there is no ceiling, just sky,” said Emerson in wonderment.
After covering our hands with gymnasts’ chalk so we didn’t lose our grip when using the bar for the last time in the three hour class, we all were out of breath and thirsty. Regardless of how effortless it looks, the flying trapeze is a world-class total body workout.
“If you try to defy gravity, you are never going to win,” said Farfan, whose muscular arms are decorated with tattoos depicting himself in mid-air. “I broke my neck in 1982,” he added.
The warehouse offers classes in other types of tamer acrobatics, from trampoline to silk ropes; each discipline offers its own challenges. Trapeze is fun, but it is not for the faint of heart. Each time, it’s a leap of faith off the platform. But go ahead, jump. I dare you.
When: Weekly classes in silks and trampoline. Next trapeze class: Feb. 27, 1 to 3 p.m.
Cost: $55 per class; deals are available if you purchase more than one lesson.
Where: 53-21 Vernon Blvd. LIC