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Thursday 29 May 2014

Learning Circus Skills: Do not Wee on a Trapeze

Hen parties nowadays are definitely getting more interesting. No longer content with just a couple of hours in the pub with the hen in a silly outfit clutching a plastic willy, girls are realising that a hen do is an excuse to do something different, have a bit of fun and THEN end up in the pub with the hen brandishing her plastic willy.

With this in mind (and a stock of plastic willies) I received an invitation from my runner friend Angela’s maid-of-honour to attend her hen party. Our activity for the day? Circus Skills.

What I thought it was
Plate spinning. Maybe a go on a unicycle. Face painting? Clown walking? I wasn’t too sure about the other things but I reckoned I could definitely do the clown walking. Maybe there would also be custard pies to throw (read: eat).

The National Centre for Circus Arts (source)

Tucked away in Shoreditch, the National Centre for Circus Arts is housed in a red brick building which was built as an electricity generating station in 1896 but which had fallen into dereliction until it was restored in 1994. There was no sign of the previous disrepair and inside it was all glass walls, smart furniture and suspiciously lithe and graceful people. Through the window into the circus room, I could see a line of children climbing a ladder to a trapeze. Not a sign of a squeaky nose or oversized trousers to be seen. Gulp. Surely they wouldn’t expect me to do any of the hard stuff ... I had visions of trying to tame lions with a whip or get 50 clowns back into a very small car.

When everyone had arrived, there were 24 of us including the 8 hens and we were all herded into a sunny, airy room the size of a ballroom although hung with more ropes and hooks than a dungeon. I was reassured by a lack of gimp suits and handcuffs but slighted overwhelmed by the trapeze which looked VERY high.

My fears weren’t assuaged by a safety talk which included tales of earrings getting ripped out and shoulders dislocated. Cowed by the fear of being maimed for life, all jewellery was removed and previous injuries owned up to. Despite making us fear for our lives and bodies, the lady seemed very nice and capable - and normal! Although I was slightly disappointed that she hadn’t cartwheeled into the room.

We were told that before we did anything interesting, we would be warming up and were sent running around the room doing high knees, skipping and being made to run in circles. Well this might be the first and last thing of the day I can do. If there’s one thing I know I’m capable of, it’s running in circles. And skipping. The lads seemed to be getting into the circus act spirit though with the first examples of funny clown walks. Oh. Nope. False alarm – they were just trying to skip.

My coordination showed itself in my complete lack of and soon I was merrily throwing (one) ball from hand to hand. I’d like to say the others were supportive of my attempts but the empty space around me widened and widened until I was starring in my very own one-person one-ball act.

Nicola nailing juggling

When we’d mastered ball tossing, we were given the challenge of putting a ball on top of our head and walking around. I soon spotted the cheat in this, which was to squish the ball into a pancake shape onto the top of my head. Ta-da – I’m a whiz at this! I’m practically a juggling legend! However, one of the other hens, Fiona spotted my trick and gave me a quick nudge as I passed making me drop my head-ball and shattering my Amazing Head Ball Legend dreams.

After a quick attempt at throw-the-ball-high-in-the-air-spin-and-catch-it at which I was a COMPLETE failure at best and a dangerous spinning ball throwing machine at worst, we paired up and threw 2 balls between 2 people ... but only using our outside arms. Like a 3 legged race, but with arms. And balls. My partner and I soon managed to get the hang of throwing 2 balls ... then 3. It was a bit of a tricky one but Sarah H and I soon managed to get the knack of this and we graduated to juggling 3 balls using our OWN hands. And strangely, juggling 3 balls is easier than juggling 2.

Angela, the Hen was a whiz at the juggling and I suspected she’d had some crafty one-to-one lessons while the rest of us weren’t watching. We suggested she try with some flaming torches or a chainsaw or two, but she decided she didn’t want to break a nail only four weeks before her wedding, so she sensibly stuck to juggling balls.

Angela the Hen enthusiastically tossing balls around
Our next task was balancing peacock feathers on our fingers. This was actually quite challenging and a lot easier to do than the balancing-the-garden-rake trick Angela admitted to having tried in her garden. Also much less chance of broken windows, stabbed hens and gore. We progressed to balancing the feathers on our nose, chin and knees. Apparently the shorter the object the harder it is to balance. A tall peacock feather was easy, a spoon would be more difficult. And you were more at risk of getting a comical boink noise off your forehead with a spoon.

