A Philly Funambulist

My day as the Smerconish.com editor typically starts around 5:30 AM. Coffee in hand and heater on my feet, I review Michael’s list of all the news he wants to talk about that day. As soon as he gives the virtual thumbs up, I start the newsletter. It’s a lengthier process than I’m sure many would assume, and a lot more coordination from our dedicated team in the wee hours of the morning to get it out by 8:00 AM EST. But we always do, and I’m gracious to play a role in what has become routine for thousands of subscribers across the country (and beyond!). After a small breakfast break with my man and gecko, I resume work.

 

I have a long laundry list of administrative tasks, but what I enjoy most is working with writers to publish exclusive content. I have the privilege of reading and providing a space for an endless supply of ideologically diverse perspectives. Whether I ultimately agree with the content or not, it’s gratifying to give a platform to those who want to start a conversation.

 

I love my job. And I need that on record because I’m pretty sure I’m about to put myself on thin ice right now.

 

If you’ve caught me on the program before, you’ve probably heard Michael toting my unofficial world record for tightrope walking in heels, a title I shamelessly highlighted during my initial interview so he would remember me. He also gave me the green light to write an article about my upbringing in the circus and to answer some of the most frequent questions I still receive about tightwire walking… but now it’s doubling as my official “my bad” to my boss.

 

So what just happened? Well… this past Wednesday, I was cruising the web as I normally do for 90% of the day, when I found an article about a young acrobat, Ariana Wunderle (the daughter of the founder of the circus camp I was in as a kid), who broke my record in May of 2022. She walked back and forth on a wire 52 times, shattering my record by 570 FEET.

 

I couldn’t be more proud to hear of Ariana’s incredible accomplishment! But I’m also very embarrassed because of how late I learned this information.

 

Since I was never officially certified by Guinness, they had no obligation to inform me, and it somehow never hit my newsfeed either. So I have been blissfully ignorant for the last nine months. Consequently, I’ve accidentally misreported my record status to everyone –including all the fine people at the UnConvention– and technically got my job over false pretenses.

 

So in an attempt to lighten the delivery of this new information, I’m strategically bumping up the publishing of this piece up to my birthday in the hopes that it will counteract getting in trouble with my boss.

 

I’m just kidding (sort of). In all seriousness, it’s a real honor to be on the Smerconish team, and to be allowed the opportunity to give some context to the absurdity that is my pre-university story. So for those interested, this is how it all happened.

 

PART 1: Timeline

 

I grew up in Somerville, MA, just outside of Boston, but I often visited my grandparents in Cabot, VT (where the cheese lives). Around the age of five, they brought my brother and me to a show called Circus Smirkus. Based out of Greensboro, VT, this big top has toured exclusively with youth-based troupes (ages 10 – 18) around show New England since 1987. But don’t let that fool you into thinking these are mediocre productions; “Smirkos,” as they’re called, are high-level competitive performers. (i.e., Ariana Wunderle)

 

My gateway drug for the rest of my life came in the form of a beautifully agile trapeze artist. Like everyone in the audience, I was entranced by her act’s graceful yet dangerous nature. It was all I could talk about afterward. I just wouldn’t shut up about how badly I wanted to fly, so my mother enrolled me in Smirkus Camp.

 

 

Summer after summer, I got to run away to the big top, where I was taught a curriculum of aerial acrobatics, tumbling, juggling (which I never really took to), and clowning (theater). So no, my parents were not circus folk; they were just ridiculously supportive of my dream and continued to be throughout my youth. (*this is just for my mom, who I know is reading this right now: you made my dreams come true and I love you.)

 

When I turned ten, we moved to Delaware County, PA, where I was able to enroll in the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. My central focus for the next eight years was primarily aerial fabric (the curtain-looking stuff), but I also trained in trapeze, rope, aerial hoop (called lyra), tightrope, and acrobatic adagio. It was really all I did throughout my teens. I didn’t participate in extracurricular clubs or sports, just training and gigs. My folks remained supportive, even allowing me to have an 18.5ft freestanding aerial rig in the backyard. Doing drops from that height was my favorite way to freak out the neighbors.

 

During my senior year, when all my classmates were announcing their college choices, I knew I had no desire to put my performance life on hold for four years. So I moved out and rented a space to train in Port Richmond, Philadelphia. It was never meant to turn into a business, but within two years of networking and renovation, my crappy little space was revamped into Rebel Circus Arts: a training facility for acrobats of all levels. This place was sick! We held classes, workshops and got to host everyone from Cirque du Soleil artists, aerial ice skaters from Disney, cyr wheelers, and even local kids from the area that just wanted to have fun.

 

 

But taking that much administrative responsibility at the age of nineteen was hazardous. My background was in the arts– not finances, liability, maintenance, nor marketing. I learned as I went and had a lot of help from the acro yoga community, but I didn’t realize how much I had taken on until I was suddenly forced to stop. While training on the eve of my 20th birthday, I slipped from an aerial hoop, missed the mat, and cracked the back of my skull open on concrete. (Or at least that was how it was explained to me. I still have no memory of the event itself). The recovery was painful and would have been longer if I hadn’t been so stupidly impatient as to go against the advisement of doctors and jump right back into training. Little did I know then that I had also herniated a disc in my low back. An injury that would continue undetected for the next three years while I was pushing my body to new limits.

