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You’ve seen them, at sporting events or in a parade, at a store opening or a theme park. Stilt walkers! They stand tall among the crowd and are definitely a festive part of any event.

At Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, stilt walking was part of the curriculum, as the Circus typically has a set of stilt walkers as part of the Opening and/or Closing Spec (short for “spectacle” – when all performers are greeting the crowds on the arena floor).

I’m not completely sure how I got to be considered as a stilt walker. I guess I showed some propensity for it early, maybe some fearlessness and they obviously wanted someone who could do the job. I was enlisted to do a stilt walk in our graduation exercise.

Now, there are two kinds of stilts. There are “painter’s stilts,” which mimic your leg and typically don’t extend much beyond the length of an average leg: usually about 3 or possibly 4 feet at most. They have a flat, foot-sized landing plate and behave like a simple leg extension when you step.

Then, there are standard stilts, the ones I was using. Standard stilts are usually a solid pole, sometimes still made from wood but more likely aluminum, and usually with some rubber traction at the tip for a firm and slip free grip of the walking surface. The Guinness World Record for highest stilts walked on is 53 feet, 10 inches, but nobody actually walked any distance on those stilts. I’m referring to stilts you could walk around the entirety of hippodrome track that surrounds the three rings, a distance of about 300 feet in total.

Walking on standard stilts does require practice and skill, and you need to know what you’re doing when you’re on them. This, as opposed to the painter’s stilts, which, as the name implies, were designed for people to paint higher walls without scaffolding, and really aren’t that challenging, once you get used to them.

Typically, In a Ringling Show, you have stilt walkers on 5 foot stilts, 6 foot stilts, 8 foot stilts and possibly 11 foot stilts, if someone on the show was capable of it. They walk together, at an appropriate distance, in ascending order, and wave at the crowd as they pass around, a great visual!

Also, for safety, there is a spotter, a person walking with each stilt walker so that in case a problem occurs, they can be there to catch the stilt walker and limit the damage/injury.

There is a basic rule when it comes to stilt walking. If you’re going to fall, fall forward. That’s useful for a couple of reasons. First, you can use your arms as a way of helping break your fall, something that would not be available falling backwards. Second, head protection is a lot more secure falling forward. Falling from a height and hitting the back of your cranium on the floor is not advised.

There were going to be two separate stilt walks for graduation. The one I was involved with was a specialty stilt walk with each walker dressed up like a specific profession. I was a brick layer, and my stilts were covered with rubberized bricks, making it look like I was walking on two chimneys. This also made the stilts much heavier and I had to sweep my legs carefully to make sure I didn’t fall as I stepped.

The other walk was just a standard walk around.

The stilt trainers were rehearsing the other group’s walk and I was in the costume shop, backstage of the arena. Suddenly we heard some terrible noises. Something had happened, and we knew it was bad because we were told not to leave the area we were in.

It was later that day that the word came back. There was a stilt accident. One walker fell and bumped into the next walker who also fell into the previous walker. Three students were rushed to the hospital because of the mishap, two injured seriously.

How the accident occurred I still don’t know, or why the walkers were placed close enough to reach each other on a fall is another mystery. But it made the rest of the walkers wonder, could that happen to us?

The final week of rehearsal before our graduation performance and I was feeling pretty good about my stilt work. I did a perfect walk around and got backstage. For some reason, there was a heavy duty extension cord stretched across the track that I didn’t know was there.

“Watch out for the cord,” my stilt instructor told me...

After I had already started to take my step.

I shortened my stride from the sweeping steps I had taken all the way around the track and then lost balance. I hopped three times on my left leg, trying to get it back, but I could not. I fell forward, and the instructor caught me before I hit the floor. But I jammed my knee in the process.

On Graduation Night, with producer Kenneth Feld and all of the Top Brass of Ringling in attendance, And with everyone’s families watching from the grandstands, I dreaded the stilt section of the evening. Strapping my bricks on, I wondered if my knee would start aching or if I’d have some other problem.

“Take your places!”

As I stood up, I nearly fell right to the ground, but suddenly, what felt like a pair of hands grabbed under my armpits and lifted me up straight and tall! I walked around the arena with no problems, and came back.

