Imagine yourself, for a moment, swinging through the air on a flying trapeze. Climbing high onto a narrow platform, taking your life in your chalky hands - taking a deep breath - and swinging down and out into the wonderful and frightening world of physics, a domain where terms such as inertia, momentum and acceleration are no longer safe and abstract notions.
Now imagine the expression on your face. One of wide-eyed terror perhaps, or faint-hearted horror. Blind panic at the very least.
A barely suppressed grin would not be many people's guess, but this is the standard expression worn by students of the flying trapeze evening class at Islington's Circus Space. These fearless human pendulums pike back and forth, dismount with a graceful plop onto the mat below and scamper back up the ladder, smirking like kids at a swimming pool desperate to leap off the diving board.
Circus Space's spectacular home, in the old Shoreditch Electricity Generating Station off Hoxton Square, is the unofficial headquarters of the Brit- Circ movement. Professional performers (including members of the RSC and Cirque du Soleil, right) and part-time students come here to refine their skills and acquire new ones. It's a veritable academy of excellence for trapezists (flying and static), acrobatic tumblers and balancers, jugglers, unicyclists, stilt-walkers, tightwire-walkers and clowns. What's more, all of these exotic pursuits can be studied by complete beginners - acrobatics is taught from the forward-roll onwards, while trapeze artists are firmly secured with a safety or "lunge" rope.
Sweating lightly after a session on the trapeze, adult programme manager Rob Colbert described the range of students who come to Circus Space. "We've had artists and fashion designers through to business people from the City. The most unusual was a 63-year-old man doing static trapeze," he chuckles. "More and more dancers are coming because dance is getting increasingly acrobatic nowadays and they need a different set of skills which we can provide."
"Most beginners have mentally built themselves up to doing it and none of them seem too shocked. Some of them learn really quickly, but it depends on your spatial and bodily awareness when you are in extreme positions," he continues. This is a circus euphemism for hanging upside-down, possibly from a bar, and knowing if your feet are arched. It is something children are apparently much more aware of, while adults have reconditioned their bodies "in the wrong direction". Trapeze, especially, is popular with gymnasts who tend to retire some way short of their 65th birthday.
It would be an understatement to say that Karoline Newman and Darren Kley came to trapeze from a different angle. Karoline runs a PR communications company and uses trapeze to relax and "hang loose". Darren, 24, fell into trapeze through living in trees during various road protest campaigns, including Twyford Down and Salisbury Hill. Ordinarily, these people would be swinging from different ropes. On the surface, they have little in common apart from their vertigo.
"Before I did this I was terrified of heights and when I first started, most lessons I was in tears," Karoline admits. "I started the class because a friend had been here and I'd seen it completely revolutionise her life. Like any dangerous sport, you are challenging yourself to be that bit braver, but I don't see myself getting into a spangly suit and running away to join the circus - once you are a competent swinger, that's a skill in its own right."
Darren is one of the 32 students on Circus Space's two-year BTEC course and is starting a touring company with his partner when he finishes the course in June. "I've had a fear of heights ever since I started climbing trees during the road protests," he reveals. "This is a really spiritual thing, a modern-day yoga. I've found a way to channel my anger and feelings through performance and I'm coming to terms with my body, that it doesn't always want to do what I'm telling it to."
This wilful determination has beneficial side-effects. Circus Space is crammed with lithe, limber and fully functional bodies with wide shoulders and flat stomachs. The body beautiful ethic doesn't apply here, but you do need to be fit. Egged on by Karoline, I took a particularly graceless swing on the trapeze, supervised by tutor Pauline Palacy (a big cheese in the world of trapeze and the pioneer of the elegant Palacy technique). After doing an impression of a side of beef on a meat hook for a minute or so, I felt my stomach muscles, such as they are, strain and rip in protest. I awoke the next day feeling as if I'd done 100 sit-ups.
For the students at Circus Space, their hobby provides a purpose (other than sheer vanity) for working out at the gym and a chance to form fresh bonds which are entirely unconnected to the rest of their lives, as Karoline confirms.
"When people ask me `What do you do to relax?' and I say `Flying trapeze', they think you're taking the piss. Stuff what I do for a living. When I'm here, I'm `K'."
Learn new skills:
Circus Space is at Coronet St, N1 6HD (0171-613 4141)
The following venues also run circus-related workshops and classes:
The Albany Centre, Douglas Way SE8 (0181-692 4446)
Jackson's Lane Community Centre, 269a Archway Road, N6 (0181-340 5226)
See the professionals:
Circus of Horrors, The Roundhouse, NW1 (0171-267 0007) Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 6pm & 9pm, Sun 6pm. pounds 10-20, to 31 Jan
Circus Ronaldo, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, SE1 (0171-960 4242) Tonight, 7.45pm, tomorrow 5pm. pounds 8-14 (Sun under-16s pounds 6-8), ends tomorrow
Cirque du Soleil, W8 (0171-589 8212) Tue-Sun 7.45pm, Sat & Sun mat 2.30pm. pounds 23-pounds 45 to 8 FebReuse content