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These frequent flyers do it for fun and fitness

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Tony Steele (top), the 71 year-old trapeze artist, flying in a "passing leap" in a performance with the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University in April. (Photo by Darin Basile)

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Tony Steele, the 71 year-old trapeze artist, flying into the hands of his catcher when he performed with the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University in April. (Photo by Darin Basile)

Many people first did it at Club Med. Now, they are doing it like never before.

Older folks are flying--literally. No longer the exclusive province of the circus and professional acts, the flying trapeze is attracting senior citizens at trapeze schools and retreat centers across the country.

“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” said 71-year-old Tony Steele, a flying trapeze artist who did a double somersault in midair when he performed with the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University in April.

Steele, who was elected to the gallery of honor of the World Acrobatics Society in 2002 for his excellence as a flying trapeze artist, joined the circus in Gainesville, Texas, when he was 15. He then performed around the globe, eventually becoming the first to master the three-and-a-half somersault off the trapeze bar and into the hands of a catcher.

The Haines City, Fla., resident is an active trapeze instructor and performs occasionally. “It beats sitting in a rocking chair,” he said.

At 65, Bernadette Pace likes to do somersaults on the flying trapeze rig she built in her backyard in Indiana, where she trains the Bloomington High Flyers, a circus group she founded in 1985. “The best thing is the joy it gives you. And along with it, the physical strength,” said Pace, who started learning to fly at the Denver Central YMCA in Colorado 38 years ago.

Steele and Pace are veteran flyers, but ordinary people approaching their seventies across the United States are taking up the flying trapeze for the first time. They are in their fifties and sixties, and they do it for fun, to challenge themselves, to gain confidence and to stay in shape.

Non-flyers take note, though. People doing flying trapeze do defy gravity, albeit for only a split-second.

Eric Ericson, a 62-year-old ophthalmologist from Rockford, Ill., flew for the first time in 2006, at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., which offers the activity as part of its programming at the retreat center. He climbed a narrow ladder to a small perch 25 feet above the ground. With a safety belt around his waist and attached to the safety lines controlled by the instructor, he grabbed the bar, jumped off the platform, and swung his body. Then he let go of the bar–-was suspended in midair–-and caught by the wrists by an instructor swinging towards him on another bar.

“It’s hugely exhilarating,” Ericson said, who is returning to the Omega institute this summer for his third weeklong trapeze training session. “It teaches you some discipline, to concentrate, to be aware of what’s going on at the moment you're doing it.”

A pursuit that traces its beginnings to France in the mid-19th century, which soon thereafter became a staple of the American circus, the flying trapeze owes some of its current popularity to Club Med.

The idea of adding trapeze equipment to vacation resorts stems from Bob Christians' love of trapeze starting when he was an 11-year-old.

“I’d had such a great time learning” the trapeze, said Christians, now 68, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., “that when I heard of Club Med being very, very open to new ideas, I approached them.” That was in 1983. “It caught on right away."

Christians, who is a Club Med consultant, recently helped set up the resort chain’s 24th trapeze.

Trapeze schools started to appear in the early 1990s and there are now about a dozen in the country, according to Peter Gold, who trained as an instructor at Club Med and is now director of Trapeze-Experience, a school in Austin, Texas. A teacher for 23 years, Gold said about 10 percent of his students are over the age of 60.

When done properly, the flying trapeze is a full body workout that relies on core strength, Gold said. It can be a challenge for older people without a history of athletic activity, but he said Trapeze-Experience works with people at all ability levels.

“I never thought I had the potential to learn something new at this age, and I do,” said Patricia DiMenna, of St. James, N.Y., who flew for the first time one month before her 50th birthday last year.

DiMenna, who said she hadn’t done any serious exercise since childhood, started training twice a week at I.FLY, a trapeze school in Smithtown, N.Y. She has come a long way since she started, according to Anthony Rosamilia, her instructor and co-owner of I.FLY.

“Once I got up on the ladder,” DiMenna said, “I got afraid, I was hesitant to jump off the board. But I did. My stomach dropped. There's exhilaration, but also fear.”

Rosamilia said it is not uncommon for people to feel afraid of heights. He said that without forcing students past their limits, he encourages them to jump by reminding them that they are wearing a safety belt and he is holding on to lines that support the flyer. “If you don't trust yourself, trust us,” he said he tells students.

“I was just praying he was going to catch me,” DiMenna said. “You have to have a lot of trust in the people you work with."

While most people are taking up the trapeze for fun and fitness, DiMenna has other ideas. The former American Stock Exchange worker said her daughters, aged 17 and 23, think she’s crazy, but she would love to do it professionally.

While DiMenna said she wouldn’t go so far as to run away and join the circus, she would like to become an instructor at Club Med.

“It’s more than a hobby for me. I love it, I feel destined to do it,” she said.

E-mail: dro2102@columbia.edu