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Look up! Aerialists have wowed crowds with somersaults and flips for centuries.
Sure, we come for the cotton candy and to laugh at the clowns with their big floppy shoes and red noses, but the thing we most want to see at the circus is the flying trapeze. They fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and they take our breath away each time they fling themselves with such confidence into the air — all muscle and spangled leotard — tucking into a tight fist, feet over head over feet over head over feet over head. A triple somersault. We only realize that we've forgotten to breathe after the catchers, with their beefsteak shoulders and chalky hands, are gripping the flyers by their wrists and launching them into the air again. The flying trapeze. Now we've been to the circus.
"It's athleticism and math," says Big Apple Circus Clown Barry Lubin of this iconic act. "You have to have great charisma." This season, the Big Apple Circus features the Flying Cortes, an act whose members (with the exception of one) come from generational circus families and have been working together for years. Flyer Alex Cortes performs the triple somersault, which Big Apple Circus Founder Paul Binder calls the "standard of excellence" for trapeze artists.
The flying trapeze is considered one of the most physically demanding acts in the circus and has a storied history. In 1859, Frenchman Jules Leotard strung ventilator cords and a bar over his father's swimming pool in Toulouse, France, and created a series of airborne tumbling tricks. The first flying trapeze was born, and soon Leotard graduated from his home-based gymnasium to debut his act in the Cirque Napoleon (now known as the Cirque d'hiver). In his short lifetime (Leotard died in Spain as a relatively young man from either smallpox or cholera), Leotard became a celebrated performer and sex symbol throughout Europe, popularizing the flying trapeze and the skin-tight one-piece uniform that he wore for his performances. Today, dancers, acrobats and aerialists still embrace the sportswear that bears his name.