A Centuries-Old Tightrope Walking Tradition Lives On In Remote Russian Villages

Tucked away in the mountains of Dagestan, elders are passing down their high-wire skills to keep this colorful tradition alive.

Photograph by Jérémie Jung, National Geographic
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Patimat Alibegova takes her first delicate steps along a wire set up for training in her family’s garden in the tiny Azar village of Karachi. If a gust of wind blows her off balance, no safety will break her fall.
Photograph by Jérémie Jung, National Geographic

With the wild-sounding woodwinds and pounding drums of a Dagestani folk song blaring, a slender young man dressed in an embroidered vest, white shirt, and close-fitting trousers grips a 20-foot titanium pole for balance and steps off a tiny platform 12 feet above the bare wooden stage.

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Students from the Ogni Circus School demonstrate consummate prowess at the 2017 Dagestan Festival of Culture in the ancient seaside town of Derbent.

With consummate grace he saunters out onto the wire. Looking straight ahead, he launches into a folk dance on the wobbling cable. His kicks and knee bends culminate in similar moves carried out, amazingly, supine. On one leg he rises to augment his high-wire capers with Cossack-style jumps. Then he steps backward to regain the platform.

He hands his pole to a young woman in florid traditional attire and a white head scarf. She steps out, as does her female counterpart from the opposite tower, prancing toward each other, never looking down, performing their own dance.

They wear no safety ropes, and there’s no net. Dancing backward, they return to their towers, waving to the (imagined) crowd before climbing down.

Astonishment at their skill, mixed with dread of their falling, has so quickened my pulse that I’ve broken into a sweat. Turning to Askhabali Gasanov, the mustachioed trainer and manager of this troupe, the Dagestani Eagles, I ask the most obvious question, “How can they not be afraid up there with no net below?”

“Fear can never be a companion to a Dagestani tightrope walker,” Gasanov shoots back. “Never.” He turns off the laptop controlling the music. “That’s enough for now!” he shouts. The performers descend from the stage.

We’re in the dilapidated Tatam Muradov Dagestan State Philharmonic, a few blocks from the turquoise-silver waters of the Caspian Sea, in Makhachkala, the hectic, ramshackle capital of the Russian republic of Dagestan.

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Balancing a pitcher atop her head, 12-year-old Anisat Tamai trains in the Pehlivan Circus Studio in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala. Her coach, Askhabali Gasanov, is himself a veteran of the rope.

Gasanov trains his troupe under the aegis of his Pehlevan Circus Studio, which has 13 current and potential performers. Today he’s been overseeing a dress rehearsal of the Eagles, who tour Russia often and have won prizes in Dagestan and competed in Moscow. (They’ve had to decline invitations to perform farther afield for lack of travel funds.)

Their repertoire includes acts, some involving three people, with hoops and blindfolds and walkers standing atop one another’s shoulders, running backward and forward, or performing with feet tied together. To reach their level of skill, almost daily training is required and no small measure of innate poise—and equipoise.

LAND OF MOUNTAINS

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Tightrope walking, says local lore, originated not as a form of entertainment but as a way to get across the gorges and ravines of Dagestan, which means "land of mountains".

Some say tightrope walking got started here as a way to negotiate the remote region’s mountainous terrain. (Dagestan means “land of mountains.”) “One day,” Gasanov explains, “Ali shouted to his neighbor on the other side of the gorge, ‘Hey, Ahmed, come over for a visit. Just throw a rope and walk across!’”

Yes, says Sergey Manyshev, a local historian. “Tightrope walking began in the 19th century as a way for warriors to cross between cliffs.”

Traditionally the village of Tsovkra Pervaya—where in 1935 enterprising artisans turned the practice into a spectacle that would become popular at weddings, holiday events, and local festivities—has been thought of as the homeland of Dagestani tightrope walking. But, in fact, it likely developed in other, more rugged parts of this remote land.

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“I’ve been doing this for 13 years. I’ve never fallen!” says Ibragim, Gasanov’s son, a 24-year-old stripling with a chiseled chin and dark brown eyes who has just danced the jig atop the wire.

“But aren’t you afraid of falling?”

“I never fear! Never!”

“So far,” Gasanov interjects, “praise be to God, none of my students has fallen! And we put our trust in God that none will!”

I find this hard to believe. Never? (Falling would be my first move for sure.) When I press him gently on the matter, he admits that a couple once lost their balance on the wire but landed without injury.

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Grounded by a spring storm approaching the village of Khunzakh, three of Magomed Askhabali's young disciples shelter in his car, awaiting his permission to return to the ropes.

And, he says, “One fellow fell off a 23-foot-high wire, but he flipped over in the air and landed on his feet. He even finished by waving to his audience!”

