Tightrope walking

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The feet of a tightrope walker Tightrope walking.jpg
The feet of a tightrope walker

Tightrope walking, also called funambulism, is the skill of walking along a thin wire or rope. It has a long tradition in various countries and is commonly associated with the circus. Other skills similar to tightrope walking include slack rope walking and slacklining.



Tightrope walking, Armenian manuscript, 1688 Tightrope walking, Armenian manuscript.jpg
Tightrope walking, Armenian manuscript, 1688

Tightwire is the skill of maintaining balance while walking along a tensioned wire between two points. It can be done either using a balancing tool (umbrella, fan, balance pole, etc.) or "freehand", using only one's body to maintain balance. Typically, tightwire performances either include dance or object manipulation. Object manipulation acts include a variety of props in their acts, such as clubs, rings, hats, or canes. Tightwire performers have even used wheelbarrows with passengers, ladders, and animals in their act. The technique to maintain balance is to keep the performer's centre of mass above their support point—usually their feet.

Highwire is a form of tightwire walking but performed at much greater height. Although there is no official height when tightwire becomes highwire, generally a wire over 20 feet (6 m) high are regarded as a highwire act.

Skywalk is a form of highwire which is performed at great heights and length. A skywalk is performed outdoors between tall buildings, gorges, across waterfalls or other natural and man-made structures.


If the "lay" of the rope (the orientation of the constituent strands, the "twist" of a rope) is in one direction, the rope can twist on itself as it stretches and relaxes. Underfoot, this could be hazardous to disastrous in a tightrope. One solution is for the rope core to be made of steel cable, laid in the opposite direction to the outer layers, so that twisting forces balance each other out.


Acrobats maintain their balance by positioning their centre of mass directly over their base of support, i.e. shifting most of their weight over their legs, arms, or whatever part of their body they are using to hold them up. When they are on the ground with their feet side by side, the base of support is wide in the lateral direction but narrow in the sagittal (back-to-front) direction. In the case of highwire-walkers, their feet are parallel with each other, one foot positioned in front of the other while on the wire. Therefore, a tightwire walker's sway is side to side, their lateral support having been drastically reduced. In both cases, whether side by side or parallel, the ankle is the pivot point.

A wire-walker may use a pole for balance or may stretch out his arms perpendicular to his trunk in the manner of a pole. This technique provides several advantages. It distributes mass away from the pivot point, thereby increasing the moment of inertia. This reduces angular acceleration, so a greater torque is required to rotate the performer over the wire. The result is less tipping. In addition, the performer can also correct sway by rotating the pole. This will create an equal and opposite torque on the body.

Tightwire-walkers typically perform in very thin and flexible, leather-soled slippers with a full-length suede or leather sole to protect the feet from abrasions and bruises, while still allowing the foot to curve around the wire. Though very infrequent in performance, amateur, hobbyist, or inexperienced funambulists will often walk barefoot so that the wire can be grasped between the big and second toe. This is more often done when using a rope, as the softer and silkier fibres are less taxing on the bare foot than the harder and more abrasive braided wire.

Famous tightrope artists

Maria Spelterini crossing Niagara Falls on July 4, 1876 Maria Spelterini at Suspension Bridge.jpg
Maria Spelterini crossing Niagara Falls on July 4, 1876
Jultagi, the Korean tradition of tightrope walking Korea-Jeonju-Jultagi-02.jpg
Jultagi , the Korean tradition of tightrope walking

Metaphorical use

The word funambulism or the phrase walking a tightrope is also used in a metaphorical setting not referring to any actual acrobatic acts. For instance, politicians are said to "walk a tightrope" when trying to balance two opposing views with little room for compromise. The term can also be used in satirical or acidic contexts. Nicholas Taleb uses the phrase in his book The Black Swan . "You get respect for doing funambulism or spectator sports". Taleb is criticising scientists who prefer popularism to vigorous research and those who walk a fixed and narrow path rather than explore a large field of empirical study. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Niagara Falls</span> Waterfalls between New York, United States and Ontario, Canada

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Karl Wallenda</span> German stunt performer (1905–1978)

Karl Wallenda was a German-American high wire artist. He was the founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus troupe whose members performed dangerous stunts far above the ground, often without a safety net.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Blondin</span> French tightrope walker and acrobat

Charles Blondin was a French tightrope walker and acrobat. He toured the United States and was known for crossing the 1,100 ft (340 m) Niagara Gorge on a tightrope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jade Kindar-Martin</span> American circus performer (born 1974)

Jade Kindar-Martin is an American highwire walker and circus performer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Philippe Petit</span> French high-wire artist (born 1949)