Things I learned:
  • Am not going to be a juggling legend, wowing crowds and small children with my amazing tricks.
  • Squishing balls works in most situations.
  • Juggling with 3 balls is easier than juggling with 2.
  • Peacocks are obviously better at balancing than I’d previously realised.
  • I have the hand eye coordination of a week old baby.

Tightrope Walking
The next skill to be learned was tightrope walking. This sounded exciting but following on from my juggling coordination, I didn’t have high hopes. Or even high-wire hopes. Although was reassured that my baby-giraffe style balancing skills didn’t put any pressure on me for mastering this skill in the hour we had.

A box of ballet shoes was produced and a quick un-ballet dancer-like scuffle for matching pairs ensued. We stood looking at the instructor expectantly but no tutus OR tiaras were handed out. Sulk.

Our first instruction was a good one. Apparently there was a trick to tightrope walking – don’t look at your feet, instead look at your destination, your feet will follow. We then were tasked with walking along the lines on the floor. Reassuringly I didn’t fall off the floor.

After our rousing success with managing to walk without falling over, knee height wires with pedestals at each end were produced. And the instruction was repeated - look at the pedestal not your feet.

Anneka gracefully demonstrating the need for broom handles in tightrope walking

Then some broom handles were brought out and handed to us. Huh? Is this like some Gladiator-style ‘Poke the hen off the wire with a broom’ game? Nope. One person walks on the tightrope with a person on either side of the wire holding up the broom handles for the tightrope walker to use for balance should they be required. Read: Cling on to.

After a couple of tries, the braver of our group graduated to one broom handle and then managed a few steps on the wire broom-less before being boinged off (yes that’s a word). We were also told to keep our hands and arms above shoulder height and held up as though we were casually surrendering. Like a cool cowboy.

Lara balancing on one leg on a tightrope!

Most of us managed a few steps, wobbling from side to side like wobbly things, but one of the hens must have been a tightrope walker in a previous life (or had a really exciting secret life) and was running up and down the wire – perfectly balanced, like a mouse. I watched with envy and determined to get onto eBay and buy myself a tightrope. And a couple of trees to string it between.


Things I Learned:
  • Even I can’t fall off the floor.
  • Keep your core tight and head up and look at your destination – not your feet.
  • Make sure you’re first to the ballet shoe box
  • Going faster doesn’t make it easier
  • Broom handles help with tightrope walking; as long as they’re being used for balance aids rather than to poke people off the wire with.

This looked terrifying. Or it did from floor level. And everyone knows things look higher when you’re looking down. It was going to be like staring down from the Eiffel Tower up there.

We were all strapped into belts similar to those you wear for climbing and we all waited while one victim was chosen. I mean of course a willing volunteer. Cough. We stood and watched as one person made a climb up what appeared to be a hugely tall ladder to a platform which I was prepared to swear under oath was at LEAST as high as 3 storey building. With a couple of double-decker buses stacked on top. And a giraffe on.

To use the trapeze, you inched your way out onto a platform held up by ropes, with one of your friends (hopefully a nice sensible trustworthy one) on the right as support and a professional who knew what they were doing on your left. You were clipped into the safety ropes by your safety belt and it was time. Time to grab the trapeze bar and swing out into empty space. Without screaming or wetting yourself in fear.

Pointy toes!

You’d think the hardest part would be the swinging out on the trapeze. You’re right. We were told to pretend to try and sit on the edge of the platform – you wouldn’t reach but the motion would send you on your way, weeing and squealing while holding onto the trapeze for dear life.

We were given instructions that had sounded so simple on the ground: Go into a ‘dish position’ at the furthest point of the swing and point your toes over the top of the far platform. Then while swinging back, bring your legs back, then move into a pike position at the drop end so you didn’t bump your back on the original platform.

Having a good swing.

Apparently and judging by the number of bumped bottoms and backs it WASN’T as simple as it sounded, but on the plus side I was getting a chance to watch and see how not to do it. Fear is a wonderful teacher. Unfortunately it is also a self preservation tool. We thought we may have had to prise one of the girls from the trapeze using a crowbar as she refused to let go and drop the 10ft onto the safety mat at the end of her turn. She wanted to get down by her stubborn fingers were sure she would die if they let go. Brain Vs Fingers. Luckily fatigue won and she hit the mat.

Then it was my turn.

Up on the platform, it wasn’t scary – it was exciting! And the exhilaration as you dropped from the platform and swung out into space was breathtaking. I managed my dish and the pike and kept my core as tight as possible ... and all too soon it was over.

I LOVED this. Far from being scared, it was by far my favourite part of the Circus Skills. I liked the discipline and the adrenaline when you dropped from the platform. For a brief moment I could pretend I was one of those graceful beautiful trapeze artists dressed in sequins and making the crowd gasp in awe.

Pointing toes!

I had 2 or 3 turns at the trapeze and my quads felt as sore as if I’d been running mountains by the end. Apparently should have been stretching from my feet rather than with my legs. But it was so worth it. Trapeze and a bit of pain? Yes please!

Things I learned:
  • Trapeze is terrifying, thrilling and amazing and a LOT harder than it looks.
  • It is a lot less like swinging on a swing than I’d expected.
  • Despite prior worrying, none of the hens actually did the weeing-while-trapezing. On a swinging trapeze this would be like a urine sprinkler system and this would definitely have made Angela revoke your invitation to her wedding.
  • I will ache for a WEEK after this.

Now unlike the other disciplines, this looked easy. It wasn’t. Mainly for 2 reasons: 1. I had to rely on my body strength. 2.Other people had to rely on my body strength. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my runner’s legs. I feed them good quality protein and they tend to behave and take me places (like finishing lines) reasonably quickly. However, I neglect the rest of my body including (slapped wrist) my core and upper body. As a result I’m a bit wibbly when asked to do anything other than run and I have spaghetti-like, T-rex style runner’s arms. This didn’t bode well for acrobatics.

The first thing we had to do was to balance each other while holding wrists and stand up and sit down using our backs and leaning in to each other. Easy right? Not for Mrs Wibbly. After dropping the poor hen on her bottom, I was relieved when we all had a group exercise and all 8 of us had to try and sit down and stand up using only our backs and legs and balancing against each. Great! I can rely on everyone else to be good at this and I’ll just coast. Guess who was the weak link that caused the whole thing to collapse? Yep. No hope.

Yep … weak link ...

I was hoping that my absolute lack of strength, coordination and my skill at dropping people on their bottoms would mean I could sit the rest of the group exercises out but no ... We were soon balancing each other on our knees, standing on each other and trying not to drop people from a variety of high positions.

Fiona and Angela demonstrating their acrobatics

A mixture of fear, being-dropped anxiety and the exertion made for sweaty hands and an extra bit of a gamble when you’re trusting your life and unbroken bones to a friend whose concern at dropping you is reflecting in the clamminess of her hands and therefore making it a bit more likely. There were a few tumbles and quite a bit of screaming, so the chalk was brought out for us to dab on our hands. This was it. We felt like proper acrobats now with our white palms. The fact we looked more like clowns than acrobats did nothing to quell our pride and we finished the session with a finale which involved the hen standing on several friends in triumph. A bit like Boadicea standing on vanquished enemies but with less blood. Although about the same amount of screaming.

Yes that is FEAR on my face.

Things I learned:
  • Acrobatics is brilliant if you like standing on your friends, chalk and falling off of people.
  • Only be my acrobatic partner if you like being dropped on your bottom, collapsing in a heap or being collapsed upon.
  • Don’t do acrobatics when there is a story in the paper that very morning of a troupe of acrobats who had all fallen down in a heap breaking bones.

A brilliant afternoon doing things I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do! The staff were all very professional, friendly and enthusiastic. Although all of the activities could be potentially quite dangerous (have you SEEN my juggling?) I had no concern over safety issues and felt that the activities were well supervised and fun! Only downside was that there wasn’t a cafe so it’s worth bringing a snack and a drink for the short break halfway through. I’d thoroughly recommend this for birthdays or hen parties or for anyone who wants to have a go at something a bit different! Several people had turned up on their own so you don’t necessarily have to get a group together if you want to have a go. There’s tightrope walking, trapeze, juggling and dropping your friends – acrobatics, I mean acrobatics! What’s not to like?

It cost us £69 per person or you can get discounts for groups of 6 or more. For more information click here

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