One by one, students climb two dozen steps of a red ladder until they are standing on a platform 23 feet above Belmont Harbor. As they look out, they see Lake Michigan's azure waves coming toward them. They also see, much closer, a trapeze bar - one that most will swing on for the first time ever.
In search of an afternoon adventure, ten Chicagoans signed up for two hours at the newly opened Trapeze School New York: Chicago, or TSNY Chicago, whose classes kicked off a few weeks ago. Though there are other circus arts schools in the city, TSNY is the only flying trapeze school in Chicago. (A few years ago, a sex-abuse charge forced an unrelated flying trapeze school, The Flying Gaonas Gym, to move from Chicago. The charges have since been dropped.)
Steve Hammes, the general manager of TSNY Chicago, said he's seen veterans of the old trapeze school come back to swing, though the majority of students have never tried the trapeze. He hopes TSNY will acquire an indoor space -- one with very high ceilings -- so that it can operate the whole year.
During the first round of swings on a windy Tuesday, Ritika Kapoor, 19, of Tinley Park, stood on the platform, reaching out for the weighty trapeze bar. As soon as she heard instructor Chris Ries yell, "Hep," Kapoor jumped, rushing through the unseasonably chilly air.
Listening to Ries' directions, Kapoor tucked her feet up, thrust them over the bar and let go. She swung from her knees, hanging upside-down. Below her and to her left sailboats floated in Belmont Harbor. To her right, the John Hancock Center jutted up from the Chicago skyline.
"Oh my God!" she said after dismounting from the trapeze net. "I was scared to even let go. But it was exhilarating. Nice, but scary. I want to try it again!"
Shouts of joy, fear and excitement punctuated the afternoon as student after student swung and hung.
Renee Burton , 44, of Lakeview, leapt off the net after her upside-down knee hang. "... I did it!" she said. Terrified of heights, Burton had come for the class in part to prove that she could overcome a personal fear in a dramatic way. Others, like Megan Bartlett, 20, of Lake Forest, wanted to try the trapeze because she had always thought that it was "definitely the coolest part of the circus."
Because most of TSNY Chicago's classes are designated as "open levels," experienced swingers sometimes mix with beginners. The lone veteran of the afternoon, Merrill Smith, 53, mesmerized the students as she swung and flipped through the air.
"There's still an adrenaline rush every time I do it," said Smith, a Lincoln Park resident. "It's a choreographic process. There's always something to achieve. But no one's going to run away and perform with a circus. We're all just having fun."
One of the instructors, Ries, 25, of LaGrange Park, actually performed with the POP Circus in Japan. He called the re-emergence of a flying trapeze school on Belmont Harbor "fantastic." In addition to helping beginners, Ries also gets a chance to hone his tricks at once- to twice-weekly staff sessions, where the heights he reaches caused fellow instructor Romeo Talento to say that "it's like watching God swing."
At the class, all of the knee hangs the students perform led to a finale of sorts. For the last half hour, instructor Eric Robinson swung on what's called a catcher's trapeze, which hangs opposite of the students' trapeze. Spotting the students from below, Hammes coordinated timing and yelled instructions, telling them when to jump and when to let go of the bar.
Up in the air, Urvika Patel, 20, of Des Plaines, listened, letting go of the bar after one swing and reaching for Robinson. They met in mid-air, and he caught her. For 10 seconds, she swung, her hands clasped in his.
Below, her fellow students cheered and clapped, and Patel herself had two words for the experience: "A rush."
Classes at TSNY Chicago range from $47 to $67. They are discounted when bought in sets or with groups. Classes are usually held at Belmont Harbor one to four times a day, weather permitting. For more information, call 773-484-8861 or visit http://chicago.trapezeschool.com.
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