The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

The Death-Defying Feets of the Circus’ Pride and Joy: Tightrope Walkers

Posted by on Friday, December 7th, 2012

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When I was about nine years old, I went to circus camp. I wanted to be a tightrope walker, balancing high above hushed crowds, pretending to teeter before performing a perfect double flip without a net. My mother wasn’t thrilled but she thought sending me to camp would be safer than letting me continue to practice on the top of our swing set, so off I went. The camp was a hodge podge of unusual kids, kids who wanted to do something wild and exciting and wholly different with their lives. Many of us were gymnasts or dancers (other sports that are hard on the feet and ankles) so we had some experience with physical challenges. But that first day… I probably fell directly on my face thirty times, and with each fall, my feet and ankles twisted in all sorts of unnatural directions. It was painful, exhilarating, challenging and, did I say painful? After the first week, three tightrope novices had sprained ankles, one had a broken big toe, and one had a ruptured Achilles tendon. Ouch!

Circus tightrope walking (or funambulism) requires incredibly dexterous and strong feet, toes, and ankles. The high wire is shockingly thin, typically about ¼ to ½ inch wide. There are several different kinds of tightrope walking. At camp, I was learning to tightwire: walking along a tensioned wire. In this variation, the wire is taught so it doesn’t sag when you stand on it. On your feet you wear slippers, similar to ballet slippers, and the wire tends to dig in, causing pain rather quickly. It starts hurting about five minutes in, as you curl your toes and wobble on your ankles, struggling for purchase. Of course, experienced walkers develop calluses and extremely strong foot and ankle muscles that help them balance. But for the novices, injury is an inevitable part of the sport.

Daredevil tightrope professional Jay Cochrane walking between two skyscrapers above Niagara Falls:

In slacklining, the weight of your body must stay perfectly centered. Slacklining is even rougher on the feet, since the bent wire presses up on toes and heels, putting enormous pressure on the arch of the foot. If you didn’t have fallen arches when you started slacklining, you probably do after a few years of the sport. Some slackliners wear stiff-soled shoes to compensate, but without feeling the wire, it can be much more difficult to balance.

Ankle braces helped. Getting good at tightrope walking helped more. By the end of the summer, I was walking the high wire without falling about 65% of the time. My feet were muscle-bound mutants, not terribly attractive on a little girl. My legs were crazy strong too, which, chicken-and-egg style, helped me maintain my ankle and foot alignment. So, the moral of the story here is, if you’re a newbie tightrope walker, take it slow or risk a major podiatric calamity. If you’re experienced, watch your arches, do ankle exercises to maintain mobility, and if you’ve got foot pain (a possible career ender for a circus tightrope professional) visit The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900).

While at this point in my life I don’t expect to pursue tightrope walking as a career (considering the debt bubble, I can’t imagine it’d be the greatest way to pay off my massive student loans) I still love visiting my local park for a few practice runs with the street performers. They’re way better than me, but they humor me anyway. It’s one of those past times where you feel like you’re in a club for the rest of your life. Excuse me while I go ice my ankles.

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.