Philippe Petit is a French high-wire artist who gained fame for his unauthorized high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1971 and of Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973, as well as between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on the morning of 7 August 1974. For his unauthorized feat 400 metres above the ground – which he referred to as "le coup" – he rigged a 200-kilogram (440-pound) cable and used a custom-made 8-metre (30-foot) long, 25-kilogram (55-pound) balancing pole. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slacklining</span> Sport similar to tightrope walking

Slacklining is walking, running or balancing along a suspended length of flat webbing that is tensioned between two anchors. Slacklining is similar to slack rope walking and tightrope walking. Slacklines differ from tightwires and tightropes in the type of material used and the amount of tension applied during use. Slacklines are tensioned significantly less than tightropes or tightwires in order to create a dynamic line which will stretch and bounce like a long and narrow trampoline. Tension can be adjusted to suit the user, and different webbing may be used in various circumstances.

The Flying Wallendas is a circus act and group of daredevil stunt performers who perform highwire acts without a safety net. They were first known as The Great Wallendas, but the current name was coined by the press in the 1940s and has stayed since.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stephen Peer</span>

Stephen Peer (1840-1887) was a tightrope walker who, though he completed the feat successfully many times, fell to his death while walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Circus Smirkus</span>

Circus Smirkus is a non-profit, award-winning, international youth circus founded in 1987 by Rob Mermin. Based in Greensboro, Vermont, the mission of Circus Smirkus is to promote the skills, culture and traditions of the traveling circus and to inspire youth to engage in the circus arts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William Leonard Hunt</span> Canadian funambulist

William Leonard Hunt, also known by the stage name The Great Farini, was a well-known nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian funambulist, entertainment promoter and inventor, as well as the first known white man to cross the Kalahari Desert on foot and survive. He also published under the name Guillermo Antonio Farini.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maria Spelterini</span>

Maria Spelterini was an Italian tightrope walker who was the only woman to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope, which she did on July 8, 1876 as part of a celebration of the U.S. Centennial. She used two and a quarter inch (57 mm) wire and crossed just north of the lower suspension bridge. She crossed again on July 12, 1876, this time wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet. She crossed blindfolded on July 19, and on July 22 she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled. On July 27, 1876, she made her last trip across the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nik Wallenda</span> American acrobat (born 1979)

Nikolas Wallenda is an American acrobat, aerialist, daredevil, high wire artist, and author. He is known for his high-wire performances without a safety net. He holds 11 Guinness World Records for various acrobatic feats, and is best known as the first person to walk a tightrope stretched directly over Niagara Falls. Wallenda walked 1,800 feet (550 m) on a steel cable over Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua, his longest walk, on March 4, 2020.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henri L'Estrange</span> Australian funambulist and aeronautical balloonist

Henri L'Estrange, known as the Australian Blondin, was an Australian successful funambulist and accident-prone aeronautical balloonist. Modelling himself on the famous French wire-walker Charles Blondin, L'Estrange performed a number of tightrope walks in the 1870s, culminating in three walks across Sydney's Middle Harbour in 1877. He remains the only tightrope performer ever to have walked across a part of Sydney Harbour.

Nik Wallenda: Beyond Niagara was an American documentary/reality television program that aired on the Science Channel. The hour-long show followed daredevil and highwire artist Nik Wallenda and his family as they traveled the country performing dangerous feats. It focused on the science and engineering that go into Wallenda's acts, as he pushes "the limits of science further than ever before." According to Science Channel's general manager Debbie Adler Myers, the program gave "viewers some insight into the passion, skills, ingenuity and science behind the thrills, that has driven the Wallendas to world-renowned fame."

<i>Skywire Live</i> 2013 Disney Channel special

Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda is a Discovery Channel special that aired on June 23, 2013. The special was billed as a highwire walk across "the majestic Grand Canyon". Interpretations varied as to whether the actual location – the Little Colorado River Gorge in Navajo territory outside Grand Canyon National Park's borders – was truly part of the Grand Canyon.

<i>Skyscraper Live</i> American TV series or program

Skyscraper Live with Nik Wallenda is a Discovery Channel special that aired on November 2, 2014. The special was billed as a highwire walk by Nik Wallenda across the city of Chicago in the United States. Specifically, he walked wires between three skyscrapers "all of which are taller than the Washington Monument." On one of the walks, he was blindfolded; on the other the wire was at a 19 degree incline.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slackwire</span> Acrobatic circus act

Slackwire is an acrobatic circus act that involves the balancing skills of moving along a flexible, thin wire suspended in the air, connected to two anchor points. Slackwire is not to be confused with slacklining.

Vertelli, or Professor Vertelli, was a British-Australian tightrope walker and stage magician, and the brother of cricketer Samuel Morcom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pauline Violante</span>

Pauline Violante born Selina Young aka the female Blondin was a tightrope walker who walked across the River Thames.


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