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As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Nik Wallenda: The age of derring-do is far from over Add to ...

To find a real tightrope, I made my way across Toronto to the Centre of Gravity circus school, where a clown/juggler/wire walker named Circus Jonathan had set up a rope three feet off the sidewalk. He was wearing rubber Doc Martens, and could juggle and answer complex questions while walking the wire.

Aygul Memet, a Uyghur-born high wire artist and teacher at the school, was watching. You might recognize Ms. Memet: She recently caused mass hysteria with her circus acts on Canada’s Got Talent.

Uyghurs are famous for their balancing abilities: A Uyghur tightrope walker named Adili Hoshur holds the world record for living on a tightrope – 60 days. Ms. Memet was placed in a circus-training school by the Chinese government at the age of 8.

I tried eight times to walk the wire; I managed four very unsteady steps. But I liked it more than the slackline. It was about discipline as well as balance.

I asked Ms. Memet what she found hardest about tightrope walking. She said: everything.

“Circus is crazy, is not easy. You have to practise eight hours a day. One trick takes years.”

A trim, 5-foot-2, 37-year-old mother in her late 30s, she was wearing her white spangly circus costume. She looked like a cake decoration.

She thought a bit. “The most difficult thing is standing on one leg, with my other leg straight up in the air, while standing on my partner’s head, while he is walking the wire eight metres in the air.” She paused. “It’s impossible to learn without falling over and over again.”

I stopped trying after that.

The problem is physics, as Markus Bussman, a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, explained to me later the same day. Prof. Bussman did not look like a petite wire walker, but was tall and had white hair.

“The tightrope walker has to keep his centre of gravity above the wire. But the wire is swinging, and he’s moving, so his centre of mass is going to be moving,” he explained.

All these factors increase the walker’s angular momentum, as expressed by the formula T=Iw, where T is the moment of torque, I is the moment of inertia, and w is the rate of rotation.

I barely understood a word the man said, through no fault of his own. But the general thrust was clear: “What the tightrope walker wants, in the process of going off centre, is to rotate really slowly, so he has a chance to compensate.”

That’s why, as he walks, Mr. Wallenda will hold a 30-foot, 45-pound (the weight of an average 6-year-old boy) steel balancing pole, attached to a shoulder harness – a way of spreading his centre of gravity wider.

That doesn’t always work. Mr. Wallenda’s great-grandfather Karl, the legend who formed the Flying Wallendas, was using a pole when he fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico in 1978, at the age of 73: The pole got in his way and prevented him from catching the wire.

“He died a year before I was born,” Mr. Wallenda says, “and I’ve seen that video hundreds if not thousands of times. It’s part of our family history.”

That history is littered with deaths: In 1962, at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum, a human pyramid collapsed, killing two Wallendas and paralyzing a third. Karl survived with a broken pelvis. A sister-in-law and son-in-law both died in later high-wire accidents, but the family kept performing.

“Through triumph and tragedy one name in our industry is No. 1, and that’s Wallenda,” the latest scion says. “And it’s not like we’re gonna give up any time soon because of those tragedies.”

Mr. Wallenda and his mother have since performed the walk that killed Karl. At 18, before he decided to follow literally in his family’s footsteps, he wanted to be a pediatrician.

Now, he prays to God when he is out on the wire. “I often just talk. But He’s always listening, that’s for sure.”

Here is the bizarre thing: As hopeless as I was on the tightrope, as soon as I could balance even for a moment, I began to imagine trying to perform NikWallenda’s feat.

The lasting appeal of the high-wire artist over the centuries is that he stays balanced on a narrow path all of us wish we could follow but can’t. And yes, that is a metaphor.

“It’s always been high-wire walkers, the person who works the highest, who has to have the highest level of sustained concentration, who is most respected,” says Ms. Saudek, the American tightropist in France.

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