Bob Dunn’s Playing Along: When a grown man runs off to join the circus

Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2014

There is, I’m told, this thing in the universe called balance. And apparently there are at least a couple varieties of it.

The first is the emotional kind: the attempt to have just enough of every aspect of your life in play at any given time to allow maximum benefit, everything working together to avoid entropy.

I do not have this. I eat too much and exercise too little, spend too much time at work and don’t get enough done ... and so on.

Then, there is physical balance: when a person’s muscles are working in tandem, adjusting instantly to uneven or changing terrain without falling over.

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I do not have this, either.

I mean, I can walk across a room and usually get through the day without crashing to the ground like a bucket of rocks, but if I have to answer my phone or suddenly remember that very important thing I’ve forgotten, that could change quickly.

There are people who seem designed to be lithe and graceful — like dancers or gymnasts whose balance seems inherent.

I, on the other hand, feel I’m designed for little more than to get in the way, like a slow bus in the passing lane.

Despite that, Chris Oakley, executive director of the SHOW Circus Studio in Easthampton, offered to teach me a little about tightwire walking.

No clowning around

I arrive at the studio on a recent Friday afternoon and am greeted by Oakley, who’s wearing a shirt with the word “contortionist” on the chest. I wonder what kind of party I’ve walked into.

I have no interest in contorting or being contorted, but I have to imagine that wearing that shirt in public would be an interesting conversation starter, to say the least.

The SHOW studio opened in 2009 and teaches adults and youths a variety of circus and performance arts like trapeze, acrobatics and juggling, among others. Staff and students wear shirts that identify their areas of training, such as contortionist, like Oakley, or acrobat or clown.

At that point, I have to lay down some ground rules: Under no circumstances will clowns or clown-like activity be welcome by me. Clowns have always struck me as bizarre creations who apparently delight in terrifying children, and really, who needs someone like that around?

Thankfully, Oakley agrees to keep the clowns at bay.

The first thing I learn about tightwire walking is there’s no “trick” to it. There’s no illusion being created for an audience, no special type of wire or footwear that make it any easier. It’s just you and your feet on a half-inch-wide aluminum cable, like you might find attached to utility poles, 10 feet long and suspended (in this case) two feet off the floor.

Oakley says the wire has a little bit (emphasis on “little”) of slack to help with stability, but otherwise, you’re on your own.

Rather than have me jump right onto the wire, Oakley goes over basic tightwire technique while I’m still grounded.

The goal, he says, is to have only one foot on the wire at a time. Plant one foot, keep the other leg out to the side, using it as a counterweight while also keeping your arms up around your head to help you balance. Then bring your outstretched foot back in, place it in front of the other and repeat the process until you’re safely on the other side.

Simple, right?

Oakley and I practice the walking-in-a-straight-line technique across the mat a few times and that part, at least, seems to come somewhat naturally to me; truth be known, I’ve practiced the same technique several times in the past under the supervision of law enforcement. (Kidding. Kind of.)

Now that I’ve demonstrated that I can walk across the floor without toppling over, I feel ready to take to the wire itself. But once I’m on it, I discover it’s like trying to balance a water balloon on the end of your finger.

As I start across the seemingly endless expanse (in reality, it’s only 10 feet), Oakley walks on the ground next to me and keeps his hand up in a “high five” position to allow me to brace against it as I wobble across the wire.

And, just to change things up and make sure I look as goofy as possible, the entire visit is filmed by Northampton Community Television for its YouTube channel.

You’re welcome.

I make it a step or two on my own, but that’s about it. I have a few things going against me:

* I’m carrying about 205 pounds across the distance, at least 20 of which serve no useful purpose apart from frustrating my doctor and making clothes-buying difficult.

* I came to this activity about 40 years later than I should have if I wanted to become good at it.

* I suffer from the aforementioned lack of balance and grace.

And, yes, putting all that weight, one foot at a time, on an unforgiving metal cable hurts after a while. Thanks for asking.

Continued practice will produce callouses in all the right places, and cut back on some of that discomfort, Oakley says. I’ll take his word for that, having no plans to batter my feet as a circus performer.

We go from learning walking techniques to learning falling techniques — which in all honesty is probably going to come in much more handy in my case.

If you know you’re going to fall off the wire (which in the real world gives the audience a great story to take home), the thing to do, Oakley says, is to use the last couple of moments of contact with the wire to turn, drop, reach out straight with your arms and grab the wire, hopefully interrupting gravity’s insistence on adhering to its own rules. Oh yeah, and aim for the net that will hopefully be there.

I ask Oakley why I don’t get one of those nifty long poles I’ve seen walkers use as counterweights in circus performances. Oh, he tells me, those are usually reserved for higher, more difficult stunts, like walking across chasms or between skyscrapers.

Sooo, I won’t be in the market for a pole anytime soon.

History, the short version

Oakley says he’s not sure of wire-walking’s origins, but it, like many modern circus arts, developed over time from ancient cultures, which adapted their work skills into competitions and, eventually, performances.

It takes weeks, sometimes months, of practice to learn to stay on the wire for any significant length of time, Oakley says, which is why most people who are serious about circus arts start young. In fact, he adds, now’s a good time to learn circus skills. Many circuses are adapting to changing audience tastes and steering away from trained animal attractions — turning instead to performance and acrobatic exhibits.

The recent success on Broadway of the musical “Pippin,” which features acrobats and circus performers among its cast, is one example of how feats of strength, coordination and, yes, balance, can translate into a world outside the big top.

So, kids, telling your parents that you’re going to run away and join the circus can be so much more these days than an idle threat: It can be a viable career path.

The circus arts might also appeal to people who want the challenge of physical activity but are not interested in playing a team sport.

“The only person you’re competing against is yourself,” Oakley says.

While it’s unlikely I’ll ever achieve the kind of balance needed to make it all the way across that thin strip of metal cable, it’s good to know that if the need should ever arise, I’ll have a fighting chance.

And, if I did, and I fell, with any luck there’d be a clown down below to break my fall. That would make it all worth it.

(Kidding. Kind of.)


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