Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in May 2016.
“Hep!” a voice calls from the ground.
I am standing on a platform 23 feet in the air — accessible only by a sturdy metal ladder — and ‘hep’ means it’s time for me to fly. My harness is tight, my chalk-covered hands are properly positioned on the bar, the bouncy netting is ready to capture me upon descent, and all that’s left to do is jump.
I remember this command from my ten minutes of ground training.
“‘Hep’ is circus for ‘go’ because ‘go’ sounds too much like ‘no,'” the ground instructor had told me and a handful of other first-time fliers just a few minutes before I braved the ladder.
I remember all of this as I finally heed my instructor’s command and leap from the platform and fly. I don’t remember, however, to point my toes or keep my legs together or swing my body into an ‘L’ at the hips, but all of that is OK because this is only my first flying trapeze class at the Trapeze School of New York, situated next to Nat’s Stadium on the D.C. waterfront.
Kiersten Van Houten is the woman running the ropes from the ground and calling commands to the ten or so students at the school that morning, each taking to the air one at a time. Van Houten herself has been doing circus art since she was a teenager in Northern Virginia, but she didn’t begin aerial performances until she joined the extracurricular performing arts program at Florida State Unversity as an undergraduate.
“I basically got to go to college and to circus school at the same time, which was awesome,” she says.
She eventually found herself back in the DMV and has been working at D.C.’s TSNY for just over six years. She is now an instructor, show producer and children’s program coordinator at the Trapeze School, which hosts week-long day camps for kids “from the time school lets out until it’s back in session,” she says.
TSNY campers — anyone between the ages of 7 and 14 — can expect to sample most of what the school has to offer, from ground acrobatics to aerial arts and flying trapeze. The summer camps are extremely popular, and this year’s registration is already full. However, Van Houten says there are still plenty of ways for kids to stay involved in all the fun during the school year, too.
For an experience much like a day at summer camp, Van Houten says parents should sign their kids up for an All Day Circus Experience. These daylong programs give kids a taste of almost everything TSNY has to offer, and they take place on school holidays, such as Columbus Day or Memorial Day.
“It’s an opportunity for kids to get to sample most of the things we teach here, and also to get them to do something fun on their day out of school,” she says.
In addition, the majority of flying trapeze classes, which are offered year-round, are open to anyone age 6 or older, and there’s no prior experience or athletic ability necessary.
“Whatever the kid’s background, we’re going to be able to work with that and work at whatever level they’re starting,” Van Houten says. “It’s a great experience for any kid. I definitely recommend it, even for kids who are not necessarily that physically involved.”
Though the school does attract kids with backgrounds in dance or sports, Van Houten says some may be surprised by the supportive environment the school offers, which they may not find on competitive sports teams.
In fact, Van Houten says she became particularly passionate about this sort of learning environment during her time as a camp director for an outdoor adventure summer camp.
“I feel really strongly about the role of alternative education in a kid’s life and opportunities for them to learn and grow through less organized forms of education — through play, exploring and working together,” she says.
TSNY offers just that for learners of any age. On the Saturday morning I visited the school, the most experienced fliers were a few middle schoolers who graced the air with individualized routines, and a pair of adult women who worked on their own aerial performances.
While fliers took to the air, another group of little ones stayed on the ground as they twisted, climbed and spun in bright silks during a kids-only aerial skills class.
No matter which class they take, Van Houten says she hopes TSNY will teach kids to be independent and will give them the ability to work in a community. She says she also hopes to see them believe in their abilities to overcome challenges.
“Most people, of all ages, come [to TSNY] expecting that something they’re about to do is going to be really difficult for them, or maybe that they’re not going to be able to do it,” she says. “Most of the time, they leave feeling like they’ve accomplished something. It builds confidence and gets them to open their horizons.”
As for the future of kids’ programming at TSNY, Van Houten says she hopes to see the school continue to grow, and to make programs more accessible for families with financial constraints.
“I’d love for us to have more programming throughout the school year so that kids can stay involved and make this more of a hobby, rather than an occasional fun thing they do,” she says.
And in case you’re wondering how my story turned out, I conquered my lifelong fear of heights and leaped from the platform again and again, quickly gaining the ability to hang upside down from the bar and descend in a back flip.
The commands sound something like this: “Hep! Legs up! Hands off! Hands up! And legs down! Kick forward, backward, forward, backward! Let go and tumble!” And they’re always followed by an encouraging round of applause.
But to fully understand those calls, you’ll have to check out TSNY’s website, at washingtondc.trapezeschool.com, to see a full list of classes, sign up and fly on your own.