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You May Never Be the 'Flying Wallendas'

In the mid-19th century, people the world over were singing about that daring young man on the flying trapeze who could fly through the air with the greatest of ease. The song was about circus star Jules Léotard, who was as famous for his physique and his skin-tight suit as he was for his aerial gymnastics. In fact, form-fitting tights would come to be named for him. We call them leotards.

Whole families of acrobats performed high above the circus crowd, swinging from wire to wire on bars called trapezes. But in the early days, they usually performed without benefit of a safety net, as did the famous Wallendas, whose aerial pyramid collapsed one night in Detroit, Michigan, in 1962, sending two family members to their deaths.

Most aerialists no longer spurn the safety net. And neither do the ordinary people who climb the platforms at trapeze schools in four U.S. cities.

"Forget fear. Worry about the addiction," reads the slogan of the Trapeze School New York. Its president, Jonathon Conant, calls the experience "the sport of flying." The school's classes, held at two city parks, are designed for what it calls "everyone from the thrill-seeker to fear-facer, athlete to couch potato [an idler who usually sits around watching television], casual flyer to serious aerialist." Students walk the wire, swing from bar to bar, and are caught in mid-air by instructors and fellow students, just like seasoned performers. Slowly and fearfully at first, then with increasing confidence.

"It was such a great feeling to leave my stressful life at the bottom of the ladder and soar to new heights!" one student wrote on the school Web site. Referring to its newest location in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post wrote, "The school is for fitness freaks, thrill-seekers, and people harboring secret circus fantasies, among others."

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.