Jennifer Dion is out for her "Saturday morning escape." This means she is wearing one of her trademark black leotards, dangling upside down from a trapeze, her arms outstretched waiting to eventually connect with a "catcher" – a person on another flying bar she will lock arms with.
Ms. Dion is no wanna-be circus performer. She is an interior designer and mother of two who attends trapeze school in a nondescript warehouse five miles east of Los Angeles International Airport. Eager for a little middle-age adventure, Dion likes the brief moment of weightlessness she experiences when hurtling through the air and the Barnum & Bailey alternative to her normal routine.
"This helps me get away from the kids, and I feel like the release of it also makes everything better at home," she says. "It's not easy, though. I'm a mom and not as in shape as I used to be."
Dion is one of a growing number of Americans taking up the ancient and mysterious art of trapeze as the latest form of exercise and exhilaration. For a nation that's evolved through every craze from Jack LaLanne to bungee jumping, now comes swinging through the air, even if not always with the greatest of ease.
In Los Angeles – the nation's unofficial trendsetter for all things bodily – everyone from lawyers to teachers to movie stars are grabbing aerial bars. But the trend extends well beyond this sun-dappled playground. "It is safe to say that trapeze has become a phenomenon, and it's nationwide," says Janet Davis, a professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin. "Things like Cirque du Soleil are now a pervasive part of the social consciousness, assuming a very central place in our culture, and the trapeze, anecdotally speaking, is at the center of this phenomenon."
Little did the inventor of the flying trapeze, Jules Léotard, realize that what began in the late 19th century would one day experience a renaissance among everyday people. Even Club Med offers trapeze classes. "You have to understand that for those people who do not perform, the culture of spectacle is [still] very much a part of our world," says Ms. Davis.
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No sign identifies Ray Pierce's trapeze school, just the faint whine of a swing that glides back and forth, 25 feet up. The school sits in a warehouse section south of downtown Los Angeles. The students perform on a rig outdoors. They take orientation classes inside.
"The first thing I tell people is that they have to learn to let go in order to fly," says Mr. Pierce, a local trapeze guru whose wavy blond hair and rugged goatee evoke a sense of adventure. "Don't fight the swing. Let the swing take you."
Those words ring familiar to a growing number of Pierce's students – including Rick Grandy, who's playing the role of catcher for Dion today. Mr. Grandy, a digital artist, first experienced the trapeze several years ago at a corporate outing. "I'm not a former gymnast. Not a performer. I just think trapeze is fun and a great way to exercise," says Grandy, who is transitioning to the role of instructor at Pierce's school.
His girlfriend, Heather Cooper, is standing on the trapeze platform and about to perform a split – straddle the bar. Before pushing off, she yells "listo," which means "ready" in Spanish, and then Pierce, who acts as conductor, responds with "hep!" – trapeze talk for "charge!" Both words are traditionally said before any trick on the flying trapeze.
Ms. Cooper, an antitrust and trade regulation attorney, is a former gymnast. "So I at times look for perfection," she says. "But like practicing law, trapeze can be very technical."
So technical that a couple of boutique gyms in Los Angeles have hired aerial arts specialists to teach "static trapeze," which means the swing is hanging stationary from the ceiling. Kristy Beauvais teaches static trapeze at Cool Baby, a facility in Los Angeles that organizes exercise classes for families. A year ago it was difficult to find a static trapeze offered in a gym setting, but Ms. Beauvais says more people are looking to the trapeze as an alternative way to stay fit.
"These are Hollywood families and kids, all of whom have seen many productions of Cirque du Soleil," says Beauvais, a contemporary dancer and founder of FOCUSfish, a Los Angeles-based family circus/physical education workshop.
Among her students is John Midby, a film-school teacher. Dressed in silver workout shorts and a black T-shirt, Mr. Midby hangs from the static trapeze and begins swinging his body in a circular motion. His legs spin like an eggbeater, whipping up the air beneath him. "I started doing this for family fitness, and then I realized how much fun I was having," says Midby, beads of sweat on his brow. "My kids think I'm cool."
That's precisely the kind of thinking that motivated Arturo "Araño" Ortiz to recently stop teaching trapeze at Club Med and start his own consulting firm, Circus Services. After teaching at the resort company for nearly a decade, more people began asking Mr. Ortiz if he could recommend a trapeze school in their hometown.
"It amazed me how many people were getting hooked on trapeze," says Ortiz, who thinks people are attracted to its uniqueness. "You certainly can't find a trapeze rig everywhere."
That's partly because trapeze rigs are expensive – roughly $35,000 to $40,000 – and require a lot of space: An average setup spans 120 feet by 60 feet. They also take "tuning" – the tightening of cables and ropes to keep the rig full of swing and bounce.
The new fitness craze has its dangers: Hurtling through the air isn't like knitting. But instructors consider the activity safe. Most, if not all, trapeze schools require students to wear harnesses, which are attached to a pulley system that is controlled by the teacher. Injuries do occur, but, Pierce says, they're rare.
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As the trapeze fad grows, it is leading to tension between the artists and the hobbyists. Ortiz, for one, thinks trapeze has become overexposed. He believes too many people are marketing it as a workout or quick thrill, detracting from trapeze as an art form.
But Aloysia Gavre, who performed with Cirque du Soleil for six years, disagrees. She teaches trapeze to recreational and pre-professional students at Absolution, a Pilates studio in Los Angeles. "Some like the freedom of trapeze, some enjoy the physical challenge," she says. "It's not just about the performance. For me, it's about keeping trapeze alive in the community."
In many ways, trapeze as an art form may have lost some of its mystique, though. Richie Gaona runs a trapeze school in the backyard of his San Fernando Valley home. Mr. Gaona was once the youngest member of a prominent trapeze family who performed around the world. But today, yellowing pictures are the only relics of Gaona's past as a professional trapezist.
"The classic art form of trapeze is dying," says Gaona, his voice hoarse from hosting a trapeze birthday party. "More and more people are just coming out here for fun and will likely not pursue trapeze professionally. It's kind of sad. Families were once built on this stuff."