Facing Fear With the Greatest of Ease: Why Flying Trapeze Lessons Are Harder Than They Look

I recently read an interview between author Panio Gianopoulos and Kristen Ulmer, former pro extreme skier and current fear specialist, that discussed the topic of fear and why you should embrace it rather than avoid it. The main takeaway of the article seemed to say that facing your fears and feeling them will help you use those fears to your advantage and keep you motivated to move forward towards a happier life.

In the interview, Ulmer mentions that she hosts events to show people where fear has them stuck and then uses those events, which are usually an extreme sport of some kind, to work on getting them “unstuck.” One of the sports she uses for her events is flying trapeze lessons, which got me thinking about my own experience on a trapeze a few years ago.

Trapeze lessons were something I had wanted to do since I was a kid and read a non-fiction book about a boy who grew up in the circus. Filled with huge, glossy images of his acrobatic family soaring high above the heads of an impressed audience, I decided that someday I too would “fly through the air with the greatest of ease.” Or at least attempt it.

My friend Jen and I signed up for trapeze lessons at the outdoor SwingIt Trapeze venue in Anaheim, California. As we stood on the ground, looking up at the experienced acrobats swinging high above the safety net, I felt far more excited than scared. We received our instructions, watched a few demos, and got hooked up to our safety harness (a rope around your waist connected to a trainer on the ground, meant to keep you over the net). I was stoked and ready to go. Whoot whoot – trapeze bucket list, check! And then I scampered up the maze of scaffolding.

Let me tell you right now: 25-40 feet doesn’t sound all that far off the ground until you’re standing on the edge of an open-air platform, one arm hanging onto a pole and the other gripping a bar that’s just waiting to drag you down, all the while trying to remember the million next steps you’re supposed to take and hoping the chalk on your palms holds up through the flood of sweat your body is producing. But instead of giving all of that second-guessing fear too much attention, I thought “eff it,” removed my death grip from the pole, yelled “hep,” took a hop, and went for it.

And just like the little circus boy from my childhood, I sailed through the air with all of the grace I could muster and it was as liberating as I had always imagined.

It was also very difficult. See, the thing with trapeze lessons is you don’t get to just swing back and forth in the air a couple of times and then drop gracefully into the net. That’s only your first go at it – after your initial swing, you start in on the real stuff. Like figuring out how to use the momentum of the bar to hang from your knees, outstretch your arms, and back-flip yourself off into the net, never mind the skills it requires to potentially get caught mid-air by another acrobat. And all of those things take serious coordination, ab strength, and arm muscles. No lie: I was walking funny for a week afterwards, although it was totally worth it.

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Obviously, I enjoy a good bout of adrenaline now and again. And I suppose a lot of people assume I’m either fearless or crazy because of it. I won’t address the latter, except to say that I’m neither reckless with my life nor interested in leaving this planet anytime soon, but I will say that of course I feel fear. I am human, after all. However, I don’t allow it to mandate what I do. I’m with Ulmer on this one: I feel the fear, face it, and then do whatever activity I had planned to do. And I’ve never, ever regretted it.