A Funambulist By Any Other Name: Background information when reading The Tightrope Walkers

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The Tightrope Walkers

by David Almond

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond X
The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 336 pages

    Nov 2016, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
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About this Book

A Funambulist By Any Other Name

This article relates to The Tightrope Walkers

Print Review

Maria SpelteriniIt seems that as long as there have been human beings and rope there has been the urge to string that rope between two posts or trees or buildings or things of any sturdy sort and walk - heel to toe - across the span.

For the ancient Greeks it held the appeal of balance offset by danger and, of course, the physical challenge. Though tightrope walking was not considered a competitive sport (a la Olympics-worthy), it was nonetheless respected as a special skill. According to a website dedicated to tightrope walker Jean François Gravelet, the Greeks were so enamored of tightrope walking that they created a special prize, "The Thaumatron," which could be won by tightrope walkers and "anyone who shows people something amazing, out of the ordinary."

While ancient Romans did not discourage the practice, they appear to have been much more reserved in their opinion, brushing off ropewalking as more entertainment than sport. Thus ropewalkers found themselves among the attractions at circuses and sideshows along with the magicians, jugglers and jesters. By the 5th century, the practice made the French so nervous that tightrope walking was banned anywhere near a church. However by the 14th Century, ropewalking had apparently been reinstated to its previous entertainment status, and perhaps even ratcheted up a notch since, according to an article at Atlas Obscura, during the lavish coronation of Queen Isabeau in 1389 Paris, an acrobat carrying candles "walked along a rope suspended from the spires of the cathedral to the tallest house in the city."

Jean Francois GraveletOver the centuries, funambulists – or tightrope walkers, ropewalkers, or equilibrists – have performed some of the most amazing feats of daring; such as taking the audience's breath away numerous times by walking across Niagara Falls. In 1859, Jean François Gravelet crossed, stopping midway to sit down and enjoy a beer that he hauled up on a rope from the Maid of the Mist tour boat below. Not to let himself be outdone – by himself no less – he returned several more times, and each walk got riskier. From riding a bicycle across, to stopping midway and cooking an omelet, to wearing a blindfold, to crossing while on stilts and even to carrying his manager on his back, it seemed nothing was too dangerous. In 1860, the Great Farini crossed over the Falls with a washing machine strapped to his back which he used at midpoint to wash several handkerchiefs that he autographed for his adoring fans. The first woman to tightrope walk over Niagara Falls was circus performer Maria Spelterini who, reportedly, once crossed while her hands and feet were manacled.

Nik WallendaFunambulists seem only limited by their imaginations. The circus dynasty known as the Flying Wallendas has performed its share of daring tightrope stunts, including crossing over the longer, Canadian, side of Niagara Falls. Nik Wallenda broke a world record in Chicago, Illinois in November 2014 when he ropewalked more than two city blocks from the Marina City west tower to the Leo Burnett Building. The second trip, blindfolded, broke yet another world record.

Perhaps the most interesting funambulists live in a tiny village on Russia's southern fringe. In Tsovkra-1 everybody is a tightrope walker. No one can rightly remember why or even when it all started. One theory holds that the young men of the village wanted shorter, faster access to the young women in a neighboring village. Bypassing the mountainous terrain proved faster then foot travel. And so they started at an early age to practice the skill. Obviously young women desired reciprocating travel convenience and so a tradition was born. Tsovkra-1's (there is another village named Tsovkra) heyday occurred in the mid 20th century when Russian circuses recruited performers from the village tightrope walking school. However, times and situations change and Tsovkra-1's population has dropped. Still, hopes persist to revive the town's former glory.

Maria Spelterini tightrope walking across Niagara Falls, courtesy of Jappalang
Jean Francois Gravelet, carrying his manager Harry Colcord, courtesy of Magnus Manske
Nik Wallenda tightrope walking in Chicago, courtesy of Blueag9

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Donna Chavez

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Tightrope Walkers. It originally ran in April 2015 and has been updated for the November 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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