On the south side of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a tiny platform rises 23 feet from the ground.

When you stand on it, you can see ships sailing in the harbor, tourists milling among the shops and restaurants and all the unlucky folks stuck in rush-hour traffic.

But many of those who climb this perch for the first time see none of that.

They're aware only of a horizontal bar dangling just out of reach, a giant net stretched below and a voice that triggers their moment of reckoning.

"Ready?"

"Hep!" ("Jump!")

This platform is a place where people from all around come to conquer their demons, challenge themselves physically and try moves they only dreamed of on the playground monkey bars.

It's the Baltimore edition of Trapeze School New York (TSNY); a business dedicated to making aerial arts accessible to the masses, one flight of fear, frustration or fantasy at a time.

Instructor Brian McVicker of Parksville, Md., said the city of Baltimore approached TSNY more than four years ago about setting up a school on the city's Rash Field.

"We're not out to create more performance artists," he said. "It's about bringing something as fun, exciting and edgy as trapeze to the public so everyone can try it."

Try it, they do. Return, they must.

"Forget fear. Worry about the addiction," reads the banner atop the company's Web site.

Natala Covert, 21, center, of Philadelphia watches as trapeze instructor Scout Day demonstrates for students how he will catch their arms when in the air.
Natala Covert, 21, center, of Philadelphia watches as trapeze instructor Scout Day demonstrates for students how he will catch their arms when in the air.
(Daily Record/Sunday News - Paul Kuehnel)

More than half of those who climb the platform are return customers, McVicker said. "Once they try it and realize what they are capable of -- or almost capable of -- they want to come back and try again."

After all, where else can you fly like a sequined circus star? Where else do people clap -- even when you fall -- and encourage you to get back up and try it again?

It's about surpassing limitations, realizing dreams and feeling more alive than ever. Like most things in life, it's a combination of skill, timing and a little luck.

Kate Rittase of York Township first flew on a trapeze in Austin, Texas. Last spring, someone heard she wanted to take her daughters to New York City to try it and told her about the school in Baltimore.

Those who fly trapeze use chalk to help grip the bar. Some students also use hand grips to prevent blisters.
Those who fly trapeze use chalk to help grip the bar. Some students also use hand grips to prevent blisters.
(Daily Record/Sunday News - Paul Kuehnel)

"It's a physical challenge, but once you do it, it's a life metaphor," she said. "Whatever's going on in your life, it comes with you there. It's an easy way to see where you are emotionally."

For Rittase, it's about learning to listen and focus. It's about trust and letting go of control. Trapeze class is something she tries to do every week, either with her 14-year-old daughter or others.

"Nobody's safe," she said, laughing. "I want everyone to come play. I think it's really important for people to step out of their comfort zone, and this is a very safe way to do it."

Michelle Winslow of York Township knew it had to be something fun when Rittase called her last year and asked if she wanted to go flying.

The Trapeze School New York in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a cage of safety nets, cables and harnesses.
The Trapeze School New York in Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a cage of safety nets, cables and harnesses.
(Daily Record/Sunday News - Paul Kuehnel)

"I didn't really know what she meant, but (Kate) is always up for some kind of adventure," Winslow said. "It's something I never thought I would do. How many people can say they've learned to fly on a trapeze?"

jvogelsong@ydr.com; 771-2034.

IF YOU GO

What: Trapeze School New York
When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. April through November; class times vary
Where: 300 Key Highway, Baltimore
Cost: $45 for a two-hour class, $20 one-time registration fee for new students
For details: Call (410) 459-6839 or visit baltimore.trapezeschool.com

TRAPEZE

A trapeze is a horizontal bar suspended by two vertical cables. It was invented in the 18th century by Jules Leotard, the same guy who invented the clothing worn on it.

Trapeze is generally seen at circuses, but it has recently gained popularity as a leisure pursuit.

Performers usually start by swinging from their arms underneath the trapeze, but the possibility for tricks ranges from the relatively simple knee hang to more complex flips and catches.

Source: www.trapezeschool.com

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

"How hard can it be?" I thought, as I signed up for my first trapeze flight.

You climb to a platform and swing on a bar. If you fall, there's a net.

Soon, I learned that like great works of art and athletic performances, flying on a trapeze is tougher than it looks.

Unlike some people, I'm not afraid of heights. I had no concerns about the soundness of the trapeze school's equipment or the skill of its instructors.

It was me I was worried about. Specifically, my inner monologue.

On the Trapeze School New York Web site, co-founder Jonathon Conant writes how important it is to be aware of one's thoughts: "A trained body works well with a mind that believes in it . . . your thoughts direct but not define who you are."

First, my body isn't trained -- and certainly not for trapeze. Second, I sometimes have problems silencing the voice (not voices!) in my head. My first time on the platform, it sounded something like this:

"I missed the first 'hep!' See, I can't do this."

"Why am I so heavy? How much longer do I have to hold on? I want to let go."

"Crap, I can't hear the spotter on the ground. What did she say?"

"Put my legs up when? Now?! Damn, I missed it."

I needed to turn the voice off and focus; picture myself doing what I wanted to do. Take slow, deep breaths and relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders that tense up before any tough task.

Don't think. Just listen and react.

My second try, I did it -- pulled my legs between my arms and hooked them over the bar. I dangled from my knees and stretched my arms out behind me with "catchable hands."

But I wasn't catchable. That one glorious swing was the only time during my five turns on the bar that I managed to pull my legs up at the right time. So, as the other six newbies in the class -- including a 13-year-old girl and 65-year-old man -- tried catching, I sat in the shade and watched, discouraged.

The monologue returned: "Wow, I suck. What's wrong with me? Why can't I just relax like everyone else? Why do I get so tense?"

Instructor Mandy Keithan came over to me and smiled: "Don't worry, you'll be catchable your next class."

Next class?

I doubted I'd be back, paying $45 for two hours that would leave my palms raw and sore and my self-confidence crushed.

"Trapeze isn't cheap," she said, when I pointed this out. "But it's cheaper than therapy."