If you’ve ever gone to a circus, you probably know that you don’t need an airplane or hot-air balloon to soar through the air. Trapeze artists fly and flip and do all sorts of other tricks, using only a swinging cable, a dependable partner, and some math skills. Liz Osting performs in a trapeze troupe and she shared some of her mid-air math with us!
We actually call it flying, so you can imagine how much fun it is! I’ve been flying for several years now. I used to do aerial silks, where I’d climb on a strong ribbon of fabric and do spins and inversions. That was enjoyable, but flying is far more exciting to me.
Nope, you pretty much just go right into it! Of course, I wear a safety belt with supporting lines – that means someone on the ground holds the other end of the line and pulls me like a piñata. There’s also a net, but you don’t really want to be caught by it, since it’s not as soft as it looks. Last week I took a spill on the net, which didn’t feel too great.
Actually, no – we have a decent amount of flyers in our troupe and at least one of us will make a mistake. But that also means we’re pushing our boundaries and trying out new tricks. We train 2 or 3 times a week to keep our skills sharp and try new routines.
Flying is really all about timing. On most of my tricks, it takes 8 seconds to reach the other trapeze artist – the catcher – from the starting position on the 30-foot high platform. The catcher will tell me when to let go of my bar and fly over to him, where he’ll (hopefully) catch me. Then someone on the platform grabs my bar, holds it for 1 second, and pushes it back towards me so that I can let go of the catcher and fly back to my bar.
Well, I always have an internal clock, but I can’t really count each second in my head or I’ll lose focus on the trick I’m performing. I’d say I use more of a number sense, and definitely mental math, since there’s no way you can pull out a pencil and paper or check your watch when you’re soaring and flipping through the air.
We’ve used a double-rig that’s set up in an ‘X’ shape, so that really makes the timing patterns more complex and gives you smaller intervals to work within, since there are two sets of us flying through the middle of the X. It’s important to understand how pendulums work, to know that the weight on the end won’t change the speed, and the proper point in the period to release the bar – too early and you’ll have way too much horizontal speed and crash into the catcher and too late and you’ll fall short. It’s important to know how much weight the safety ropes can support and how adding pulleys can make it much easier to support a trapeze artist. And this is a funny one: we always tell each other to “make a 7” which basically means you want to have your arms parallel to the ground and your body angled so that your feet are closer to the catcher than your head is.
I would say that understanding angles and time are the most important math concepts to flying well. And of course, there’s also the business side of show business, which involves all that great accounting and scheduling.
Be sure to check out our latest printable activity guide, Ringmaster-ed Math, for more math fun under the big top.