My ears sting with the “C’mons!” and the “You can do its!” I hear from classmates at the foot of the tall, wobbly ladder I’m slowly and all-too cautiously climbing to reach the flying trapeze’s pedestal board. I’m told just getting to the top is the hardest part and I believe it, but looking down at the skull-smashingly petrifying 25-foot drop from the platform to the concrete floor as I prepare myself to swing is no cakewalk either. The instructor behind me spends the final minutes before takeoff (which feels like hours) checking my safety lines and giving me some last words of encouragement. Disastrous images flash through my head of cables snapping, a net tearing, a spine shattering and broken ribs puncturing my lungs. My sweaty grip tightens on the fly bar. She yells, “HEP!” in my ear. I leap and catch air.
Welcome to class beneath the big top at the Toronto School of Circus Arts. Since 1999, the school — located in a vacated Globe And Mail printing press hall (425 Wellington St. W.) — has been turning the average Joe and Josephine into death-defying daredevils with courses such as bungee acrobatics, trampoline bouncing and silk rope climbing.
After working as a Ringling Bros. and Garden Bros. trapeze artist for 12 years, school founder Decker LaDouceur had an idea to bring traditional and modern circus arts to the local masses. Up until the school was founded, opportunities for Torontonians to follow such aerial pursuits were limited at best. “I wanted to have a very open concept for the general public to learn how to do traditional circus as well as modern circus,” says LaDouceur. “At the time, there were no circus schools that offered a full training facility in Canada. I felt it was something the public could do as an alternative form of fitness. Instead of coming to gymnastics classes, you’re going to circus classes.”
It’s a lesson in control, both mental and physical. At the apex of my swing some 35 feet in the air — on my second jump, of course, I was too paralyzed with pants-wetting terror to pull it off the first time — I feel a rare burn in my core muscles as I tuck my legs into my chest and propel them over the fly bar. I hang from my knees and stretch back out to see my arms dangling in front of me toward the red netting and the unforgiving grey floor underneath it. Unnerving as it might seem, I’m surprisingly calm, Zen-like. All I’m aware of is the wind from my momentum zip past my ears as I swing back and forth like a pendulum. I reach up, grab the bar, lift my legs and drop into the net right side up, none the worse for wear.
It’s a great experience for thrill-seekers, says LaDouceur, and he notes there’s no better way for high-powered 9-to-5ers to unwind after a stressful day than to learn how to cheat gravity, and it’s rewarding when his pupils make the breakthrough.
“I live vicariously through my students. I get a real kick when people learn and get to the next level. I encourage and support my students to get over those humps, because I have a real passion to share what I know.”
• For more, visit www.torontocircus.com.