People often think of New York City as a serious, driven place. But there's a lighter side to the city - a side you can glimpse at a new downtown school. And New Yorkers are quickly catching on.
"We need nobody to have any gum in their mouths, and sunglasses will have to come off," instructor Adrianne Solomon tells her Sunday afternoon class.
Since July, people of all types and ages - though the majority are young women - have assembled on a strip of pavement between the West Side highway and the Hudson River to learn a most unusual skill. They're snapping on safety belts, lining up for a two-hour beginners' class, and following instructions. And then, after climbing up a dizzingly tall ladder, they snap on more safety lines and prepare to throw themselves into the air.
A first for New York City, the trapeze school opened last summer, just a few blocks from the place where the World Trade Center stood.
"My name is Jonathon Conant and I founded the Trapeze School of New York," says the 40-ish owner. "Actually, our rig frames where the Towers used to be, so you can see people jumping right directly toward where the towers used to be. And that brings up a lot of feelings for people. I think initially, people have a rush of sadness and memory, mourning about it, and then they see the joy that's coming out of the activity, and there's something very healing about that."
Students can also learn the art of the vertical trapeze at the school, as instructor Heidi Button demonstrates. She's been a vertical and static trapeze performer and teacher since 1996.
"It's a lot like dance," Ms. Button says. "It has a meditative quality, even though it can hurt a lot. You have to be really focused. It can be really dangerous when your mind wanders." But despite the beauty of the vertical trapeze, it's still the "flying trapeze" that draws most beginners. According to the school, safety lines - along with a net, of course - make the dangers minimal.
"Rope burns are about the worst that you see here, and that's if you don't listen, and let go at the wrong time, you can get some rope burn," says Adrianne Solomon. "But generally, it's very safe. Between the net and the safety lines, it's very difficult to get hurt here."
"This is my first time, but I'm not nervous, I'm really excited!" Brianna Masson, a dancer, was one of the daring young women taking her first class on the flying trapeze. Instructors say about half the beginners usually succeed in letting go of the trapeze bar - and being caught in mid-air by the "catcher." "He's the catcher, let him catch you!" Adrianne tells the class before they take turns gliding into the air, swinging by their knees and then arching their backs and reaching out for the catcher.
"Get 'em up!" Adrianne urges Brianna, who's in midair and trying to wrap her knees around the bar. "Look for him!" But like all the first-timers in this class, Brianna failed to be caught - though some more advanced students did make it. Despite her flop, Brianna says she plans to take more trapeze classes. "This is such effortless freedom, like that's what you feel like when you're up there," she says. "It's kind of escapism, too, I think, a lot of it. Like, you're just like flying, and you're body is doing something that seems almost impossible."
Owner Jonathon Conant adds that it's also just plain fun: "It's really exciting, and just sort of archetypal 'man on the flying trapeze' sort of thing," he says. "People aren't coming here necessarily to get a workout. There's just something intrinsically satisfying about flying. When we come here and we do this, we feel more alive."