Wednesday February 02, 2011 | 02:26 PM

I never wanted to run away to the circus.

That's not to say that I never harbored fantasies about fleeing from the burdensome life of a suburban seven-year-old. But I fancied myself the railroad-car-riding sort - a scrappy li'l gal with a scruffy-dog sidekick and moxie to spare (as in spunk, not soda pop).

Not coincidentally, I was seven the same year "The Journey of Natty Gann" came out.

Still, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the trapeze-swinging ladies under the Ringling Bros. Circus tent. Their aerial acrobatics defied gravity. Their stunts dropped jaws. And they had leotards covered in sparkles. Who wouldn't want to emulate that?

On Saturday I had just such an opportunity during the Circling Trapeze Workshop at Breakwater School in Portland. The workshop was organized by Janette Fertig, founder of Apparatus Dance Theater, and Sarah Huling, a Boston-based aerial skills instructor.

After some stretches and a warm-up, Fertig introduced us to the single-point trapeze. This trapeze can spin and swing in circles, unlike the traditional swinging trapeze that can only swing back and forth.

Two single-point trapezes were hung before us - seven feet high. Ha.

Fertig showed us a few way to get up there by swinging our legs this way or that and using our arms to right ourselves or pull ourselves up the rest of the way. Fertig was quite fluid in her movements on the apparatus. The rest of us, less so.

Another trapeze was hung thankfully close to the ground - three feet - for practicing skills without the risk of long tumbles.

While experienced trapeze artists make it look seamless, balancing isn't easy - and it hurts! The bar knows just how to dig into the hip bones. Even still, reaching your arms wide with your legs stretched back behind you is exceptionally freeing - even if it's only a few feet off the ground and even if it only lasts a second before you lose your balance and tip forward.

We also had the chance to swing from the higher trapezes - a skill we all mastered when we were seven, but don't often have the chance to practice as adults. Public establishments tend to discourage customers from swinging from things.

The second half of the workshop focused on silks - long drapes of fabric hung from the ceiling. Step one was learning how to climb up them, like slippery gym class ropes without knots.

We learned how to twist our feet into the fabric to gain stability and we learned how easy it is to go from "stable" to "slipping."

Later a knot was tied into the fabric, allowing us to heave ourselves up and work out our upside-down skills.

Hanging upside-down was remarkably comfortable - and it was impressive how the slightest bend of a knee or twist of a leg could keep you from falling right out of that fabric.

Eventually we novices were tackling the silks with confidence, dangling upside-down like we'd been doing it for years, bending this way and that. The skills weren't easy, but on the whole we all managed to accomplish each skill to some degree. It was simultaneously challenging and empowering.

Maybe our silk work wasn't the most graceful - and maybe we laughed and cursed a little trying to maneuver - and maybe a spotter needed to step in here and there to help us out. Regardless, there were a few brief moments where it almost felt - and looked - like we knew what we were doing.

The sore upper body lasted for four days - but the experience was absolutely worth it. Apparatus Dance Theater offers a range of classes for folks interested in trapeze. For more information check out www.apparatusdancetheater.org

About the Author

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Shannon Bryan, content producer for MaineToday Media, likes exploring Maine - from mattress races to cardboard boats, she's into the weird stuff.

Karen Beaudoin, online editor for MaineToday Media, likes knowing the important things - like who's just opened their deck for a sunny afternoon beer and what Portland's eclectic set of street performers are up to.

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