Stilt Walking

Throughout History stilts have been used in circuses, parades, and performance as well as for practical purposes such as painting, fruit picking, and in some of the more swampy parts of the world – they have even been used by tribes, to travel. In the south of France, stilts were also used by shepherds to see their flocks, and to get a greater range of view.
There have been several types of stilts; Hand-held stilts, often used by children are commonly made with tin cans and string, or with wooden legs that have handles, these are not attached to the wearer.
Drywall stilts are used mostly by plasterers and painters and have fully articulated feet. These stilt walkers can stand still and walking on these doesn’t require a great deal of practice. Spring stilts have more recently come into the world of stilt walking, and allow the wearer to take huge jumps and perform acrobatic stunts, These were first patented by “powerskip” in 1999, though now days there are several different makers of this style of stilt.
The last and possibly the most common circus stilt is the peg stilt, also known as Chinese stilts. These strap onto the foot and knee and act much like super long legs. It is this type of stilt walking, and the world records around this skill, that I will be looking at.
Stilt walking is reported to have begun as a form of entertainment for a seventh century B.C. Chinese emperor. Since then, an astonishing range of skill, and a diverse style of performance has evolved. People have covered amazing distances, run races, and performed acrobatic tricks all on these thin wooden legs.
There is currently a troupe of 40 or so walkers in Belgium, that play at combat on stilts in the form of jousting – this, according to legend dates back to the 14th century when a noble overlord of the country assaulted the town of namur. The count refused to forgive this when asked, and said, “No I won’t forgive should you come on foot on horseback, by boat or by cart”. So instead, the people of the city appeared on stilts. Entertained by this idea, the count agreed to forgive. Now the people joust as a form of entertainment in the towns, practicing their skills at a nearby fort.
One of the most amazing feats of stilt walking to date took place in 1860, when Jean Franois Gravelet, who was the first and one of the most well known tight wire artists to make the walk across Niagara falls, performed this task, first pushing a wheel barrow, then carrying a man, and then finally on stilts. In modern day circuses there are still people who walk the wire on stilts, though the stilts are adjusted to have a small platform just big enough for the wire to sit, about 20 cm above where the small peg feet are.
The longest distance that I found reference to, in stilt walking history, was in March of 1891 a stilt walker named Sylvain Dornon walked the entire distance from Paris to Moscow on stilts in 58 days, this is a journey that is close to 3000 Kilometers!
By 1921, people were exploring other options for stilt walking, and it was at this time that ice-skating and stilt walking were combined for competition and entertainment.
Other competitions that had become regular events were sprints and races on stilts. The world record for the 100 meter sprint on short stilts was 14.5 seconds by a Japanese stilt performer. This was beaten by Roy Luiking when he ran the race in only 13.01 seconds at Didam, Netherlands, in 1994
People were excited about what could be done with stilts, and one stilt designer, Gary Ensmenger, when he created the first Articulated stilts in 1983, demonstrated the design by dancing through the US patent office, doing the dance of “we’re off to see the wizard” followed by a three minute tap dance routine! This tapping stilt dancer has since tapped in films on stilts and was can be seen dancing the ‘Boogy woogy tap dance’ in a Weird Al film.
Stilt walking was now more than just walking around on high legs, people were ice skating, walking high wires and tap dancing, what else could one possibly want to do with long wooden poles strapped to their feet? It seems that the tricks were only to get harder, the stilts to get higher and more dangerous props were to be included in the acts. In 1999 Zou Yan, a performer from the Wuhan Teeterboard Troupe landed the first double twisting somersault on a pair of five foot stilts. At the same time, a Belrussian circus troupe member named Andrei Mishin performed a double back sault while strapped into one single stilt.
Other challenges that people have explored with stilts have included climbing mountains, the tallest stilts and the heaviest. I found reference to two different people who were fairly evenly matched for the highest stilts on record, one was A Canadian man who was said to have walked on 50 foot stilts – that is almost 16 meters! These were stilts crafted out of old carbon fibre sailboat masts. This stilt walker, Doug Hunt, later bested his own record by about 30 cm in 2002. The other was a Physical education teacher from China, who, in November of 2005 walked 49 steps on stainless steel stilts. His name was Samat Imin. This same stilt walker currently holds the world record for 24 hours on stilts at 73 cm high, and is working on beating other stilt walking world records.
Some of the more wacky and weird stilt walkers in the world have played around with other stilt exploration. With Irish dance, tango, and ballet on stilts being among some of the styles of movement being explored. Last year at the National Celtic festival in Australia I was able to be a part of a group who made an attempt at breaking a record for the mass highland fling on stilts. This is a traditional Scottish dance, that we performed along side a large group of pipers in the small town of Port Arlington, Victoria.
There have been a great number of amazing things achieved on stilts of all sizes, by people from all over the world, I am sure that this unique art form will play as much of a part in our future as it has in our past. Who knows where people will go from here.


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