emerald city trapeze arts: run away and join the circus for a day!

TrapezeMany kids dream of running away and joining the circus. If you were one of them, your dream can now become reality at Emerald City Trapeze Arts in Lahaina. Opened in December of last year, Emerald City offers high-flying trapeze and aerial arts classes at their open-air facility high above Lahaina near Star Noodle.

Allyson and I don’t quite know what to expect as we drive around the pali towards Lahaina. Will it be scary? Will we have to climb up a tall ladder? Will it be fun? The answers, we find out later, are yes, yes, and yes!

“Emerald City Trapeze Arts was started in 2009 in Seattle by my father Gary Kirkland after he discovered flying trapeze at Club Med in Turks & Caicos,” says Hoku Kirkland, Emerald City Maui director, and one of our instructors for today. “The name Emerald City comes from both the nickname of Seattle and, of course, the magical city of Oz. It’s been our dream to have a second location somewhere warm, outdoors, where it’s sunny with little rain, and where there is an active community that would be interested in being students of ours. Here in Lahaina, we’ve had a great response from the local community, which is awesome.”

Emerald City has become quite prestigious in a short time—in 2010, Club Med selected Emerald City Trapeze Arts in Seattle to train students who aspire to join the Club Med circus staff.

There are six of us in class today: Steve from Boston (“Who doesn’t want to be in the circus?” he says); Dan, Tina, and their daughter Tori from O‘ahu via North Carolina (Dan just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan); plus Allyson and myself. “All first-timers?” asks Brian Flint, chief instructor, who’s been in the circus for 15 years, including a stint with Cirque du Soleil. Yep, we definitely are.

We’re standing next to Emerald City’s 25-foot-high trapeze structure, and there’s the ladder—it leads up to the platform from where we’ll eventually perform our “trick.” But first, Hoku takes us through “ground school.” She tells us we’ll be learning the knee-hang trick today, with the goal of performing it so well we’ll be ready for the “catch” towards the end of class (where instructor Jesse, who’ll be swinging by his knees from a second trapeze, grabs our wrists for a tandem swing, just like in the real circus). We find out we’ll be in a safety belt clipped to guide lines to keep our decent to the soft bouncy net below in a slow, controlled form. “We’ll be holding onto you the entire time you’re up there,” Hoku says. “Timing is the most important thing. Listen to your instructor calling the elements of the trick, then do them as fast as you can.”

Next, we’re outfitted with our safety belts—they’re really tight!—and we walk over to a low-hanging bar where we first practice on the ground, then one-by-one Hoku leads us through the knee-hang trick: “Legs up! Hook your knees! Hands off! Arch your back! Grab the bar! Legs down! Easy, right? Yikes. It’s harder than it looks. Next Hoku teaches us what’s known in the circus as “catch hands.” This is where you make your fingers and thumbs resemble crab claws, enabling you to hold onto Jesse the “catcher” for the tandem swing. Then we learn about the dismount, which consists of a back flip (oh no!): “Three big kicks, let go, grab knees, and land on your back,” Hoku says. She makes it sound so simple, but we know better.

We head back to the 25-foot platform where Brian demonstrates the trick. He pretends to be nervous by quaking his knees before performing an absolutely flawless trick. My class members and I are rendered pretty much speechless, and the ensuing quiet is palpable.

Steve bravely goes first. He’s a natural at this, and performs admirably. He has a huge grin on his face as he exits the net. “Yes, it was scary, but it was awesome!” he declares. Allyson goes next, and performs a mighty fine trick, while screaming a lot. (Every group has to have a screamer, right?) “It’s really fun once you jump off,” she enthuses. “Once you’re swinging, it’s great!” Steve says the hardest part is climbing the ladder. Dan and his family perform their tricks; Dan says afterwards, “You just kind of hold your breath.”

Finally, it’s my turn. OMG. I’ve hiked up mountains, ridden a horse into the crater, done nearly every zipline on the island, and ridden a bike down Haleakala many times. But I was not meant to be a trapeze artist. Brian coaxes me into just swinging—forget the trick—which I do, and happily let go and fall into the net. Whew! That’s over.

Steve, the natural, earns a cowbell clang on round two, meaning his timing is up to snuff and he’s ready for the catch. Jesse is impressed: “Usually you don’t get the cowbell until the third or fourth round.” Allyson has this to say after round two: “The second time is 100 percent easy. You know it’s going to end well. The first time you think, ‘I’m going to plunge to my death, and I don’t have life insurance!’”

Clouds settle in and a cool breeze washes over us as, one by one, everyone earns their cowbell clang. Not me, though—my circus career was short lived. Jesse practices “catch hands” with the five remaining novice circus performers, and gives detailed instruction on what’s ahead. He’s wrapped his wrists with cotton tape to improve traction. This is serious stuff. “Timing is super important,” he says. “Listen carefully to my commands, and don’t try to catch me…I’ll catch you.” Jesse practices the catch with each individual on solid ground first to get the feel of it. Brian explains the mechanics to me: “Jesse makes the ‘ready’ call for the other person to jump off the platform, so the two swings sync up,” he says. “It’s all about the timing.”

Since Steve was the first to earn the cowbell he goes right to the head of the class, and he nails it! Hooray, Steve-O! The others follow suit with mixed results. Brian gives the class members some encouragement: “Don’t change anything. If you got the cowbell, your timing is right. The critical thing to making the catch is getting off the platform on cue.”

With a look of sheer determination on her face, Tina is intent on completing the catch. She succeeds! So does Dan, and the construction crew building the church next door lets out a loud cheer, just like in the real circus. Allyson and Tori are pleased with their previous efforts, and call it a day.

Class is over, and Brian and Jesse give each of us the “secret trapeze handshake.” I can’t say what that is, because it won’t be a secret anymore. You’ll have to give Emerald City Trapeze Arts a try yourself in order to find out.

–heidi pool

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