The Many Jobs of the Stiltwalker

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

For the unluckily short in stature, one can only dream of perspectives high above the crowd, viewing the tops of people’s heads. But for those who’d like to defy mother nature and refuse the hand they were dealt, mankind has come up with an ingenious solution: the stilts, two long pieces of wood with footholds and straps. Although today most stiltwalkers can be found in the circus or doing construction, believe it or not the strange practice of stiltwalking owes its inception to everyday activities like farming and personal transportation.

Stiltwalking has been around for thousands of years, though its exact origins are unknown. Some say they were invented 3000 years ago by the Persians as a military intimidation tactic. Others say the practice was cultivated in China during the Song Dynasty around 700 BC as a folk art for entertainment purposes. Yet there is still evidence of an even older origin as early as 3000 BC by the primitive Danzchu clan of China, with bone scriptures uncovered by archaeologists depicting stilt dancers at sacrificial ceremonies.

Regardless of its exact roots, evidence of the use of stilts has been found all over the world, from almost every time period. In Ancient Rome, street dancers known as “grallae” performed routines on stilts in an effort to be higher in the sky to appease the gods. In Ancient Maya, performers danced on stilts during religious ceremonies for good fortune. In fact stiltwalking for religious purposes seems to be common in many parts of the world. For example, in the historically famine-stricken central provinces of India, religious ceremonies usually involved a dance on stilts as a method of praying to the gods to have the crops grow as high as the stiltwalkers. And in Africa in what is now modern-day Tanzania, tribes had a “man in the treetop” tribal dancer, who danced on stilts to pray for the young of the village to grow up tall and healthy.

Aside from religion, stiltwalking is most commonly found in areas of the world subject to frequent flooding. Stilts have been used in monsoonal regions of Asia and similar regions around the globe, for getting around through high flood waters. Thousands of years ago in China, the Liao River used to overflow its banks every year, flooding the town of Newchwang (now the modern day city of Yingkou). The people of the town used stilts to get around the flooded streets and farmlands, and to this day stilts are still used in the city’s annual New Year festival.

Probably the most well-documented case of stilts used for flooding comes from the Gascony region of France. Back in the early 1800s, shepherds of Landes used stilts as a method of getting around the region’s thick brush, often turned to soggy marshlands during the flooding season. By using stilts, shepherds could move their flocks easily across the land, keeping themselves out of the wet environment, while at the same time being high enough to keep an eye over their entire herds. They used stilts that were about 5 feet high and strapped to the foot, and carried a long wooden staff which they used for resting, guiding the sheep, and for mounting and dismounting the stilts. Knowledge of the practice spread throughout Europe thanks to a man by the name of Sylvain Dornon, also known as the “stiltwalker of Landes,” who walked from Paris to Moscow on stilts in 58 days.

Yet another historical use of stilts can be traced back to the town of Namur in Belgium, where stilt-jousting has been a sport for hundreds of years. Also known as “echasseur,” stilt-jousting involved competitors mounted on stilts trying to knock each other off by blows with the arms, shoving, and even tripping. Today Les Echasseur Namurois is still held annually in the town of Namur, celebrating its 600th anniversary this year.

Stilts themselves can be divided up into four separate general categories: hand-held, peg, spring, and drywall. Hand-held stilts are the most primitive of stilts and are not strapped to the feet of the walker but instead possess extended poles that the walker grabs onto. Peg stilts (aka Chinese stilts) are the most common and difficult stilts, and involve a strap to the foot or ankle with no grips for the hands. Although they are usually lightweight and allow for quick movement, peg stiltwalkers must keep moving at all times to keep their balance. Spring stilts are a relatively new kind of stilt that, just like the name says, contain a springing mechanism allowing for acrobatic jumping, bouncing, and other various tricks. Lastly there are drywall stilts which are the heaviest, but also easiest and safest, stilts to operate. They allow for standing and slow walking and are used in the construction industry particularly for, you guessed it, drywall!

Stilts continue to have multiple purposes today aside from simply entertainment.  In California, fruit farmers use aluminum stilts to pick fruits like peaches, plums, and apricots from trees. In England, hops farmers use stilts when harvesting the aromatic flowers that are then used for their ales. In Toronto, some large factories have all their outdoor window washing done on stilts. In northern China, where stilt walking was traditionally a very popular practice among the Han Chinese, to this day stiltwalkers still perform during the Spring and Lantern festivals. And of course in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the developed world, stilts are heavily used in the industries of drywall construction, painting, roof repair, and ceiling work.

Nevertheless, modern stiltwalking is still best associated with circuses and festivals. Entertainment stiltwalkers often perform in outrageous costumes and makeup, and execute dancing, juggling, and comedy acts all whilst on stilts. Walkers today do more stuff on stilts than ever before, including acts like skating or even aerial somersaults.

zen-arts-stiltwalker-splits Whatever the record on normal two feet, these days somebody has tried to be the first to do it on stilts. In 1860, high-wire artist Jean Francois Gravelet, aka “The Great Blondin,” crossed a high wire over Niagara Falls on stilts. Gravelet was the first man to cross the falls in 1859, and in the year following crossed the falls another 8 times, each with a different variation, one of them being on stilts.

But as far as stilt records go, Australian entertainer Roy Maloy holds the most awards.  In 2008, with 5 steps taken and an overhead safety wire, Roy set the record for tallest stilts walked on at 56.5 feet. Each of Roy’s stilts weighed 50.6 pounds each, a measurement he also surpassed when he set the record for heaviest stilts walked on in 2010, coming in at 77.2 pounds on each leg.

At Zen Arts we hold the world record for the most sensational stiltwalkers around! To book one of our uncanny and unearthly walkers for your next event call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email us.