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Jacob Minkoff Jacob Minkoff hones his balance on the bar at Oakland's Trapeze Arts facility. (Carol Hyman photos)

Berkeley freshman finds academic focus — and fun — on high-flying trapeze

– Although Jacob Minkoff was accepted at a number of colleges, he chose the University of California, Berkeley.

"It was the best school in California I got into," the freshman said, "and I'm just a BART ride away from the trapeze."

When he's not poring over the books, Minkoff's soaring through the air at Trapeze Arts, a trapeze and circus school in Oakland's warehouse district.

He believes his trapeze work is teaching him lessons applicable to his studies. "With trapeze, you have to know when to work really hard and when to relax," Minkoff said. "It's all about timing."

It also helps his focus and concentration, he said, and is a great stress reliever.

On a recent afternoon, shouts of "Listo! Ready! Hep!" echoed through the school, a 6,500 square-foot metal building equipped with trampolines, unicycles, hoops, ropes and a big-top-sized pair of trapezes suspended over a huge net 15 feet below. Minkoff, a sturdily built young man, stood on a sky-high platform, trapeze in hand, ready for the signal to fly through the air, then flipping and grabbing hold of his catcher and teacher.

Minkoff caught the trapeze bug when he was around 15, when he took his first lesson at the school's Sonoma facility. A pole vaulter, he found "flying," as trapeze aficionados call it, both challenging and relaxing, and took to it immediately.

 Minkoff and Gaudreau
Minkoff and his teacher, Trapeze Arts owner and instructor Stephan Gaudreau, study the videotape of Minkoff's "flying" session.
"There are some people who just understand," said Trapeze Arts owner and instructor Stephan Gaudreau, as he looked up to watch Minkoff working solo on skills to prepare him to learn to be a catcher (the trapeze artist who catches the flyer). "He's got raw talent. Jake's a lot like I was when I started."

Minkoff also seems to understand the important balance between work and play, even when play entails intense concentration, strength and determination.

"We all know that academia, from preschool through graduate school, is increasingly more demanding," said UC Berkeley psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw. "Not only do extracurricular activities help a student be more well-rounded, but there is a school of thought that believes it does help a person focus.

"This is one of the big questions across many aspects of psychology: 'Does enhanced performance in one domain generalize to another?'"

Hinshaw related that many parents enroll their children in martial arts in the hopes that, "if a child focuses on karate from 4 to 5 p.m., he or she might focus on their homework better that evening, or on math class the next day."

"I don't think these links are automatic," he added, "but it's an area that warrants further investigation."

While Minkoff's mother's motivation was to acquaint her son with a fun activity, she has seen his trapeze work produce positive results in his life.

"I'm so glad Jacob has the trapeze as a balance to his studies," said Tamerlane Downing. "I'm just thrilled that he has found something to be so passionate about." She said her husband and Minkoff's father, Jerome Minkoff, an endocrinologist, might not approve, but "I'd be glad if he wanted to take off a year to pursue this full-time."

Minkoff with painting of trapeze artists
In addition to swinging acrobatically from trapeze bar to bar, Minkoff can juggle clubs and ride a unicycle.
"It was clear early on that Jacob was bright," she said, "but he was also very active." He began crawling at five months, and was always on the move. She recalled that, when Jacob was a toddler, his dentist said to her, "It's the mother of a dull child that gets to rest."

Jacob's mother can take credit for introducing him to trapeze. She had tried it a few times, and decided her son would enjoy it.

"Jacob was not at all intimidated," she recalled, "...from the very start, he knew it was for him. I could tell the first time he flew he couldn't wait to do it again."

Gaudreau has spent a great deal of time working with Minkoff, because he sees his potential. "Jake still has a way to go," Gaudreau said, "but he's got the basics, and he has the passion and the interest to take this really far."

Minkoff hasn't stopped his learning with just the trapeze. He juggles clubs and has mastered the unicycle. One of his goals is to learn to ride the "giraffe" unicycle — the seat is five feet high.

As soon as he arrived at Trapeze Arts that day, Minkoff began working with Gaudreau on the swings far above the ground, performing exchange after exchange — some successful, some not — until their arms and wrists were too tired to continue. Trapeze Arts videotapes all of the students, and when their session was over, Minkoff and Gaudreau studied the video, looking for clues to improve performance. Gaudreau periodically paused the tape to show Minkoff where a subtle change or movement could make all the difference.

Minkoff took the critique seriously, and then climbed the tall ladder, stood on the 25-foot-high platform and gathered his thoughts before grabbing the trapeze and sweeping through the air. After his session, Minkoff stayed to volunteer to work with some youngsters just getting acquainted with the facility.

Like many 19-year-old college freshmen, Jacob Minkoff isn't sure where the future will lead him. At UC Berkeley, he said, he might major in English, or perhaps biology. But he is sure that the trapeze, whether it be his career or avocation, will keep him focused and on track.