That sort of aplomb characterizes Gasanov’s acts, which always conclude with his Eagles gallantly somersaulting or striding out to salute their public.

WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A FUNAMBULIST

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In an abandoned theater on Makhachkala's Caspian waterfront, two of the Pehlivan Circus Studio's 30 students practice a duo on the tightrope. Coach Askhabali Gasanov, seated below, observes.

Fearlessness aside, one of Gasanov’s students suffered a case of the jitters the day of my visit—understandably because she was negotiating the wire effectively blindfolded by a burka-like headdress. Noting that she was walking slightly bent forward, Gasanov, intuiting her nervousness, positioned himself to spot her, just in case she fell. But she finished without incident.

“Fear of heights,” says Abdulkerim Kurbanov, director of the state-financed Republic School of Circus Arts, “prevents a number of students from taking up tightrope walking.”

The school was founded by his father in 1969, in Dagestanskiye Ogni, a small town on the Caspian coast about a hundred miles south of Makhachkala. According to Kurbanov, with Dagestan’s rising birth rate, “more and more students are joining our school.”

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Double, or even triple, jeopardy: Coach Askhabali spots students Ashkhab Gitinomagodev and Ibragim Khalil as they prepare to transport Patimat Murtazalieva down the rope. As usual, no safety net exists to catch the trio if they should lose their balance.

He oversees 16 instructors who train 180 children both before and after regular school hours. They often take the stage at local events, including the prestigious ones held in the nearby historic Derbent fortress. (Some of his students prefer to take up the other circus skills on offer, like juggling or gymnastics.) The major Russian television network NTV recently filmed Kurbanov’s funambulists in action—their most significant recognition to date.

At a training session, Albert Farkhatov, one of the instructors, tells me that teaching students how to fall is vital. Six-year-old Adam Zengiev demonstrates, imitating a head-first fall, with his chin tucked into his neck and hands clasped behind to protect the head.

Then he does a mock landing on his feet as if from a height. “Note,” Farkhatov says, “that he lands on his tiptoes, not his heels. The shock of landing on your heels can damage your kidneys.”

His students usually warm up with stretching and gymnastics. Those gutsy enough to try tightrope walking generally make their first forays onto the wire as early as the first day. They start with ropes stretched about five feet above the ground, then at nine feet, and they end up practicing on the 10-foot-high wire. They train with safety ropes run through hooks bolted to the ceiling and looped through belts around their waists.

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In just her third week on the wire in the Tightrope School of Tsovkra, a remote mountain village, a brave novice in bright green, nine-year-old Fatima Gadzhieva, struggles to keep her balance, as two more experienced students watch her.

Four students I watch tell me about falls, which although checked by their trainer or by the ropes, resulted in scratches, sprained backs, or pulled leg muscles. They shrug off these mishaps, but 13-year-old Esli Rajabova does admit to “trembling with fear for a month out on the rope.” But she pressed on and now performs expertly—and fearlessly.

Some acts, Farkhatov says, such as performing with feet tied or climbing a ladder atop another tightrope walker, are thought to be too dangerous for female students. I ask why, and he vaguely alludes to how it might harm their reproductive organs.

The students practice in an auditorium like any other in a high school, but for the circus ring and tightrope strung between two towers. I watch as they attach themselves to the safety rope, climb the tower, and begin their routine. They proceed somewhat hesitantly along the wire, balancing with their pole, and bounce up and down or do splits. One young woman places a half-full plastic water bottle atop a traditional flat-topped Dagestani headdress and confidently walks the rope. The bottle stays put.

After the session I chat with the students. What motivates them? They say they learned about the Republic School of Circus Arts by word of mouth, checked it out, and, intrigued, signed up.

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Supine but not resting, a student of trainer Albert Farkhativ, of the Ogni Circus School, practices a complex routine on the high wire. The school is the mountain region's only such institution.

“I love performing before a crowd,” Anna Khanoun says. “I want to show them what I can do. The important thing for me is that I’m setting goals and achieving them, always pushing myself to go further.”

Diana Kerimova, 14, concurs, adding that “achieving goals in life is a good thing!”

In Dagestan in recent years, Islamists have been pushing people to adopt more conservative ways that discourage women from performing in public. But as long as the women tightrope artists are covered in traditional Dagestani dress (not scantily clad in circus tights), no one seems to object.

Farkhatov says he got interested in performing because he grew up with a tightrope in his yard. “My brothers and sisters and neighbors all walked it,” he says.

The students smile and ask me to photograph them with my iPhone. This I’m happy to do. They have a lot to be proud of.

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Sulak Canyon, outside the village of Dubki, is said to be the deepest gorge on Earth. The river that runs down it provides water and hydroelectricity for Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital.