Los Angeles Times

Playing with fire for fun

As the old song goes, "He floats through the air with the greatest of ease / the daring young man on the flying trapeze."

A daring young man or woman who grips the bar for the first time may not float with the greatest of ease just yet. But that's where Nick Selvy comes in.

Since November, the owner of SwingIt Trapeze has offered lessons at the OC Fair & Event Center, where students can practice on a bar high above a very soft net. (Softness is important, as the school has taught at least one toddler.) The Newport Beach resident, who has performed with circuses and taught in the United States and abroad, also counts unicycle-riding, fire-juggling and surfing among his repertoire.

After a lesson last Wednesday, Selvy spoke with the Daily Pilot about his life floating through the air — and pulling some hair-raising stunts on the ground. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


I understand that you joined the circus for the first time when you were 11. What inspired you to do that?

Actually, I did the trapeze at Club Med. All the family villages have trapezes. And so, basically, the first time I saw a trapeze, I just sat there with my mouth open and loved it. And then I wanted to learn how to do it, so I went home to Colorado. I found a trapeze and started training, and then, by the time I was 14, I was catching, and I ended up joining Club Med and teaching for them when I was 18.

How old were you when you first saw a trapeze?


There's the old cliche about kids running away from home to join the circus. Did you have to run away from home, or did your parents support what you did?

No, they were pretty supportive. When I was 12, I had my own business manufacturing juggling sticks called Nix Stix.

What do Nix Stix do?

They're devil sticks, which are like two handles and one main stick in the middle, and you flip them back and forth and spin them. So I was always doing circus stuff. I started riding a unicycle when I was 11, and I could ride a 6-foot unicycle by the time I was 13.

I heard you juggle fire too.

I do. Yeah.

How did you learn how to do that?

I taught myself. I just played a lot by myself with fire. [laughs]

Your parents let you do that?

Yeah. We lived in the country, so as long as you stay in a generally not bushy area, you can juggle fire fairly safely.

What's the key to juggling fire so you don't get burned?

You know, it's actually the sound, the sound of it. Because when you throw a normal club, it makes no sound. When you throw a fire club, it goes [makes flaming noises]. And so, when you can tune into the sound of the club flipping, it's way better than being able — you don't even need to see the handles. You can just hear [flaming noises]. Juggling fire is nothing like juggling normal stuff. It's actually easier in some ways. Plus, you know you're going to get burned if you grab the wrong end.

So I take it an office job wouldn't have suited you?

No, I tried to do some things. I went to school, I got a college degree, but I just want to do fun stuff, and this is sort of a culmination of all the fun stuff I know how to do. [laughs]

So you've had this school here since November. What age groups do you teach?

You know, the other day, we did a swing with a 2 1/2-year-old girl, and then we've got guys as old as 82. But general classes are sort of in between, 4 years old and up.

I'm trying to picture a 2 1/2-year-old girl swinging on that trapeze up there.

She did great. Her parents were like, "Oh, you're going to be afraid, you're going to be terrified," and she was like, "No, let me up there!" And so, yeah, we just put her in safety lines, and then if she slipped, we'd just send her to the net.

How do the safety lines work?

They hook to either side of your belt. You wear a belt, the safety lines hook here and here [midsection], and then, basically, our job on safety lines is, if you're falling and you're about to hit your head, we apply a little pressure and keep your head upright so that you're landing in the net on your butt or on your back — basically, like falling on a soft trampoline.

When you teach first-time students, do they ever get scared?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Sometimes they're too afraid to go up, but for the most part, we try to eliminate a lot of that on the ground. There's a lot of psychology in teaching trapeze, and right when they walk in the door and they're first filling out the waiver, they're pretty terrified. But by the time we walk them through all our ground school and get them over to the ladder, we like to have them in that calmer mind state. And then, of course, once they get on the board, that all disappears and they're afraid again. But then you just get them off quick, and after they've [swung] once, they're usually happy for the whole two hours.

What do you say or do to calm them down?

Well, it's more taking them through the safety steps and just showing them — the first thing we do is put them on the low bar and let them hang right there, where they're not 30 feet in the air, and they can just see that they can hold their own weight from a bar. That's key. Sometimes, it's a lot more [weight] than people thought on their hands; other times, they're, like, gung ho at that point and ready to do it. But they feel more confident, and after that, we go over the takeoff with them, just so they're not so freaked out when they get up top.

I read in the Coast Report that you like to use the word "hop" instead of "jump." I'm curious why that is.

"Hep" is a circus term. It's spelled "h-e-p." It's "hep." We use "hep" instead of "go" because "go" sounds like "no." If you go to a professional circus, there's a lot of circus terminology, like when we're ready, we say, "listo," which is Spanish for "ready." But that's a big trapeze tradition, since any trapeze you go to in the world, when they're notifying the catcher that I'm ready to take off, they'll say, "OK, listo!" That's sort of trapeze terminology. So "hep" is a circus term, and if you go watch a professional show and you're really quiet and you kind of listen between the music, you can hear the performers go "Hep, ready, hep, hep!" It's a cue that lets people know when to do things.

I never thought of that.

Yeah, well, next time you go to the circus, listen for the "heps."

SwingIt Trapeze

Where: OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

Hours: Noon, 4 and 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Cost: $50 to $60 for individual classes, $400 to $500 for package deals

Information: (877) 9-SWINGIT or http://www.swingittrapeze.net

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