I’m standing on a platform, 4 or 5 metres above the ground, with my toes curled over the soft, gaffer-taped edge. Safety ropes are clipped to my harness. I’m placing one hand and then another on a horizontal, narrow, taped bar at eye level which is almost out of reach in front of me.
‘And…go’ says my trainer, Adam, and I’m stepping off the edge, as if dropping straight to the floor.
But I don’t drop; I feel a rollercoaster type whoosh! as I upswing and whistle straight through the air, my legs in front of me, and then back again.
It’s thrilling; I’m mentally and physically fizzing with fear, excitement, focus, and physical strain. Adam counts to three and I let go, falling to the giant padded mattresses below; breathless, shaking, beaming.
I’m at the Circus space. It’s housed in an old electrical power station in Shoreditch, east London. The studios have reinforced rigging, with huge ropes and safety leads hanging from the ceiling. It’s like a cross between the set of Fame, and an S&M club for giants.
The circus space provides a three year degree in circus skills to its sixty students, as well as courses, workshops and experience days, but I’m ‘just’ here to learn the flying trapeze. I’ve done absolutely nothing to prepare for it, a tactic that’s always served me very badly in the past. The last time I attempted something like this (a parachute jump), I nearly decapitated myself in the ropes.
While I wait to meet my trainer, I watch the students. They are so toned, gymnastic and beautiful, they make yogis look like coach potatoes. One swings and twists herself around a giant fluid rope. Another stands on one hand, supporting his gently slo-mo twisting body. Another stands in a Cyr wheel, twisting and rolling across the floor. It’s absolutely mesmerising.
As I watch one of the students practising his six ball cascade, over and over again, I admire not just the artistry but the dedication. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’, he looks at how successful people become successful. One of his conclusions is that to achieve mastery in your chosen field, you must put in 10,000 hours of practise. That’s 20 hours a week, every week, for ten years. These students are his theory in action.
I meet my trainer, Adam. He tells me he has always been a circus performer and can remember being six years old and carefully placing all of his Dad’s giant wooden skittles on their sides and then walking across the floor on them. We warm up (after which he asks casually, ‘Do you do much exercise?’ I pant, ‘I cycle and, er….swim?’). He gives me a brisk demonstration and despatches me up the ladder; even this feels scary now.
There’s no practise run. After three goes, Adam says, ‘Let’s try a trick’. I trust him implicitly; sure enough, one massively ungainly attempt later, my legs are hooked over the bar, my hands are hanging on. I’m sort of doing it!
One hour passes in a flash. I have rope burns in places I’ve only imagined, and red raw palms. I’m sweating, overwhelmed, ecstatic. I walk back to the tube station with the photographer. We marvel at the students. He says, ‘I’d do anything to have a body like that’. I agree, ‘Mmm….apart from going to the gym, obviously’.
As he packs his kit into his car he says, ‘You were quite graceful when you were just doing the swinging part’. ‘I’m sure not, but thanks’ I say. ‘Gotta be honest though’ he continues, ‘when I saw you trying to do the trick, I thought, “sack of potatoes”’.
As I make my way home, I feel happy but nostalgic. I’ve learnt a new trick, but it reminds me of my tomboy childhood; climbing trees, swinging on ropes across rivers, grimly hanging onto a toboggan tied behind my brother’s clapped out VW Beetle as he careered across snowy fields at 25mph. I wonder when and why I let that side of my life go, when it makes me so happy.