Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk across the Niagara Falls is astounding for two reasons—and not just for traipsing in leather-soled slippers across a two-inch-thick wire 170 feet above tumbling waters. The gorge, after all, has been rope-walked 16 times (11 have survived), although not for the last two centuries, and Nik already has two Guinness records, one with his family and a solo one for traveling the longest distance and greatest height by bicycle on a wire.
The first bewildering fact is that seven Wallenda generations have survived a familial predisposition to hover high in the air above certain death. The second is even more astonishing: how a 21st-century audience might still marvel at a man who considers courting death a performance art. Audiences are gathering, and searches on Yahoo! have been breathlessly rising about the stunt and the Wallenda name ("nik wallenda niagara falls," "wallenda," "niagara falls tightrope," "the flying wallendas").
In our pleasure palace of cinematic body doubles, televised jackassery, and digitized adventures, Nik's a throwback to those days of daredevils who performed for live audiences. While even a Wallenda has to compromise for sponsors (he's wearing a harness), his trip to Niagara reminds us what the human body can still do, given the obsession, the opportunity, and a few generations of persistence.
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Daredevilry, a history: Devil-may-care antics go back as long as man has been around. Often invention and thrillseekers were one, How Stuff Works explains: Frenchman Andre-Jacques Garnerin created the first hot-air balloon and promptly leapt 3,200 feet from one and 8,000 from another, becoming the first parachutist. (His wife Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin was the first female parachutist.) Ascending great heights was the trick of barnstormers following World War I, and a few pilots decided to walk wings and do trapeze acts. The first human cannonball in 1877 was a 14-year-old girl, who later traveled with the P.T. Barnum Circus.
A funambulist family: The Wallenda name has been associated with risk and showmanship back at least to the late 1790s, when the Austrian-Hungarian family traveled about the region showing feats of derring-do, acrobatics, and even animal training. They burst into the American imagination and camped there in 1928 after a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance that reportedly gained a 15-minute standing ovation. In the 1940s, the seven-person chair pyramid atop a high wire emerged as "The Flying Wallendas" signature piece.
The family hadn't always defied death. In 1962, two died in Detroit executing the chair pyramid. Rietta Wallenda suffered a fatal fall a year later. The family patriarch, Karl Wallenda, also fell to his death in 1978—a moment his great-grandson studied repeatedly.
Nik Wallenda's technically a Troffer: His father is Terry Troffer and his mother Delilah Wallenda, but maternal family acclaim trumps patrilineage. Showmanship runs in his blood from both sides: His parents recreated the seven-person pyramid in 1998. Nik's wife Erendira comes from generations of circus performers (in her case, the flying trapeze), and the two perform "water stunts, diving, and other daredevil exploits." Troffer or Wallenda, a high-flying legacy seems guaranteed:
Nik and Erendira have three children, Yanni, Amadaos, and Evita, who, stunningly, have DNA passed down from 25 generations of circus performers. Which leads to the family's most ambitious dream: for Nik to honor the memory of his great-grandfather Karl, and walk across the Grand Canyon. He has already secured the permits. (Nik Wallenda website)
Victorian masculinity in the modern age?: How does an old-fashioned daredevil survive in a postmodern world? "We live in an amplified culture of celebrity, where there are all kinds of ways to hijack attention," Northwestern University assistant professor Jacob Smith, who wrote "The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance," tells Yahoo!. "[Wallenda's stunt] does seem like an anachronistic performance in this day and age." Daredevils peaked at the turn of the century before Hollywood stole their thunder, and some became relegated to stunt doubles while actors claimed the fame.
In our risk-averse days, stuntmen take pains to say how their technical expertise makes seemingly heart-pumping actions quite safe. Computer artists diminish jeopardy even more. Then you have the "Jackass" reality that embraces and ridicules peril. Male audiences may still drawn to male risk-takers but "we don't feel the same way about male heroism," Smiths says. "It seems kind of goofy or out of place." Nik, in the meantime, seems a quaint "Victorian embodiment of bravery."
Daredevil optimism: As for Nik's venture to Niagara, Smith says of daredevils, "They all go to the falls eventually." Its sheer immensity isn't just a challange, but a way of showing how a single human being can conquer a natural phenomenon. The urban space equivalent is bridge-jumping and scaling skyscrapers—such as when Philippe Pettit strung a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974, later inspiring the Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire."
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Of all things, Smith says, "It's very optimistic."
Challenging mortality is optimistic? That is what has pushed the Wallendas for seven generations and daredevils across the ages—a sense of showmanship, dreams, and a crazy optimism about what the human body can do against any obstacle, natural or manmade. "It's more anticipation and eagerness," Nik said at a press conference, but it's coming down to the wire, no pun intended...There may be some tears because this is a dream of mine."