Flying high at Dublin's trapeze school
It's an unlikely fitness craze, but trapeze classes promise to take your workout to new heights, writes Lorraine Courtney
I didn't expect to find myself spending dreary autumn evenings hanging upside down on a trapeze bar, but that's exactly what happened.
Located in the inconspicuous-looking Chocolate Factory building on King's Inns Street, Taking Flight is a fitness studio that offers a taste of the circus to those looking to shake off the dust of a traditional gym experience.
As I stepped gingerly through the door, I was bowled over by the sheer force of enthusiasm from my fellow classmates - trapeze classes are soaring in popularity, as suspending yourself above the ground on a circus trapeze and learning acrobatically graceful moves is fast becoming the most sought-after route to fitness and adrenaline-boosted self-esteem.
Those who embrace the practice may find themselves hanging around (literally) with the likes of supermodel Gisele Bundchen or actress Sadie Frost, who credits it with giving her a new-found self-confidence and the muscle tone of an Olympian.
Dublin-based school Taking Flight specialises in the teaching of aerial arts and acrobatics. There is a variety of classes to choose from, including training with supports, where one or more people balance, drop and hang off a static trapeze or hoop; doubles, where two people work together on fabric or a hoop; and a "vertical" workout involving climbing, wrapping and swinging in fabric or rope to tone every muscle in your body.
Plans for the future include introducing aerial yoga (of which Gwyneth Paltrow and Khloe Kardashian are passionate devotees) and acrobalance.
There's no need to tell you that trapeze classes are not aimed at anyone afraid of heights, speed, falling or exercise, but there are few other restrictions. "People take up the trapeze for many reasons," says Shane Holohan, founder of the school.
"Many people come here saying that it had been on their bucket list, but very often, they end up staying. Some people have stressful work lives, and this isn't crossfit. Hanging upside down means that you're pushing the envelope to become 'more'. It's a release and people are so chuffed by the huge endorphin rush."
Trapeze training is one of the most exhilarating workouts around. Each class focuses on building upper body and core strength, including grip, as well as boosting overall flexibility. Your back, glutes and thighs are constantly active as you climb, twist and jump, giving you great calorie burn and a full body workout.
But it's far more than just fitness that keeps enthusiasts swinging on a trapeze bar. Devotees say it is an excellent stress-buster, requiring such intense focus that other worries are forgotten.
Elena (34) finds it a healing experience. "You get a new perspective hanging upside down and we all have an inner monkey that comes out to play."
Of course, the main attraction is the thrill of flying, and that is the beauty of the thing. Jenn (27) attends classes for "a bit of adrenalin" as well as fitness, saying the exercise "releases happy hormones".
The flying trapeze involves two trapezes in the air: you start from a high platform, grab the trapeze bar and swing, then let go of the bar and are (hopefully) caught by a fellow 'artist' on the second trapeze.
The swinging trapeze is like being on a swing. You sit on the bar and hold on to the rope either side, then you do tricks like standing up, spinning round and all those other things you injured yourself doing as a kid in the playground.
Finally, there's the static trapeze, in which you move around the static bar. This is seriously hard work, so be prepared to ache afterwards (in return for the pain, this discipline tones all your core muscles). With practise, you'll master dramatic-sounding moves like "the mermaid", "the stag" and "the spider" - and they all involve wrapping yourself around the ropes and hanging upside down to some degree or other.
My tutor is Jenny Higgins, who spends her days working in International Relations but teaches people to fly at night. Remarkably, injuries at trapeze school are rare. Jenny insists on thorough warm-up and cool-down sessions for her pupils to limit the possibility of muscle strains and pulls.
We're in a high-ceilinged chamber with - I'm delighted to note - thick inflated mats beneath the trapezes. Before I have time to flee, Jenny adjusts my limbs through a series of terrifying, gravity-defying moves. Most require me to hook my legs over the trapeze and either dangle upside down or propel myself into a standing or sitting position.
I'm only inches from the ground, but still the most basic movements call for me to bear my entire body weight using my arms. I have a good level of fitness, but I only just manage to maintain my grip.
Jenny motions for me to take the bar. I point my toes, tuck in my tummy, pull up with my arms and manage to dangle in a host of upside-down positions that shouldn't be humanly possible. While I'm on that bar, I believe I have the poise of a prima ballerina, but I'm probably more like a clown. Despite aching arms and abs, we move on to a low-level tightrope session.
By now, I have a better understanding of the physicality acrobatics demands. Abdominals need to be six-pack tight, especially trying to walk that rope. Pulling them in really does enhance balance, but as soon as Jenny removes her supporting hand, my arms windmill in comic circles in a fight for equilibrium. All I manage is a few seconds of stationary wobbling before falling off.
In a regular gym, such arduous exercise might provoke the gritting of teeth, but when it is for the sake of trapeze, it's all accepted with good humour. By the end, my hands and arms hurt, but my stomach feels very toned.
I'm grinning from ear to ear. And I've satisfied my desire to run away with the circus.