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, usually at a great height. One or more artists perform in front of an audience.

  • 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 will fall into one of two distinct types of acts: dance/movement or object manipulation. It is common for tightwire artists to include a variety of props in their acts, such as clubs or rings, hats or canes in order to help them maintain their balance. Other artists will take props onto the wire in order to enhance the entertainment value. These often include juggling clubs, spinning plates, wheelbarrows with passengers, ladders, pets and children.
  • Highwire is the same as tight wire but 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. Traditionally, the difference is in style of performance.
    Slackwire artist catching juggling torches
  • Slackwire is when the tension on the wire is mainly provided by the load, i.e. the performer and props. The difference is that to balance on a tight wire the performer must keep his centre of mass above his feet, while on a slack wire he moves the wire with his balance to under his centre of mass. Without the wire under your centre it wobbles.[clarification needed]
  • Skywalk is a form somewhat akin to highwire, but generally defined by its length and height, often taking place outdoors at great heights, often between skyscrapers, gorges, mountains or other natural and man-made landscapes.
  • Slacklining is a balance sport 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.
  • Freestyle slacklining (a.k.a. “rodeo slacklining") is the art and practice of cultivating balance on a piece of rope or webbing draped slack between two anchor points, typically about 4.6 to 9.1 m (15 to 30 feet) long and 61 cm (2 feet) off the ground in the centre. This type of slackline provides a wide array of opportunities for both swinging and static maneuvers. A freestyle slackline has little tension in it (relative to the weight of the performer,) while both traditional slacklines and tightropes are tensioned. The slackness in the rope or webbing allows it to swing at large amplitudes and adds a different dynamic to the art.
  • Funambule (French)
  • Jultagi (Korean)


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 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]

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