Trapeze school swings into Chicago

By Katy Nielsen

With a clap and puff of chalk, a catcher yells “Hep!” while suspended upside down 20 feet above the ground. At that instant, the flyer grasps a trapeze bar, leaps from the pedestal and, at the right moment, is securely caught by the catcher. The flying trapeze is not just for the circus anymore—it has evolved from a performance art to a sport and lucrative business.

Trapeze School New York opened its fifth U.S. location at Belmont Harbor, 3158 Lakefront Trail, in Chicago, on May 1. Classes have up to 10 students and are open to the public until October.

“Looking around, this is extremely out of place in the city, but it’s so cool,” said Nate Trinrud, theater major at Northwestern University, who tried flying trapeze for the first time on May 4. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

The school offers classes for beginners and advanced flyers, but people of all athletic backgrounds are welcome to try it. For first-time flyers, the experience can be memorable and life changing, according to Trinrud.

“The thing about the flying trapeze is that it’s this unbelievably fun, joyful way of [learning new techniques] that can make you pay better attention to your body, what it needs to be strong and perform,” said Jonathon Conant, president and co-founder of TSNY. “It teaches you to listen to instruction and look at your attitudes when you succeed and when you fail.”

Trinrud said he felt like the experience pushed him to strive for more. For people looking for a challenge, the flying trapeze offers that experience, Conant said.

“Climbing up there was the scariest part,” Trinrud said. “Once I got up there, everything was so mechanical that I wasn’t really scared. I just focused on the steps and listened to what they told me to do.”

The first flying trapeze rig was built over a swimming pool in France by Jules Leotard in 1859. In the 1900s, it was mainly a circus act. But in recent decades, it expanded into a sport.

“We’re trying to make flying trapeze accessible to everybody,” said Sarah Callan, media and events coordinator and trapeze instructor at TSNY. “We want Chicago residents to take advantage of it and have fun.”

According to Callan, TSNY had been eyeing Chicago for a while. It was a matter of figuring out how to set up another rig and deciding who would run the new location. One of TSNY’s instructors from the Boston location was chosen for the job.

Steve Hammes, instructor and catcher at TSNY, is managing the Chicago location. While Hammes used to work in Boston, he is an Illinois native.

“Steve understands his rig, he understands teaching and catching,” Conant said. “He’s quite good at what he does.”

There are a few people from the New York location currently in Chicago to train the TSNY staff on the new rig.  According to Conant, the transition has been smooth. But managing a successful trapeze business is difficult because the sport is obscure, and maintaining the equipment is expensive, according to trapeze instructors.

“It seems to me a lot of people [who] have been into flying trapeze have a different idea about how they want their lives to be,” Conant said. “Those of us who run this business have made a lot of sacrifices and work very hard.”

When Conant opened TSNY in New York City in summer 2002, he initially did not approach it as a business. However, that is what it evolved into.

“It was first about improving people’s quality of life,” Conant said. “That may have helped us a bit, and that’s kind of what drives the company. I love what we do athletically. It’s central to why people fly.”

His company has flying trapeze rigs in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The opening of the rig in Chicago may be a temporary addition, but if the summer goes well, Callan said the school will be looking for a permanent indoor location.

Chicago had a flying trapeze rig before. The Flying Gaonas had a location on Hibbard Road in Winnetka, Ill., from 2002 to 2008. Since that company moved to Florida, there has not been a trapeze near Chicago. The flying trapeze is an unusual sport, but Callan said anyone can try it. People from all professions take classes at TSNY, and many say it helps them handle workplace demands and personal life issues more effectively.

“[With flying] there are lots of things you don’t normally encounter in everyday life,” Callan said. “There’s height and swinging from a trapeze bar. But if you take it step by step and you break it down into parts, it becomes a lot easier and should be fun for everyone, too.”

TSNY is located at 3158 Lakefront Trail at Belmont Harbor. The school is open every day from May through October. Check class availability and information about preparing for class at