I, Stilt Walker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because anybody can go to biz school.
By Elisa Shoenberger
In the very first act of the UniverSoul Circus, these stilt walkers from Trinidad and Tobago began to dance. They rocked out, doing backbends and other seemingly impossible things, on the highest stilts I’ve ever seen. I was entranced.
Until that moment, I hadn’t thought at all about stilt walking. It seemed pedestrian compared to the other circus apparatuses, like silks, rope and straps. The stilt walkers I’d seen seemed to just stand around.
No one had said that dancing was possible.
I felt that the circus was something that happened to other people. With that stilt dance, though, I realized that I could be a part of this crazy world, and my world changed. You see, I had spent several years on the periphery of the circus life. It all began because the boy I was dating had just started taking trapeze at Aloft Circus Arts. He loved it, and I liked him. As we continued dating, I was pulled into this beautiful world of circus. We started going to circus shows all the time, often on a monthly basis.
Our circle of friends widened to include more fellow circus students and, in time, circus professionals. We used to meet at a nearby bar every Tuesday night after everyone’s circus classes. I would come from business class. My boyfriend and our friends would talk about their classes. I was only peripherally part of this world. I would peer in for a moment, but that was it.
I was simply terrible. It took several years to be able to walk without falling — something that most students could achieve after eight classes.
But if you hang around the barbershop long enough you’re probably going to get a haircut, and so after a year, I decided to try out trapeze. It was a complete failure. It was a combination of being out of shape, intolerance for pain on my hands and a teacher who wasn’t really the best with beginning students. After four classes, I decided I would appreciate the art form from below. My goal of being part of the circus world just wasn’t going to work out.
Then we had an opportunity to try out tightrope. This felt like something I could do. My feet were sturdier than my hands.
For five years, I took classes off and on at Aloft. It required balance and core strength. And I was simply terrible. It took several years to be able to walk without falling — something that most students could achieve after eight classes. I kept taking classes, confident that I’d eventually get there. But it never happened. The success and lift that I thought I would feel never came. And performing in front of people seemed like a distant, unrealistic dream.
But after seeing those stilt walkers at the circus, I decided it was time to broaden my horizons. When I got home, I signed up for my first stilt walking class.
When I stood up for the first time in stilts, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Standing on my own on 1-foot stilts, I finally understood what my now fiancé had felt when he started trapeze. I knew I had finally found my apparatus. I also knew it was time to close the door on wire.
Within mere weeks of starting, we were dancing around and making up routines with capes and wacky music. We would sashay across the floor like we were models. Being up on stilts, the whole world changes, even if I’m just on 1.5-foot stilts. Your perspective changes; everything is something to play off of. Suddenly, glass elevator walls are your canvas. Window frames are handholds. You understand what tall means.
And with my style of stilts, I constantly adjust my weight to stay up — I can’t stand still. When I walk, I love letting myself fall into my next step, relishing a moment of weightlessness. Every movement brings me joy. I finally felt like I was more than a spectator, a circus wannabe. I was part of this crazy world.
After several class sessions, I had my first opportunity to perform. We were invited to the one-year anniversary of the 606, the elevated rail turned park in Chicago. I was hired to wander around the trail to add character. At my first gig, I got so nervous that I put on my stilts backward and had to undo all the duct tape to fix it. But once I got past that hurdle, my husband and I, both dressed as clowns, got into mischief. It was a good start.
Months after that, we were invited to perform for the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival fundraiser in Wrigleyville. The theme was trashy fairies. We were dressed to the nines with fairy wings and tutus. I danced in the courtyard as people filed into the party. I loved seeing the delight spread across their faces during what had to be one of the most surreal nights of my life. I’ll never forget sitting in the basement in a room filled with overflowing candelabras, eating fried food while still dressed as a clown with wings. It was what I had imagined the gig life to be like.
Stilt walking let me pull back the curtain on the circus life, if only for a second. I know that it’s not an easy life, both on the wallet or the body. I know that people really struggle to make it their career. I honor their commitment to the arts. But for a few nights a year, I get to create wonder and amazement with my tall walking.
- Elisa Shoenberger, OZY Author Contact Elisa Shoenberger