In A Nutshell
Despite the dangers, everyone in Tsovkra-1, a remote village in Dagestan, Russia, once walked a tightrope. Most still do—even the children. From the 1950s through the 1970s, they had their best years, entertaining the public and winning coveted awards as they performed in the Soviet Union’s circuses. Now the tradition is dying due to high unemployment, urban migration, and radical Islam.
The Whole Bushel
Tightrope walkers have been amazing us with their death-defying performances for almost 500 years. Arguably, the most famous performer of all time was daredevil Jean-Francois Gravelet. When he was growing up in the small town of Hesdin in northern France, Gravelet was so inspired by tightrope walkers he saw in a circus that he became one himself. After professional acrobatic training, Gravelet made his debut as “The Little Wonder” at just five years old.
As he grew older, Gravelet was nicknamed “Blondin” for his hair color. Although he was known for daring exploits, his most famous performance was crossing the more than 305-meter (1,000 ft) distance over Niagara Falls on a tightrope only 7.5 centimeters (3 in) thick in 1859. Blondin always garnered as much publicity as he could. The newspapers called him a fool, but the public loved the excitement. When he crossed Niagara Falls successfully, he became a sensation throughout the US and Europe. Ever the showman, Blondin later repeated his feat on stilts, dressed as a gorilla, blindfolded, lugging someone on his back, and pushing a wheelbarrow. In perhaps his most amazing performance, he took a stove with him and, halfway across the falls, stopped to cook an omelette.
In London where he later lived, there are Blondin and Niagara Avenues named in his honor in the suburb of Ealing and another Blondin Street in the suburb of Bow. Blondin became so famous that his name was transformed into a word meaning “tightrope” or “tightrope walker.” Charles Dickens was the first to use the word “blondin” in writing in 1863.
Although Blondin survived all his dangerous escapades, tightrope walking can be a deadly activity, as “The Flying Wallendas” came to know from the tragedies in their family. Although their ancestors had been performing in various capacities since the late 1700s, the family became famous for their seven-person chair pyramid in the 1940s. Balancing high in the air, four people would form the base of the pyramid, supporting two people standing on poles as the middle layer, who then would support the seventh person standing on a chair that’s balanced on another pole. In 1962, one of the performers made a misstep, causing two men to plunge to their deaths. Another aerialist was left paralyzed. Two other Wallendas also died in tragic falls, one in 1945 and the other in 1978.
Despite the dangers, tightrope walking is a proud tradition among its performers. In fact, there’s a remote village in Dagestan, Russia called Tsovkra-1 where everyone once walked a tightrope. As Ramazan Gadzhiyev, owner of Tsovkra-1’s tightrope-walking school, explains, “Not everyone can do tricks on the rope, and some of the older people don’t do it anymore because it’s too hard for them. But every single able-bodied person here can walk the tightrope.” It’s been going on for so long that no one can even remember when the tradition began. After school here, children often play by balancing on a tightrope one story in the air without a net or other safety measures to break their falls.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the villagers had their best years, entertaining the public and winning coveted awards as they performed in the Soviet Union’s circuses. Known worldwide, the most famous tightrope walkers from the village also performed in circuses to sold-out venues throughout Europe. According to local legend, the tradition of tightrope walking began centuries ago when young men in the village got tired of walking across the mountain for days to romance young women in another village. So the men strung a rope across the valley as a shortcut. Soon, they were walking across the tightrope to show off for the young ladies.
Regardless of how it started, the villagers were marketing their tightrope walking skills by the early 1800s. Now the tradition is dying due to high unemployment, urban migration, and radical Islam. The population in Tsovkra-1 has declined by almost 87 percent. Mr. Gadzhiyev, who runs the two-room tightrope walking school, had secured funding for it from a rich Dagestani businessman. The goal was to train new aerialists and reclaim the prestige that the village performers once knew. But before the businessman could fully fund his promises, he died of a gunshot wound in a disagreement over business.
Show Me The Proof
Reuters: Russian village’s tightrope walking prowess
The Independent: The hamlet walking a tightrope of survival
History Today: Blondin’s first tightrope-walk across Niagara Falls
OxfordWords: Tightrope walking and ambulances: what do they share in common?
CBS News: The rich, tragic history of daredevil Wallendas