Major setback (Parts I and II). I was, er, flying high after the trapeze because I realised how much fun exercise used to be. And can be again. This is big news. I’ve tried the gym – I don’t enjoy ‘marching it out’, especially not in front of floor to ceiling mirrors in which I can see my face, so entirely red it resembles a whole Edam cheese. I’ve tried yoga – I never felt at home with the yogis, relaxing in a totally non-competitive headstand before the class, and the 20 minutes spent lying down and breathing drove me nuts.
But the trapeze felt like a grown up amalgam of childhood fun; swinging on a knotted rope over a river, spinning on a roundabout till you lose your balance and collapse, and tying the toboggan onto the back of my brother’s beaten up Beetle and careering through the snowy, skiddy fields all rolled into one.
So as a direct result, I’ve given myself another task. To find regular exercise that’s fun. And I’ve found it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I just can’t do it. It’s aerial silks; brightly coloured double silks suspended from the ceiling that you can climb, and twist on, and hang from.
The silks are courtesy of ‘Flying Fantastic’ a fledgling fitness club set up by a cheery bloke called Chris after he spent time in Buenos Aires and saw that using silks was a completely normal way of keeping fit for the locals. In time he intends to offer other circus skills. Right now, we’re three to a silk. It’s an upmarket predominately female crowd; I see a Saatchi and Saatchi shopping bag and a huge Smythson handbag stacked against the gym walls.
The teachers give us a quick demonstration; they look fluid, athletic, graceful and dynamic. They first show us the move that we have to master to do all the tricks, which is climbing the silks. This involves twisting the silks round one raised leg and foot, resting the other foot on top of that foot, and using your hands and feet alternately to climb. Everyone else seems to pick it up. Not me. I can’t climb at all. I feel like Susan, from my schooldays. Susan had a glandular problem that made her very overweight. Come gymclass, when we lined up to jump on the trampoline, or leap-frog the horse, or climb the wall bars, the gym teacher would shout, ‘Do you want to sit this one out Susan?’. It wasn’t a question.
I press on. The hour and a half is fun, tough and exhausting. I fear it’s exercise that you need to be fit to do, rather than exercise that you can do to get fit. Still, we learn how to hang upside down, holding the silks in each hand, and we learn how to hang from the silks, wrapped around our thigh. It’s fun. It’s more sociable than the gym because you spend some time chatting and watching one of your threesome climbing. I love it and I want to succeed but I feel so deeply inadequate that I am typically considering quitting and retiring to the sofa. It’s my first test of my 45 tasks. Of course, right now I can’t do anything as my arms still feel like al dente spaghetti. Two days on, I’m so stiff that I can’t brush my hair or use a cafetiere.
Week two: My major setback has now morphed into my catastrophic failure (dramatic but true). As I arrive for my second aerial silks class, I catch a glimpse of the dramatic emerald, scarlet, yellow and royal blue silks elaborately knotted at the ceiling. The excess lengths are curled on the padded mats beneath. I feel very nervous. Isn’t the second time always worse than the first for things like this? I’m comforted to discover lots of other beginners, all in pairs. We chat; women are naturally modest and everyone downplays their fitness and strength. During our warm up I examine the other participants, desperately seeking another in amateur and ill-fitting gym kit, unable to complete a single push-up, but find no-one.
We settle around the silks in groups of three, and watch a demonstration of the basic climb. The two girls on my scarlet silk try…and succeed at once. Not me. Again. I feel so useless. One of the teachers tries to help, doing everything short of pushing me like a giant boulder up a hill. She sees my disappointment and reassures me I am making progress. I feel like bursting into tears; gentle kindness always has that affect on me.
We wear name tags, and chat between attempts. Eileen mentions she has spent years riding race horses, which ‘may’ explain her physical strength. Her friend Henny explains away her natural aptitude by saying she ‘does a bit of running’, much like Paula Radcliffe does a bit of running probably. I love the social element of the lesson; one of the things that women do so well is to build immediate bridges with each other. The only downside here to the social side is an awareness of being watched, and being able to compare yourself to others. I want to quit half way through the lesson but stay until the end. I realise that this is one of those skills that you can’t learn in baby steps as you need to master the difficult first step – the climb – before any others. I desperately wish I was up to it, but I am not. I feel old, weak, and embarrassed of my failure. I’m so un-toned and un-muscled, I wonder what’s keeping me upright. But as W.C. Fields advised, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it’.
This pic is not me, obviously.
PS. All is not lost! I’ve taken up skipping! It may not have the languid athletic beauty of aerial silks, and you probably won’t see anyone in Cirque du Soleil jumping rope. But I’ve found an exercise that’s fun and that was my goal. I have no excuse not to do it; my usual excuses for the gym (no time, just missed the class, air con broken last time I went, and so on for months at a time) don’t work. Better than that, it’s over quickly, I can do it in a t-shirt and pants on my terrace, it’s effective, and you know, if it’s good enough for boxers like Frank Bruno (who I beat swimming, did I mention?) it’s good enough for me.