Taking to the air
The trapeze artists hang in graceful positions in the air, their toes pointed, supporting themselves on the trapeze bar by their hands or knees or ankles. Their movements are a combination of art and athleticism, such as ballet or gymnastics.
“You are basically dancing in the air,” said Cassie Palmer, who has been doing trapeze for a year and a half. “There are very beautiful feats of strength. Sometimes you have only one point of contact (with the apparatus).”
Trapeze is a circus art, said Palmer, who grew up doing ballet and modern dance and is a competitive pole dancer. She fell in love with trapeze because she enjoyed being in the air.
“I’ve always been drawn to music and movement, but I had never tried anything aerial,” Palmer said. “I’m drawn into anything that gets me off the ground and into the air.
“It gives me a sense of euphoria, being up in the air,” she continued.
It also helps take her mind off the daily pressures of being a Ph.D. student in educational psychology.
Camille Swift discovered trapeze in Chicago, at The Aloft Loft, which teaches aerial and circus arts.
“Once I started trapeze, I knew it was for me. I’ve always had a lot of upper body strength,” Swift said.
She is a former ballet dancer, with the physical discipline and body awareness that comes from dancing. But she was not interested in sports. The appeal of trapeze for her is its artistic aspect.
“There are not too many art forms that encourage extreme upper body strength for women, and that can still be beautiful,” Swift said.
She began teaching trapeze classes at Top Star Gym, just north of Champaign. Palmer was one of her students. Swift is back in Chicago now but still teaches at Top Star on some weekends, and Palmer started teaching weekday trapeze classes at Top Star several months ago.
Although trapeze is associated with circuses, the type of trapeze Swift and Palmer do and teach is not the kind where a performer swings through the air and flies into someone else’s arms or onto a different trapeze bar, or does tricks while the bar is swinging. What Swift and Palmer do is called static trapeze, and it involves contortion and strength while keeping the trapeze as still as possible.
The types of apparatus used in static trapeze include the bar hanging from two ropes, silks and a heavy steel hoop called a Lyra. A trapeze artist supports himself or herself in the air, holding on by his or her hands or toes or neck. If he or she is working with silks, “they wiggle and they stretch and they drop,” Palmer said.
“It’s very grueling. It’s hard work,” she continued, adding that trapeze is more strength-based than aerobic. “There’s a very steep learning curve. Lots and lots of core and back and shoulder strength is required. Even just sitting on the trapeze, you have to engage the core and back and every little muscle to stabilize yourself.”
Swift said those interested in learning trapeze need a basic level of fitness. But, she added, almost no one beginning to learn has enough arm and core strength. It develops over time. She has her students do a lot of stretching and conditioning that includes core work such as planks.
“You do have to have enough tenacity for it, a willingness to come in here and struggle for a little while and accept it will be a challenge,” Swift said. “You will get stronger and you’ll be impressed with yourself.
“It’s very rewarding if you stick with it.”
Photos: Top: Camille Swift shows her flexibility while performing a trick on the trapeze. Middle: Sydney Germaine is suspended with the aid of silks during a trapeze class at Top Star Gym. Bottom: Cassie Palmer demonstrates a move on the trapeze while teaching at Top Star Gym. Photos by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette.