Any change agent who’s worthy of the name has harbored a dream of running away to the circus — of escaping from the workaday world and taking on a new persona as a flier or a tumbler or an acrobat. And thanks to the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, Silicon Valley’s real-deal risk takers can run away and join the circus, if just for a few hours a week. Walk into the boys’ gym of the old Polytechnic High School in San Francisco’s lower Haight, and there it is, the only full-time circus school in the country that’s open to the public. Circus Arts is an off-track mecca for business folks who hunger for a different kind of learning experience: one that shows them firsthand how to deal with real fear, react to the unexpected, and plunge into the next challenge. They’ve learned why the trapeze is the ultimate tool for change agents — it can take them to a different world.
Which is the reason why I find myself 21 feet above the ground, standing on a platform that’s narrower than a skateboard. There’s barely enough room for my feet — my toes curl over the edge. But this pathetic piece of ledge hasn’t kept Scott Cameron, head of the trapeze department at Circus Arts, from scampering up the aluminum ladder behind me. I’m about to take my first flight on the trapeze, and Cameron is here to ensure my successful launch.
He examines one of my palms as if he were reading it. “Writer’s hands,” he clucks. Soft hands that will blister and swell, eventually ruining the fun. Cameron’s own hands are a splendid mess: calluses upon calluses and a snapped ligament in one finger.
But it’s not my hands I’m worried about. Or even the height. After all, a wall-to-wall net is suspended like a giant hammock about 15 feet below me. I’m also “in lines”: A thick harness is wrapped around my waist, to which is clipped a length of rope that’s fed through a pulley attached to the ceiling. A spotter on the ground below holds the rope’s other end. Should I fall, the spotter will control my descent.
My big fear is that the moment I launch into my swing, I’ll dislocate my shoulders — as well as every other joint between my wrists and ankles — and unhinge until I’m 20 feet long and I end up flopping on the net like a fish. I think this is probably an irrational fear, but then Cameron tells me that fliers do occasionally dislocate body parts.
Suddenly, I don’t feel like I’m about to join the exotic corps of circus performers. Instead, I feel as if I’m stuck in a burning building, getting ready to jump out of a window. I grab the bar and wait for Cameron to say “Hep!” — trapeze-speak for “Go!”
I stand there, my toes wrapped in a death grip around the platform’s edge, my hands white-knuckled around the bar.
“Let’s try it again,” says Cameron, his voice pricked with impatience. He doesn’t have all day. Students in his “Beginning Trapeze” class wait below, stretching their shoulders and chalking their palms. The weird thing is, I’m not particularly terrified. My body just won’t move.
Head up, chest high, I step into space. A big tug of gravity pulls my feet into another time zone. In a flash, I arc skyward and sing out, “Wheeeeeeee-oh!” But my hands feel as if someone is holding them over an open flame. After a few decades, Cameron yells, “Hep!” and I let go, releasing myself from the torture. Plummeting into the net, I land safely on my back. I can see why the trapeze is the school’s most popular class — for people with palms as tough as horses’ hooves.
“The school doesn’t get ex-gymnasts,” explains the TV-handsome 36-year-old Cameron, once we’re back on terra firma. “It gets financial types and people from the computer industry who are looking for a cure to the cubicle — who want a radical change.”
Here, then, are the stories of three gravity-defying change agents. They know that even when the fast-forward world of work starts to feel like a three-ring circus, they’ll always land on their feet.
Change Trick: Before You Can Learn to Fly, You Must Learn to Fall
“The first thing to remember,” says Christine Shipp, 35, a business developer for Digital Video Art, “is that falling is not the same as failing. Falling is part of the performance. And if you don’t want to break your neck, you’d better learn how to fall correctly.”
Shipp has been flying twice a week for five years. She’s one of those sporty, pony-tailed California blondes about whom the Beach Boys carried on at such length. But she’s built herself a tremendous set of shoulders and biceps, which the Beach Boys could have never anticipated.
Like many of the business types who’ve found their way to Circus Arts, Shipp was turned on to the trapeze during a Club Med vacation that offered flying as one of its off-beach activities.
“The thing that really got me hooked was learning how to stay aware in the air — to know where you are and where you need to be — always. The best bit of advice I know for dealing with change at work comes from flying: If you lose your way, keep moving — no matter what.”
Shipp is all attitude as she scales the aluminum ladder, grabs the bar, and hops off the platform. Much like neophytes who get that deer-in-the-headlights look when change hits them at work, beginning fliers hesitate: They dangle from the trapeze like a pendulum on a grandfather clock. But Shipp “forces out,” kicking and extending her body forward at the front end of the swing. Then comes the moment when she must make her exit. She must fall.
The correct place to let go of the bar is at the top of the front end of the swing. This is called the “stall point” — the point at which you’re the highest in the air and the farthest from the net — the scariest place.
“You’re closest to the net at the bottom of the swing, but you’re also moving the fastest,” Shipp explains. “Drop there, and you’re angling for a sprained back, or worse.”
Shipp bounces into the net, flat on her back. She shoots back up and executes a flip. She untucks and bounces again, her body forming a curve as she rebounds. Then she hangs in the air for a moment — back arched, arms behind her, looking as if she belongs on the prow of a ship. She drops back into the net, springs to her feet, and flips onto the mat.
“From the second you begin climbing the ladder, flying is all about performing,” Shipp tells me. “I love being caught by a catcher because it’s a chance to look good. I’ve been working for nearly two years on my current trick — a layout with a twist to the catcher — and I expect I won’t be able to pull it off for another six months. Knowing how to fall well boosts my morale.”
Change Trick: Get Better, Go Slower
Every change agent must deal with fear — fear of change itself. John Carr starts his routine with a conventional warm-up trick that never fails to scare the bejesus out of him. “The back mount,” says the 51-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon and dedicated Internet trader, “really gets my attention.”
Once a beginning flier leaves the platform, the only way out is down and into the net. But advanced fliers are trained to return to the platform on the backswing, hence the term “back mount.” This is a trick in itself.
“The back mount is scary because you have to know where you are in relation to the platform, without being able to see it,” Carr says. “Then, when you think you know where the platform is, you have to commit and let go of the bar. Release at the wrong moment, and you risk missing the platform and falling.”
Carr swings out. On the back end of the swing, he sweeps up and over the platform, so high and fast that it looks as if he might clunk his head on the ceiling. Then he lets go of the bar, landing on the platform on the balls of his feet — piece of cake.
Carr is one of the school’s most unlikely success stories. A six-footer with graying hair that defies gravity, he’s too tall and too old to do as well as he does. Cameron himself is amazed. “There’s a saying in basketball: ‘You can’t teach seven feet,’ ” says Cameron. “It’s the same for the trapeze, although the dimensions are somewhat different. The perfect flier is probably a five-foot-six-inch, 130-pound 17-year-old.”
So what is Carr’s secret?
Carr won’t admit it, but he’s a cat. Cats are unnaturally coordinated. They can control their bodies while flying through space, even though they lack traditional human reference points — like the ground. That’s why flying is such a great tool for learning to deal with change: You’ve got to think, decide, and move in midair, literally without knowing which way is up (or down). And you’ve got to do all this in the space of a few milliseconds. Hesitate, and you’ll find yourself hurtling into the net.
“The first time I throw a new trick, everything is a complete blur,” says Carr. “But the more I practice, the more time slows down. Seconds start to seem like minutes. My vision opens out, and I’m aware of my timing — of how long I have to make this twist or that pike. With some tricks, it feels as if I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Tonight, Carr’s goal is to land a “cutaway half.” Cameron, who is the catcher, climbs a ladder to a trapeze on the opposite end of the gym. Instead of hooking his legs around the bar, he wraps them around thick ropes. If Cameron were to hang from his knees, Carr might yank him right off the bar.
One thing that gives the otherwise collected Carr hives is being caught in midair. “I worry about knocking heads with the catcher, and that concern can affect my timing. If I’m off the bar too early, it’s like a Laurel and Hardy routine, and I’m kissing the catcher. Too late, and we brush fingers, and I’m in the net. The tough part is this: Small people get caught and stay caught. I’m big, so I have to grip back. But that won’t happen if we don’t make contact.”
Carr climbs onto the platform. Cameron begins his swing. Carr launches. He flies out parallel to the net on the front end of the swing. His body forms a seven on the back end. Back and forth he goes. Then he twists, tucks, and — “Hep!” — releases, right at the moment that Cameron is at the front of his swing. In a flash, Carr is in Cameron’s grip. The cat is caught.
Change Trick: If Your Change Effort Isn’t Working, Change It
After three years of relentless practice, Derek Bosch, a soft-spoken graphics software engineer at SGI, traded the trapeze for the trampoline, an apparatus that he describes as being “friendlier.” An ace juggler who can keep five balls in the air at once, Bosch is Mr. Medium — in height, weight, and coloring.
Whereas a lot of fliers are risk takers who function best when the adrenaline flows as plentifully as the lattes, Bosch took up flying precisely because it’s the kind of thing he never imagined doing. In a sense, he was looking for a change that he couldn’t quite envision.
“I’m a bit of a chicken,” he admits. “Prior to flying, my biggest challenge was tennis. I took to the trapeze because I wanted to shake myself up.”
At first, just climbing the ladder qualified as a thrill in Bosch’s book. Few moments, he says, are as gloriously terrifying as the first time you stand with your toes hooked over the edge of the platform, psyching yourself up to leap into the waiting arms of gravity.
“I have a healthy fear of heights,” he concedes. “Standing on the platform is harder for me than working the trick. People used to give me a hard time about that.”
But oddly, fear wasn’t the reason that Bosch made the switch from trapeze to trampoline. While flying is exhilarating, it’s got a steep learning curve. It’s not unusual for people in the more advanced ranks — recreational fliers as well as professional trapeze artists — to take half a year to perfect a single trick.
“I hit a vast, flat plateau,” he says. “I worked on the same trick — a half turn — for nine months.” It looks simple enough: Take off from the platform in the normal position, then twist and switch your hands at the front of the swing, so you’re facing the platform when you return to it.
“But I just couldn’t nail it, and I really got frustrated,” Bosch continues. “I want to feel that I’m progressing, so I did the unheard of. Even though I loved it, I walked away from the trapeze. I needed a change.”
I watch Bosch during his warm-up. He hits 45 consecutive jumps, straight into the trampoline’s sweet spot: 15 tucks, 15 straddles, 15 pikes. At the top of one of the jumps, he throws his legs out behind him, dropping face-first into the trampoline. This is a front drop, which most people avoid because every instinct tells you to put out your hands to break the fall. But Bosch prefers the front drop to the less-risky back drop. “I always like to see where I’m going,” he deadpans.
Even though he’s scaling the heights on the trampoline, Bosch hasn’t quite cut the cord on flying. “The trampoline is a great way to reduce work stress. It takes a lot of discipline to jump well, which forces me to get my head out of my job. But unlike flying, jumping isn’t life altering. Since I’ve been flying, I’ve also gone bungee jumping and hang gliding — stuff I never would have attempted if I hadn’t taken up the trapeze.”
Bosch has resolved to get back on the trapeze by the first of the year. “Just thinking about it,” he says with a grin, “freaks me out.”
Karen Karbo (email@example.com) is a contributing editor at Condé Nast’s “Women’s Sports & Fitness.” Her forthcoming novel, “Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me,” will be published by Bloomsbury USA.
Action Item: Fly by the Book
In his recent book “Learning to Fly,” author Sam Keen flies high by tracing the spiritual benefits that can be gleaned from swinging aloft on a trapeze. Keen, formerly a contributing editor at “Psychology Today” magazine, leavens his enlightenment with unlikely tales of his own struggle to master the trapeze at age 61. Even for the philosophically disinclined, “Learning to Fly” is the best book written by a recreational flier.
Coordinates: $23. “Learning to Fly: Trapeze — Reflections on Fear, Trust and the Joy of Letting Go,” Broadway Books, www.broadwaybooks.com
I Joined the Circus: Mark McMillan
Change Agent: Mark McMillan, assistant property manager at CAC Real Estate Management Co.
Circus Specialty: The trampoline
Circus Trick/Work Trick: Like most students at Circus Arts, McMillan enrolled to try the trapeze. “I flew for a few years, but when it came time to start working with a catcher, I realized I needed to die and be reborn as a smaller person.”
Indeed, the 31-year-old McMillan is tall and buff, with perfect hair — the kind that falls just so over one eye. Still, he has no athletic background, and he confesses to a “geeky childhood that trampolining somewhat redeems.”
McMillan took up the trampoline because he wanted to learn how to throw a flip on his wake board (a cousin of the surfboard). But now the wake board sits idle while he works on connecting his flips: forward-backward-twisting, forward-twisting-backward, and then beginning all over again.
“Trampolining is an apt metaphor for dealing with all of the change that goes on at work, where the dynamics of the job itself are always shifting,” says McMillan. “Throwing tricks on the trampoline requires you to develop sea legs, which I’ve found to be helpful in my job. If you land anywhere but dead center on the trampoline, you can mess up the trick and maybe even hurt yourself. But now that I’m getting comfortable throwing tricks, I’m taking more risks on my job. These days, I’m not afraid to fail. I know I’ll bounce back.”
Sidebar: Schools of Higher Learning
Want to fly? You’ll need a safe rig and a topflight instructor. You’ll find both at the following schools:
San Francisco School of Circus Arts
As the name implies, the school features courses in most of the circus arts, including the trampoline, acrobatics, and the static trapeze. But the main act is the flying trapeze. Classes for all abilities run from 9 to 15 weeks; there are also drop-in classes for beginners.
Coordinates: San Francisco, 415-759-8123, www.sfcircus.org
Richie Gaona Trapeze Workshop
Gaona is a fourth-generation circus performer who debuted at the age of five with his family, the Flying Gaonas. He eventually ran away from the circus, so to speak, and took up the life of a Hollywood stuntman and trainer. Located 20 minutes north of Los Angeles, the school offers an introductory package (two lessons in 10 days) and an intensive weeklong program.
Coordinates: Woodland Hills, California, 818-710-8191, www.flyingtrapeze.com/gaona
This school is a one-stop center for fueling an adrenaline rush. If you can climb on it or fall from it, it’s here: climbing walls, a rappelling station, a high wire, a high dive, climbing and hanging ropes, and a soon-to-be-completed giant swing. This is a great place for first timers to experience the rush.
Coordinates: Orlando, Florida, 407-672-9714
I Joined the Circus: Chris Weiland
The Performer: Chris Weiland, associate producer at computer-game developer Frog City Software Inc.
Circus Specialty: The tissue
Circus Trick/Work Trick: Weiland, a former dancer, recently discovered her go-to apparatus — the oddly named “tissue.” It’s a large piece of red polyester fabric that’s suspended from the school’s 30-foot-high ceiling. In one of her tricks, dubbed “the Ramone,” Weiland wraps herself in the tissue, dangles from the ceiling, then plummets and twists into a side-straddle pose as the fabric rapidly uncoils.
Unlike most of the other Silicon Valley denizens who train at the school, Weiland has genuine circus aspirations. This month, she’ll perform in a Circus Arts production, titled Yusan, at the Theater Artaud. “I love the idea of being an artist,” she says. “I just don’t want to be a starving artist.”
While Weiland is keeping her day job, she continues to work out four to six times a week at Circus Arts. “The circus resembles business in that even though we’re a team, we perform as soloists, and our success depends on never forgetting that,” she says. “Here, everyone is different; no one’s a faceless cog.” Like a good boss, Master Lu Yi (the school’s master instructor) is a genius at assessing the realities of his students’ talents and then steering them toward the apparatus that suits them best. The same goes for any job: The work won’t work if it’s not the right fit.
I Joined the Circus: Gabriel Wasserman
Change Agent: Gabriel Wasserman, information designer at SF Gate
Circus Specialty: Chinese acrobatics
Circus Trick/Work Trick: Master Lu Yi, who trains all the acrobats at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, chides Wasserman as he walks across the floor on his hands. “More tall, Gabe! More tall!”
Even upside down, Wasserman looks like a gymnast — compact and muscular. His trick of the moment is the back tuck, which is essentially a back flip from a standing position. He nailed it once before, then lost it.
“Doing a trick once or twice doesn’t extinguish the anxiety,” he confides. “Fear can stay with you for a long time. I thought I’d mastered the back tuck. But then I was goofing around in my backyard, and I had a bad fall. I could have really hurt myself. I was afraid of the trick all over again, just as if I’d never done it. I guess you never truly conquer your fear. You just have to learn to accept it, without letting it compromise your performance.
“The tricks I learn here always seem 100% impossible when I first attempt them,” Wasserman says. “But I start by mastering one small skill, then another, and if I’m patient, I begin to see results. The same goes for my work. I try to imagine what the Web interface of the future might be, and I don’t have a clue. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter. I’ve gained the confidence that an answer will eventually emerge — I just have to keep working at it.”