Can't Spell Funambulism Without Fun

When we think of circuses and carnivals, the daring acrobat crossing the tightrope is a classic image. Today we’re taking a look at the history of the high-flying, death-defying art of ‘funambulism’.

Funambul-what? Simply put, funambulism is the art of walking on a wire while holding a balancing pole. Also known as ‘tightrope walking’, funambulism is both an art form and a participatory practice.

Tightrope walking dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome (fun fact: the roots of the word ‘funambulism’ come from funis meaning “rope” and ambulare meaning “to walk”). Funambulism was a popular form of spectacle and entertainment in the royal courts of medieval Europe, and remained popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As time went on, stunts and tricks grew more and more spectacular.

The art form of funambulism can be cultivated at a very high level — and at great heights! “The traditional appeal of the tightwire is those ‘death defying’ heights, and walking on a tightrope between buildings or across Niagara Falls,” explains Tony Mahon, Galway Community Circus artist and educator. High wires might stretch 10 metres in the air, and the Guinness World Record for highest tightrope currently stands at 141.15 metres.

But don’t be fooled by those death-defying stunts! Funambulism is an accessible and achievable activity people of all ages and abilities can master. In addition to the physical benefits of improved balance, studying funambulism has been shown to improve concentration and help people overcome fear and self-doubt.

“When we get beginners in, at first they don’t believe they can get from one side to another. It’s our job to bring that grandiose image down,” said Tony. On a literal level, that means lowering the wire to about 60cm off the ground for beginners. As they progress, they might work their way up to heights of 1.5m. It also means approaching the balancing act with calm concentration.

Tony’s students range in age from 10-years-old to those in their late sixties, but all new funambulism practitioners undergo a similar emotional, physical and mental journey when learning to cross the wire.

“It takes a strong heart and a strong mind to stay devoted to what you’re doing. Even if you find yourself halfway out there and you don’t feel like you can make it, you really have to fight that thought and get to the other side,” Tony said. He added that practicing funambulism can evoke strong feelings in people. “It can get emotional but everyone is very supportive.”

The key is achieving a moment of stillness and peace on the wire, when everything around you disappears. “That moment is very special for me to see as an instructor,” Tony said. “It’s [fighting those negative thoughts and] saying to yourself, I can and I will. It’s a very transformative skill.”

After students master the art of crossing the wire, the next step is learning tricks like standing on one foot, walking backwards, sitting or lying down on the wire, and more. “We encourage trickery and play and movement,” Tony said. “There’s a lot of style and finesse that can be added, the possibilities are infinite.”

Tony drew a comparison between funambulism and being a superhero. “It’s the closest a person gets to being a superhero inside, walking on air.”

If funambulism is a superpower, it is one that is practiced all over the world. Galway Community Circus is currently the only Irish partner in the European Funambulism Network, an association of circus schools led by Ecole de Cirque de Bruxelles with other partners based in Belgium, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Luxembourg. The Network works together to deliver collaborative projects like Wires Crossed, GCC's Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture project, and now the LifeLine highwire spectacle taking place on July 16.

The LifeLine highwire spectacle will take place at the Claddagh Basin on Saturday, 16th of July. LifeLine is a free, drop-in event running continually over five hours from 1:30-6:30pm, with the finale performance of BassAlto at 5:30pm. Staged on 7 highwires and featuring a cast of 150 people of all ages and backgrounds, audiences will witness a stunning display of strength and resilience over one of Ireland’s most iconic waterways.

Photos by Emilija Jefremova.