I’m a Georgia native, reared on St. Simons Island until my family dragged me to Tampa, Florida when I was 13, then to Sarasota, Florida when I was 15.
Sarasota, being the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, benefited from the circus professionals in the community. At least, I did. Sarasota High School offered Circus as part of its physical education program. Most were taught by circus professionals. Students could take such courses as high wire, juggling, trampoline or, the most glorious of all, the flying trapeze.
Naturally I wanted to fly.
The first day of practice I climbed the rope ladder sideways, the only way to keep yourself upright instead of on your back, and made it all the way to the pedestal board, several million feet above the Earth’s surface. Maybe it was only about 25 or 30 feet off the ground. My coach stood beside me as I clutched the wire holding the pedestal board rigging with one hand; the metal bar of the trapeze with the other.
“Don’t bend your arms when you leave the board,” Coach warned. “If you do, you won’t be able to hold on when you hit the bottom of your swing.”
Of course I bent my arms. Of course I couldn’t hold on. I hit the net face down and skidded on the rough mesh. It hurt like crazy, and when I got up, my face and knees were covered with net rash.
“Come on back up!” Coach called cheerfully. Reluctantly I climbed the ladder sideways again. Again I stood quivering on the pedestal board. Again Coach repeated his instruction about not bending my arms. Again I bent my arms and landed face down in the net.
Now actively bleeding, I crawled to the edge of the net and prepared to lower my maimed body to the ground.
“Where do you think you’re going? Get back up here! Now!” Coach was big and gruff and I was scared to death of him. The other flyers were looking at me, wondering just how chicken I was. OK, I’d try one more time. Maybe the third time really was the charm.
It was. I flew. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, swinging high on the flying trapeze, learning to throw my legs up and out at the end of the arc to give myself more momentum; pulling my body up into a sitting position as the trapeze took me back toward the pedestal board, not so I could sit on the board but so I could keep the swing going longer; as long as my hands held out. Even today, many, many years later, I still bear hard calluses on the palms of my hands from holding onto the bar.
I swung for months before Coach decided I was ready to try a simple trick: going across. Going across meant letting go of the trapeze and flying into the waiting hands of a catcher swinging on another trapeze, ideally in rhythm with you. Our catcher, a young man named Leonard Darsey with arms and hands of steel, performed with Florida State University’s famed Flying High Circus. He was in Sarasota for some reason and had volunteered to catch for the Sailor’s Circus, my outfit.
Leonard was the sort of guy who instantly inspires trust; otherwise, I might never have gone across. I did, though, and Leonard not only caught me but threw me back to my bar. The first few times, I returned to the pedestal board in an awkward scramble but I made it back.
Not long after that, my family moved back to St. Simons and my days on the flying trapeze were over. The memories weren’t, however. I trotted out my exotic, though brief, experiences on the flying trapeze every chance I got. My grandchildren quickly got bored with Grandma Jingle’s trapeze stories.
Then my youngest son and his family moved to Athens and my husband and I relocated here, too. Glancing through one of the “Things To Do In Athens” publications last year, I came across this stunning information: Canopy Studio, a non-profit, is offering trapeze lessons for adults and children.
How I ached to sign up, to put my hands around that metal bar once again. How I longed to feel the thrill of once again flying high.
Fortunately, age not only gives you wisdom; it gives you (or me, anyway) arthritic joints and quite a few extra pounds. No way was I fit to fly anymore.
However, my 11-year-old granddaughter, Claudia, who turned 12 this week, was a likely candidate for flying. She’s the sort of kid who’d rather take trapeze than ballet. She also has more courage than I ever did.
Claudia now studies trapeze at Canopy every weekend. The Canopy trapezes are solo, meaning there is no catcher involved. Claudia and the others perform on their individual bars, contorting their lithe young bodies into amazingly graceful poses while they are in full swing.
I love going to watch her. I love watching her graceful young female coaches, who are much more gentle with their students than Coach ever was with me. I love watching the students spray their hands with rosin, a modern version of the rosin bags we dusted our hands with to keep them from slipping off the bars.
Most of all, I love hearing Claudia talk about how much fun it is to swing on a trapeze, flying higher than she ever could on a conventional swing.
I know exactly what she means. Sometimes her enthusiasm transports me back to Sarasota, where I’m young and lithe and strong, flying high once again.