I never told any of my classmates about that moment, and even though I wasn’t given a contract to be in the circus, I was sure I had a guardian angel clown watching out for me. And, based on my career, that seems to have been true.


This piece was written for LJ Idol using the prompt - Sweep the Leg.


( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 22nd, 2014 03:26 am (UTC)
I love this take on the prompt. Always interesting to read about things like this too--career possibilities not taken by many. Great detail and lovely dual-focus (informative/story-telling). Nicely done.
Sep. 25th, 2014 01:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! There's no doubt that I have modeled my life on Bugs Bunny... which is about as ridiculous a concept as anyone has had. On the up side, it has provided a whole bunch of fascinating experiences, though! I probably need to tell more of my clown stories. Some of them even I don't quite believe!
Sep. 22nd, 2014 03:31 am (UTC)
I have always wanted to know how you get up on them, and how you get down. I wonder the same thing about the giant bicycles too.

Cool story.
Sep. 27th, 2014 11:03 am (UTC)
Basic scaffolding to allow you to strap on the stilts, across the toe and the arch, and then at the low and high end of the calves.

You really aren't ever standing still on standard stilts. You have to rock back and forth from peg to peg if there is a pause in the walking. And by "rock" I really mean step in place, lifting the stilt off the ground and placing it back.

The Pennyfarthings are actually not that difficult to mount. just situate the pedals in a stairstep fashion, where one is low and the other high, hop on from the short side back and you're there! It takes a lot of energy and a lot of muscles you didn't realize you had to ride one of those! I'm glad standard bicycles have since come into vogue!
(no subject) - ravenfeather - Sep. 28th, 2014 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 22nd, 2014 11:11 am (UTC)
I could never, ever, ever walk on stilts. One, my balance is horrible. Two, I have trouble getting on top of the counter to get shit down from the highest shelf, just because oh god I'm up high, lol.

This was neat, though. I figured the strategy would be "fall forward," because of the reasons you listed. :)
Sep. 27th, 2014 11:14 am (UTC)
Stilt walking is definitely not for acrophobes! And, as you might imagine, when you start thinking about falling, that's usually when it happens.

Women walk in high heels all day, and I definitely don't know how that's done!

But thanks for reading along! I'm pleased I got to give you a bit of that commanding view!
Sep. 22nd, 2014 03:18 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful wonderful use of the prompt! And just a fantastic peek into the magical world of circus! Thank you for sharing! Really well written.
Sep. 27th, 2014 11:23 am (UTC)
Thanks so much! I wanted to keep a diary while I was at Clown College, but we were told that wasn't allowed. Really, the truth was I would have been too exhausted to write anything after a typical day or even week! We were in class from 8:30am when we got to the arena to put on our make up and costumes, through 10pm when we came home. We got an hour for lunch and two hours for dinner. And we had Sundays off.

Though I do lament not having at least a few pages of my thoughts at the time, maybe that helps the stories be less technical and more of the romance of the work? I hope so!
Sep. 22nd, 2014 03:38 pm (UTC)
Interesting! Scary too!
Sep. 27th, 2014 11:58 am (UTC)
Thanks! Hopefully not too scary!
Sep. 22nd, 2014 04:06 pm (UTC)
Some of the stilletto's I wore when I was younger sure felt like stilts! LOL. Love reading about circus life. I've never been, in my 50+ years, so this was especially intriguing! Thanks for penning! :)
Sep. 27th, 2014 12:06 pm (UTC)
And thank you for reading!

I was commenting how walking around in high heels is really the stunt! And stilettos are extremely thin. I applaud your talents in that realm!

So, wait. You've never attended any circus of any sort ever? When I was a kid, Ringling Bros. would move into Madison Square Garden for 12 weeks! We usually went a couple of times a year during that.

These days, Cirque du Soleil is kind of the standard for performance of that sort, but there are lots of other smaller shows that are just as fun.

