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WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Mathew Herman of Gorilla Circus trapeze school

‘If you start to doubt yourself in the middle of a trick you’re going to mess it up’

14 April, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya

Mathew Herman: ‘People respond to fear in different ways’

In Regent’s Park, there are flowers blooming, birds tweeting, and people leaping off platforms to swing through the air on a flying trapeze.

Tucked away in the Outer Circle, on the St John’s Wood side of the park, the Gorilla Circus trapeze school is giving people a taste of the circus art, with new lead instructor Mathew Herman there to teach a thing or two.

“Everyone who comes to us for the first time, they say the take-off is the worst,” he says. “With a lot of extreme sports it is always the bit right before that is the most traumatising as once you’re in the act there is no space for fear. If you start to doubt yourself in the middle of a trick you’re going to mess it up.”

The school, which first launched in 2009, runs throughout the summer and teaches the art from basic knee-hangs to somersaults in mid air.

Like Mathew, 27, many of the instructors are also professional performers.  He first discovered circus skills as a teenager in Wales. Growing up, he spent many summers surfing off the Gower peninsula, working in the kitchen at a campsite and “teaching city people how to make bonfires in exchange for a free pitch”. Here, he met a fire juggler, who taught him some skills and gave him his first juggling set. “I thought I was so cool,” he laughs.

But it was when he was teaching at summer camps in America that he first cut his teeth on flying trapeze.

The school in St John’s Wood runs throughout the summer

After university he set off on his travels across America, Canada and Australia, visiting trapeze and circus schools around the world, training, volunteering and teaching.

He recalls one stay in San Francisco: “I was squatting in the back of a circus building because I didn’t have any money but I wanted to continue training. In the night when the school would be closed, I would be up on the rig practising by myself, which is incredibly dangerous.”

He joined a travelling show in Australia as a professional catcher. The circus was run by a family who had passed it down through the generations.

“We would be doing two or three shows a day and then training. The next day we’d be packing down the tent, loading up the truck, and driving through the night to get to a new town, setting it all up again and doing more shows that night.

“It is a very hard lifestyle,” he says. “Circus is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.You don’t really see people outside of the show because you are working with this family.

“You are only in town for a week at the time so it is too hard to make connections with people who aren’t in that world. You’ve got between 25 and 80 people on that show who you work, live and play with.”

Last summer he started working with Gorilla Circus and will be the lead instructor when the new season starts at the end of this month.

“It was kind of perfect. I didn’t want to go back to professional performing but I needed a project.”
He has a lot of views on what makes a good coach, as learning trapeze is not “one-size-fits-all”, he explains.

“It’s not universal, you can’t apply one theory to everyone. Everyone has different backgrounds, different attributes mentally, physically and emotionally. People respond to fear in different ways.”

When it comes to teaching he says: “You never send the best person up first.

“So when everyone who is on the ground, feeling terrified, can see this person who is feeling the fear – and doing it anyway – nail it, it just confirms that these people who are scared can do it.”

Humour can also be risky territory: “A joke, for example, about the rigging being sketchy, could be funny to the coach as they know it’s completely safe – but the student doesn’t know that.”

The appeal of trapeze is ever growing, he says. While it used only to be passed down through the generations on travelling shows, now “everyone is doing it”.

“People are coming and bringing their kids,” he says. “The youngest I have ever seen swing is 18 months – his dad took him up in a safety harness.

“And the oldest is 87.”

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