Tightrope walking

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"Tightrope" redirects here. For other uses, see Tightrope (disambiguation).
The feet of a tightrope walker

Tightrope walking, also called funambulism, is the art 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.

Types of rope and wire walking[edit]

  • Tightwire is the art 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 or 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 tight wire walking but performed at much greater height. Although there is no official height when tight wire becomes high wire, generally a wire over twenty feet high will be regarded as a high wire act.
      • Skywalk is a form of highwire which is performed at great heights and length. A skywalk is performed outdoors between tall building, gorges, across waterfalls or other natural and man-made structures.


Slackwire artist catching juggling torches
  • Slackwire or Slackrope is a type of wire or rope walking where the support is flexible or 'slack'. The tension on the wire or rope is mainly provided by the weight of the performer and their props. The difference in technique required to maintain balance on a slackwire is that the performer moves the wire under his centre of mass. The flexibility of the wire or rope allows the performer to achieve this.
    • Slacklining is a popular form of slackwire walking which utilizes nylon webbing stretched tight between two anchor points. Slacklining is distinct from tightrope walking in that the line is not held rigidly taut; it is instead dynamic, stretching and bouncing like a long and narrow trampoline. The tension of the slackline can be varied to allow for a variety of balance skills to be performed. The tighter a slackline the closer the technique and performance is to tightwire; the slacker the slackline the more like it is to slack rope walking and performance.


Biomechanics[edit]

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 because a greater force 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[edit]

Jultagi, the Korean tradition of tightrope walking
Maria Spelterini crossing Niagara Falls on July 4, 1876

Metaphorical use[edit]

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.[12]

See also[edit]

References[edit]