If I've intrigued you enough to attend one of them, I'll feel fulfilled!
(no subject) - dmousey - Sep. 27th, 2014 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 22nd, 2014 05:55 pm (UTC)
i love that you've been to clown college. that's really cool. and i admit i was wondering if a falling stilt walker ever falls into the walker in front or behind, so you get a domino effect of falling stilt walkers, and i guess it does. which is kind of scary.
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:33 pm (UTC)
Certainly in rehearsals, when everyone is learning the method of walking, people should not be placed that closely, so that was definitely the fault of the stilt instructors. And they also didn't have spotters positioned correctly, because even if one person fell, each spotter should have been available for catching each walker. It was a pretty serious screw up and it made a lot of us doubt the professionalism of the trainers.

Domino effects are not typical, as the preparation that goes into a stilt walk is intense.

Thanks for reading along. Clown College was a really incredible experience, and definitely changed my life in lots of ways, some that have nothing to do with circus or clowning!
Sep. 23rd, 2014 03:49 am (UTC)
We actually got to learn a little beginner stilt walking in elementary school P.E. and I loved that little taste of it. By the end of this piece there was so much tension. Very enjoyable and I'm glad you didn't wipe out!
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks! The trick to stilt walking is to start thinking of it as natural. Once you get used to the method of stepping then you have to be firm about it! Unlike learning to walk as a toddler, you have a much farther way to fall!

Thanks! Falling once from stilts is once enough!
Sep. 23rd, 2014 09:13 pm (UTC)
Great take on the prompt!
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much! It's the first thing I thought of (relating to me) when I read the prompt, so I had to go with it.
Sep. 24th, 2014 05:53 pm (UTC)
I admire your head for heights and sense of balance to be able to walk on stilts. I'm one of those people who fall in kitten heels.
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:43 pm (UTC)
I'd probably fall in kitten heels too. But thanks!
Sep. 24th, 2014 10:49 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating. Stilts both intrigue and scare me, but there's usually a booth at Maker Faire that rents out stilts and a spotter for 20 min slots (they set up next to the tall fence so folks have something to hold on to as they get started) that I have been tempted by every time I see it.
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:46 pm (UTC)
I think that's how I approached stilts also: intrigued and a little scared. 20 minutes is a pretty long while for stilt walking... Although I guess if you're clinging to a fence, maybe that's not much time at all! Really it's about getting your own balance on the stilts, so the sooner you're off the fence, the better! You should give it a go, if you feel up to it! Haha.

And thanks for reading!!
Sep. 25th, 2014 01:52 am (UTC)
This was a wonderful use of the prompt. I loved seeing inside the circus, and learning a little bit about stilt walking. I also love the idea of a guardian angel clown!
Sep. 27th, 2014 01:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I have to say, that was one of the most unique moments of my life, that moment when I got pulled up that way...

Stilt walking isn't for everyone, but it's an experience that isn't soon forgotten!
Sep. 25th, 2014 07:08 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of a guardian clown angel. My grandmother's cousin, Merlin "Shorty" Hinkle, was a clown for many years. He was also a flying monkey in "The Wizard of Oz." And lately, my son is telling me he wants to be either a structural engineer or a clown.
Sep. 27th, 2014 02:07 pm (UTC)
Wow, Shorty Hinkle was something of a legend on the Clyde Beatty Show. I've seen some vintage photos of him so I know exactly who he is!

I didn't realize he was also in "The Wizard of Oz," though. That's really fascinating! Those flying monkeys were the scariest part of the whole film, making it especially ironic that he was one of them!

Perhaps KFP will wind up with a Bugs Bunny style life, like I did... a different occupation in every cartoon!

Thanks so much for reading!
(no subject) - alycewilson - Sep. 28th, 2014 12:15 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2014 10:56 pm (UTC)
This was very cool and full of interesting tidbits! I'm glad you had an angel watching out for you.
Sep. 27th, 2014 02:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks! It was an amazing experience to be a part of that institution, and even more amazing when we had the 20th Reunion, which was a TV Special on CBS hosted by Dick Van Dyke. Clown College grads from every era were there!

And yeah, I got to ride an elephant too!
Sep. 26th, 2014 12:53 am (UTC)
Oh, this is fantastic, and such a great take on the prompt!
Sep. 27th, 2014 03:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks very kindly! It's almost like I fell just to eventually write about it for LJ Idol!
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