When The Sky Is Your Playground

Experienced by Danny Schrafel

(*As featured in our 8/7/14 issues*)

Harborfields High School’s valedictorian is flying high, and not just in the classroom – and I had a chance to follow in his footsteps for an afternoon.

In addition to being a top scholar with a community-minded outlook, Centerport’s Keith Mills has worked as a trapeze artist during his summers off for the last two years.

His love of airborne acrobatics emerged in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, he recalled.

“My sister’s best friend at the time introduced the two of us to trapeze,” he said. “My sister and I both tried it and I loved it.”

Mills’ interest intensified when he was a teenager. Last summer, he ended up interning at I.Fly Trapeze, which operates trapeze rigs in Eisenhower Park and in Long Beach. This year, he’s a full-time instructor and will continue in that role until he heads to Brown University in the fall, where he’ll major in mathematics.

To see Mills, 18, in action, I made the trip down to Long Beach July 11, where the I.Fly gang put on a multifaceted show, incorporating traditional trapeze, aerial silk trapeze, a bit of juggling and a dash of slapstick comedy. The show is funny and family-friendly, the athleticism on display is impressive, and the performance marked Mills’ first go as a staff performer with I.Fly.

The center, launched by brothers Anthony and Marco Rosamilia, runs workshops and group sessions from their two centers from April to October, allowing daredevils from ages 4 to 87 to take to the sky. Mills said that last summer, he spent pretty much every day after mid-June on the boards and worked weekends until the rigs closed in October.

The show got me thinking, “Hey, why don’t I try that?” So I made my way to Eisenhower Park the next day, on July 12, and signed up for a class.

As you might expect, there is a little bit of a learning curve on the small “board,” which looks like a little plank suspended in air.

“Until you’re comfortable up there, it’s pretty terrifying,” Mills said.

 Never mind being up there – let’s talk about getting up there first.

The only avenue by which to reach the board, 24 feet up, is a small metal ladder, perpendicular to the sky. Each rung is powdered, as to ensure a secure, dry grip. About 6 feet up, you take a swing around to the other side so your back is to a net. Once you make it up top, the staff hooks you into safety harnesses before you take flight. The “puppet master” on the ground can help manage your speed mid-flight.

The swing around the ladder is where I got into a spot of trouble on my first go-around. As I’m clambered up in my stocking feet to take my first turn, I made a key error – I looked down.

Holy crap.

That was the end of climb number one. (And just so you know, the only thing worse than having a heights scare on a ladder is climbing down when you’re having a heights scare on a ladder.)

After settling down, I tried again, this time with the aid of a staff member who climbed in tandem with me. Rung by rung, we got closer to the final, orange rung, him talking me through this as I stayed locked on his eyes. Once there, I took a big step to my right and planted my feet onto the trapeze platform.

Getting up there, high in the air with blue skies all around, was a rush all its own – a sense of accomplishment. Then, they walked me through the basics and strapped me in.

At the opportune time, they hurl the bar toward you from across the net. Bar in hand, I slowly inched to the edge of the board, curling my toes slightly over the edge. When the cue came, and once I actually pried my feet off the board the first time and jumped, the real fun began.

 “Once you’re flying, you kind of forget about all that. It’s the adrenaline, I guess,” Mills said.

Never mind the rush of being up there – this is where you start to understand what adrenaline junkies are all about.

After an exhilarating, yet clumsy, first run of swinging back and forth and then plummeting into the safety net, I eagerly clambered up the ladder three more times, getting more and more comfortable with each attempt. The staff worked with each of the students in my class on some basic maneuvers in the security of cables – hanging by your legs on the bar and doing a flip to finish were the core curriculum during my visit. I didn’t quite accomplish either, but improved steadily. I also got a heck of a core and upper-body workout.

Sessions are $60 for 90 minutes on the weekend and $50 during the week. Longer-term workshops are also available for those looking for a more in-depth experience.

But no matter how many times you go back, one thing remains a paramount truth: You’ll never forget the first time you fly. I sure won’t.