 

I reevaluated my path and decided to take a buyout, relinquishing my title of the owner of RCA to my acro yoga friends so that I could, instead, go on tour with a highwire walking troupe. I had already been performing with this troupe’s founders in a separate vaudevillian, family-friendly, traveling show, but when they found out that I had wire experience, they invited me to join their sister company full-time. But when I say “wire experience,” I mean very tame, low-to-the-ground situations. I had never walked above a few feet nor with a balance pole.

 

My very first trial on the highwire was during a live performance where I walked over the Susquehanna River at the Kipona Festival in Harrisburg. The pictures came out quite nicely, given that I was FREAKING THE F*** OUT. The wind was raging, and the height disoriented me. I have no idea what got me through to the other end besides deep breathing and the thought of the crippling embarrassment I’d feel if I had lost balance for just a moment. But, ultimately, all fear turned to euphoria, and whatever self-doubt I may have harbored about whom I was and what I wanted subsided. I was a wire walker– a funambulist.

 

 

To sum up the following years, funambulism became my obsession. Our troupe traveled the states and throughout some Central and South American countries rigging wire installations. We spent a lot of time in Panama. One of the leaders had a property in the mountainous farmlands of Volcán, which we attempted to renovate into a retreat center. I wish I could have stayed; I learned horseback riding, husbandry, construction… we had four dogs and two cats I loved like children! Sadly the project never came to fruition.

 

Back in the states, we still put on the smaller, silly vaudeville show (that’s where the money came from), but my central focus was constantly improving my balance. My performance partner, Rylee, and I became known for our high heels act, which led to the infamous world record break with a big fat asterisk, followed by a feature on an MTV competition show that was a spinoff of Rob Dyrdek’s “Ridiculousness.” It was promptly canceled after low ratings but still aired in France, where I was inexplicably labeled as “Stabitha” from Portland.

 

 

In 2018, I decided to walk away from the troupe. Behind the scenes, our team dynamic had been falling apart for a while, and we couldn’t make any more progress without conflict. It’s a complicated history I wish I could explain in more detail, but this text is long enough. So, after four years of circus-ing all over the place, I finally enrolled at Temple University, where I studied media, got a job slinging tacos in Manayunk, made some real-world friends, found out my disc was herniated and had to relearn to move, fell in love with my fitness coach, and got a job post-grad working for your favorite SiriusXM show host, where I now perform a different type of balance delivered daily.

 

PART 2: Lightning Round Wire FAQ

 

How do you stay up there, and how much do the poles/fans help?

The weight of a balance pole (which varies depending on your size) increases your moment of inertia by placing mass far away from your body’s center line and allowing you to correct yourself by countering torque. But their heaviness makes it tricky to do any fast, dynamic movements. So, while fans require advanced skill, they let you do more “dancey” stuff.

*Tip: if you want to get really good at this, start off training freehand with no balance aid.

Keep your eyes centered on one point (always look forward, NOT DOWN), your abs squeezed, you’re your mind calm. Highwire requires just as much –if not more– mental training as physical.

 

Is it like slacklining?

There’s some overlap, but it’s also kind of the opposite. Since there is significantly less tension on a slackline, it requires you to be more dynamic and move with the line, whereas the tautness in a tightrope requires more of a static equilibrium. I can’t slackline very well; it’s too confusing for my muscle memory.

 

What happens if you fall?

You abandon whatever balance aid is in your hand and do your damndest to catch the wire.

 

What are the extra wires for in the setup?

Those perpendicular lines attached to the walk cable are called cavallettis, tension lines meant to stabilize the walk cable and prevent torque. Up-and-down bounce is fine while walking, but any wobble from side to side is dangerous.

Do you put a groove in your heels?

No, Michael. Why do you keep asking me this? My heels are just ballroom shoes with thin leather soles so I can feel the wire better with my toes.

 

Why are you giving the finger in so many pictures?

I swear I’m not! I’ve had to defend this cursed camera angle so many times that I need it on record that these were meant to be salutes… not birds!

 

What’s the hardest trick to do?

Pointe shoes or anything blindfolded.

 

What’s the scariest thing you’ve done?

Walking over people.

Who’s the best at this?

With apologies to my Wallenda friends, I must say Sarah Schwarz. She’s a magnificent German tightrope artist with superhuman balance and elegant moves. Always and forever, my inspiration.

 

If you broke the world record for the farthest tightrope walk in heels in 2017, why didn’t Guinness World Records certify you?

It’s complicated, and if anyone wants to buy me a drink after Dry January, I’d be happy to regale you with the soap opera that was trying to coordinate this event within our semi-dysfunctional funambulist troupe. But ultimately, it started to rain during the performance, thus making the video evidence too grainy for Guinness World Records to certify.

Also, I wasn’t the only one that broke the record that day. My performance partner, Rylee Gallagher, also walked after my attempt. She braved the rain while looking like a runway model, reaching the end with the biggest smile. When she came down from the latter, we ran into each other’s arms. It was one of the best days of my life because we got to accomplish it together. (*Rylee if you ever end up reading this: call me. I miss you)

 

 

Where do you train now?

Fire for Effect Athletics in Manayunk. It’s the best veteran-owned and operated gym in Philadelphia. They focus on no-nonsense functional fitness, and have been overwhelmingly supportive of allowing me to introduce circus into their space. They’re the only ones allowed to call me a carnie.

 

When are we going to see Michael Smerconish on a tightrope?

Well if I’m not in trouble, I believe he’s just waiting on finding a pair of purple tights. But to be continued…

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