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Discovering the Thrill of the Tightrope in Midlife

Walk like an orangutan, and other lessons from my initiation into the aerial arts


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

I have always wanted to walk a tightrope. This yen intensified when I watched The Walk, the fictionalized version of Philippe Petit’s famous jaunt between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974 and the documentary Man on Wire. Seeing that serene saunter in the sky renewed my fascination with wire walking. This was the year to run away and join the circus.

I called Bobby Hedglin Taylor, whose actual title is Director of Flying Trapeze for the Espana Streb Trapeze Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y. Taylor, himself a circus performer for 30 years, also teaches wire walking and aerial fabric classes. He’s designed aerial sequences for Broadway shows such as Chaplin and Pippin. If he could prepare an untrained actor for the Great White Way, surely he could help me learn in a studio. We set up a time for me to have a lesson.

Tightrope Mind Games

Initially, all I could think about was the exhilaration of attempting this aerial art. When I eagerly announced my plan to my physical therapist, she gave me a look and then said, “I’ll be waiting for you on the other side of this.” Gosh. Then I started having some doubts: Aren’t I a little old for this? What if I sprained an ankle? (I hadn’t even thought to ask Taylor if there would be a harness or something to prevent a mishap.) What if I chickened out once I saw the wire? What if I couldn’t do it? What if I made a complete fool of myself?

Despite the very real possibility that any of these things might happen, my fears were countered with happy fantasies. What would it feel like to put my foot on a three-quarter inch of aircraft cable? How would it be to step off the platform with the standing foot on the wire? And then taking that all-important second step.

For days, I ping-ponged between flight and fear. Then I decided that taking a single step on the wire would be a total success for me, even if I fell off.

For days, I ping-ponged between flight and fear. Then I decided that taking a single step on the wire would be a total success for me, even if I fell off.

Stepping Up to the Challenge

On the appointed day, I made my way to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and found the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) in a cavernous warehouse. Aerial rigging equipment hung from the ceiling and thick pads covered the floor.

Taylor waved me back to the far end of the lab with a smile. I stepped over the wire I’d be learning on. “Low” is a completely relative term when you have no experience walking a tightrope. On a narrow surface, any height at all invites a fall, whether it’s six inches or 6 feet.

I liked Taylor immediately. He plunged in, explaining that we humans already knew how to do this. Long ago in our evolution, he said, we walked on tree branches to get from one place to the other for food, mates — or to escape predators.

Being on a narrow surface forces us to make postural changes in order not to fall, however, and that meant developing an extremely strong abdominal core.

Taylor brought out a training apparatus developed by Philippe Petit himself. It was a narrow rod supported an inch off the floor with evenly spaced pedestals. Taylor told me to stand with the pole centered between my first and second toes and the middle of my heel. Then he showed me how to slide my free foot along my ankle and scoot it forward to find the next foothold. “Keep the knees slightly bent and the arms overhead, wrists loose,” he instructed.

Excuse me? I thought. “You want me to walk with my arms up in the air like a Balinese dancer?” Yep.

“That’s how the orangutans do it,” Taylor explained.

“Keep your eyes on the prize,” Taylor instructed. That meant: Look at the endpoint of where you are going, not the wire underneath your feet.

I stepped on the training pole, which was hard and unforgiving. it was very difficult to maintain balance. My hips swayed and I immediately stepped off. Then I tried again.

I had only taken a few steps on the trainer when Taylor led me to the real deal, which was 18 inches off the floor. He placed some folding chairs on either side, stepped on the seats and then casually walked across, stepping on and off as he got his rhythm.

He made it look easy. He even did a squat worthy of a surfer. “It’s a sweet wire,” he smiled.

Hanging in the Balance

Now it was my turn. I stood on the chairs, put one foot on the wire (yes, it was easier than the training version) and then Taylor told me to put my arms up while he lightly held my arm and ribs. It was instantly obvious that he was not going to prop me up, but only readjust my balance if I wavered.

I put my right foot on the wire, and felt myself rise up in the most delicious way, as the wire gently gave way to my weight. Thrilling! Now the other foot. Wow! You really have to keep those hips steady! I careened to the side. “I’ve got you,” Taylor said, and he did. He had a perfect sense of how to help me stay balanced.

He kept encouraging me to keep my elbows up and my wrist loose. I really wanted to bring my arms out to the side, but I did as he directed. We walked to the end and then Taylor told me to step off.

Once I had practiced a bit, he added a trick: “Take two steps forward and bring the leg to the side,” he instructed.

Bring my foot out to the side to balance? It didn’t make sense, but when I did what he said, it really helped: my deep abdominal muscles instantly contracted to steady my torso — and balance.

We repeated the walk several times and each time he gave me less assistance. At one point, he said, “I only have a couple of fingers on you right now.” It actually felt like he’d let go and that I was on my own for a few seconds.

That was more than unnerving, because even if it was only 18 inches, and even if I could step or jump off, I really didn’t want to lose my balance!

Back to Earth

Eventually, my feet were crying out from the wire cutting into them and I took a break. Taylor, who was originally a ballroom dancer and fell into the circus arts by chance, told me how he had learned tightrope walking after an accident, with his hip in a brace and his arm in a cast. When his students are more advanced, he challenges them by putting a five-pound weight in one hand.

After my lesson, I stayed to watch the aerial tissue class. He was teaching them a routine nicknamed the “Stepford Wives.” 

His students climbed up beautiful lengths of colorful fabric, sometimes wrapping their feet to find footholds in the folds. Then they would pirouette in the air, and slide or drop down.

I gazed in awe and envy, wishing I could do that, too. Eventually, I tore myself away from the spectacle of aerial dancers playing in space and went home.

The next few days, my feet were bruised and sore. It felt like I was walking on pebbles. Taylor had warned me about that.

Next time, I’ll take his advice and wear ballet shoes.

By Deborah Quilter
Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book.

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