Monday, May 12, 2014

Flying Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

Sometimes I stumble upon the coolest things.  I'm working on an article for Florida Weekly about an international community theater festival that will take place at the Venice Theatre in June.  In addition to performances from theater troupes from 17 countries, the Festival will offer a number of workshops on all sorts of theater-related topics.  One of the workshops that will be given is "Trapeze Basics" by Tito Gaona.

Tito and Renata Gaona
For those of you who might not be up on your circus history, the Flying Gaonas were a Mexican circus family whose specialty was the trapeze.  For 35 years, Tito Gaona "caught" triple somersaults with, in the words of Circopedia, "extraordinary grace and astonishing consistency." These days Tito finds himself sharing the joy of "flying" with students at his Flying Trapeze Academy in Venice.  (He is also the trapeze director for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus.)   Since I wanted to talk with Tito anyway about his participation in the theater festival, I jumped on the invitation to come out to the school to watch one of his classes.

Every operation needs someone to work the front of the house, and Renata Gaona fulfills that role to perfection.  When I arrived at the school, Renata greeted me with a big hug and kiss as if we were old friends.   She then walked me over to the staging area where some students from SKY Academy were warming up.  (SKY Academy is a charter school for middle school students with a focus on physical activity.)

The warm-up helped the kids get
to this position on the flying trapeze.
The warm-up consisted of working on a swinging trapeze that was approximately nine feet off the ground.  The students had to jump to catch the trapeze bar, although they wore a harness that allowed Tito to help as required.  Once they had hold, they worked on basic trapeze skills like building momentum by swinging back and forth and hanging by their knees.

When it was time to transition from the warm-up to the flying trapeze, the kids didn't exhibit much in the way of nerves.  Most, if not all, of the students had been on the trapeze before, as a visit to the Flying Trapeze Academy is an annual outing.  And, of course, there is the fact that they are 8th graders.

Preparing for the leap of faith
Renata went up first, climbing two extension ladders about 30 feet to the platform.  (Her job was to grab the trapeze with something that looked like a boat hook and get the students hooked into the safety gear.)  Then, with Tito coaching from below, it was time for the "leap of faith."   The mantra was "One foot off, point your foot down, follow it off."  Tito would then ask, "Listo?" (which means "ready" in Spanish).  The student would respond "listo" (if a boy) and "lista" (if a girl) when he or she was, in fact, ready.  And with that, the student flew through the air -- perhaps not always with the greatest of ease, but certainly with a lot of enthusiasm and focus.   The routine was to swing back and forth a few times, working to get their knees up so that they could hang upside down freely (and clap their hands), and then drop into the large safety net below.

Neecha and Nino Braun
But the fun wasn't over yet.  Neecha and Nino Braun had wandered onto the premises to help out with the class.  Neecha, mom to Nino, explained to me that they were part of another circus family -- the Flying Farfans.  Nino is a catcher and was happy to do his part if any of the students wanted to try that stunt.  (The job of the catcher is a crucial, but perhaps underrated, one.  He hangs upside down with his knees hooked around the outside of the trapeze while swinging back and forth.  The hope is that the "flyer" will be in position--upside down, of course--to grab the catcher's hands in mid-air and let the momentum bring his legs off his own trapeze so that the catcher and the flyer become one.  Not an artful description, but, thankfully, I'm sure you've all seen a trapeze act!)

SKY Academy kids with Tito and Nino
Most of the kids tried the move, and a couple were successful.  Jeena Duzs, the only girl in the group, had completed the maneuver on previous visits and achieved it twice that day.  I could feel the adrenalin -- and excitement -- coarsing through her.  From my vantage point securely on the ground, the trick seems to be to get your knees hooked on the bar on your first swing from the platform while momentum is building.  If this happens, the flyer has time to extend, arch her back and reach for the catcher.   Easier said the done.  Once the kids had had their turns, Neecha gave a demo of a catch after a lay-out somersault.  It was a thing of beauty.

As I was gathering my things, Tito asked if I would be interested in flying sometime. (The Academy has regular classes as well as a summer camp program.)  Throughout the morning, my thoughts had repeatedly gone back to my somewhat traumatic zip line experience at a water park last summer.  (The incident prompted my sister to send me a card that read, "Putting the whole hideous thing behind me by blogging about it," which I did last August.)  Sure, I hadn't been wearing a harness, and hitting the water has more of an impact than falling into a safety net. Still, I can't quite see myself standing up on that platform and crying out "lista" any time soon.  If I do, though, you'll be the first to know.

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