Imagine walking the length of nearly four football fields. Now imagine being on a tightrope less than an inch thick that is stretched between two mountain peaks. One slip, and you’re in free fall for more than half a mile. It seems impossible, but daredevil Freddy Nock set a world record in 2015 with his 39-minute high wire walk in the Swiss Alps. Although it’s very rare for aerial acrobats to perform such extreme feats, tightrope walkers thrill audiences around the world as they defy gravity from daring heights.
The job of a tightrope walker, sometimes called a tight wire walker, is to thrill an audience. Tightrope walkers balance high above people’s heads. They make the audience gasp and hold a collective breath while doing the seemingly impossible. A tightrope walker career is for someone who is flexible, has good balance, and who loves the rush of adrenaline that accompanies working at great heights.
Tightrope walking is possible because it’s governed by the laws of physics. Tightrope walkers understand these laws as they relate to their environment and their bodies. You’ve noticed that tightrope walkers often use a long pole while performing. Understanding a concept called rotational inertia explains why the pole helps the performer maintain balance.
Any time you push open a swinging door, you see rotational inertia at work. The rotational inertia of the door is low, which is why it moves easily with a light touch. It’s the rotational inertia of the wheels that allows you to balance while riding a bike. A tightrope walker uses a pole to minimize the body’s rotation around the rope.
The longer the pole, the more it assists in balance, as it puts more weight over the rope (the combined weight of walker and pole) far away from the walker’s feet, which is the rotation’s pivot point. The longer bar slows the speed of rotation, which means that a tightrope walker has more time to correct his stance and gait.
Funambulism, or tightrope walking, can be learned at almost any age. Zen master Andrea Loreni teaches it as a way to show his students how to face fears, obstacles and new situations. It’s a balance practice that incorporates body and mind. Tightrope walkers must, of necessity, remain fully in the moment.
Tightrope walkers who seek a performance career typically get their education through gymnastics classes or at a school for circus arts. Tightrope walking is not a skill that you can learn merely by watching videos on YouTube or even by studying live performers. You need to get on the rope yourself with a skilled mentor or coach to help you.
Circus Smirkus is a Vermont-based nonprofit dedicated to the skills, culture and traditions of the traveling circus. Each summer, Circus Smirkus offers camps for children and adults who can learn and practice under a real big top tent. The Big Top Tour travels throughout New England during the summer with a troupe of teen performers, professional circus coaches, support crew and a live circus band. During the school year, Circus Smirkus offers K‒12 students a number of opportunities to study circus arts in school and after-school programs. The New England Center for Circus Arts, also based in Vermont, is an internationally recognized circus school offering training to youth and adults.
Florida State University and Illinois State University are the only two collegiate circus programs in the country. Both schools offer opportunities for students to train and perform on a volunteer basis. Both of these schools offer summer camp programs for aspiring performers of school age.
Defying danger is not just part of the job ‒ it is the job. Some tightrope walkers work independently, booking their own shows locally. Others are employed by an entertainment company such as a circus or in a circus-training program like Circus Smirkus.
Salary and Job Outlook
There’s not a lot of information out there about a tightrope walking career or a typical salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t even have a listing for “tightrope walker.” A tightrope walker may be classified under the broader heading of Entertainers and Performers, for whom the average hourly wage is $21.53.
Circuses don’t attract crowds the way they used to. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses performed separately and then as one from the late 1800s to 2017. Tightrope walker jobs are rarely advertised, but it’s possible for performers to book their own shows or find work by inquiring with entertainment companies.