Stilt walking: What It’s Like to be Eight Feet Tall

Thanks to our good friend CJ for this awesome guest blog!  He tells us a lot about his experience as a stiltwalker and what all that entails, it sounds like a ton of fun!

Stilt walkers. You see them at carnivals, theme parks, the circus, wearing big colorful costumes, towering over guests, posing for pictures. They seem so different. Almost alien in their larger than life personas. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you’re just awestruck at the art and magic of what these folks do. To this day, I still am. Who am I? I’m a stilt walker too. My name is CJ Saws, and here’s what it’s like to be in my stilts.

Briefly, I’ve done various entertainment since 2010, including scaring people at Halloween Horror Nights, mall Easter Bunny, and a big bouncy astronaut. I even worked alongside Optimus Prime and the Autobots to defend the Allspark. My resume reads like something out of Big Fish, and every bit of it is hilariously true. I’ve had a charmed life, to say the least, the last few years.

So what’s it REALLY like to walk tall in stilts? For starters, two or three feet up off the ground feels a lot higher than you’d think. When I first started teaching myself to stilt in 2015, I felt like a baby giraffe. Wobbly, teetering, and holding onto the nearest high shelves at Makers Local 256, for dear life. Yes, I started in a machine shop, surrounded by tools, pointy things, flammable things, and a cement floor. Needless to say, that’s some good motivation not to fall down. So far so good on that.

As time wore on, just like learning to ice skate (another love of mine), the body rewires itself to balance and adjust automatically to your new height and movement limitations. When you’re wearing stilts, you can’t bend your ankles due to the leg supports. This goes for drywall stilts, circus peg stilts, etc. That’s why stilt walkers have the walk that looks like you’re slogging through a swamp, or Redstone gate traffic, take your pick. In time, it just becomes natural, as does moving slowly. Move too fast for your agility and balance and it’s timber.

Once you do get used to what you can and can’t do for maneuvering, stilting gets way more fun. Sometimes you can dance, or creep up behind people to surprise them. You can make jokes about having the highest heels at the event. It all depends on how outgoing a personality you have and what bag of people tricks you bring with you to an event. Being a tall character to take pictures with is one thing, but without humor, personality, or engaging the guests around you, you just won’t last as any sort of entertainer.

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Those skills, like any other, come with dedication and practice. They are also vital if you are establishing yourself with local businesses, or beyond. People definitely remember positive experiences and they ask entertainers back to work, repeatedly, as a result. A good rep is very important. Plus, people will go out of their way to come see you too! And that’s good for everybody!

Stilt walking, really is just a taller form of costuming or cosplay. You’re bringing a creative vision to life using different mediums like sewing, leather working, etc. You’re just using more materials. You also have just the same weirdness as any other cosplayer. Parts fall off your costume or need repair. Transporting big costume pieces is tricky, especially if you have a small car like me. Costumes can be hot and uncomfortable.

Costumes can be heavy or off balance (kind of like my humor). The weather can really mess with you at an event. Working your way through crowds and not having your costume damaged can be a trick, especially sans a handler. Drunk people are HIGHLY entertaining! Especially when they don’t see you and jump in surprise. It just never gets old. You also have to be careful if your hips are the same height as people’s heads. That can get as comical as you can imagine (insert Giggity here). Uneven floors, and stuff hanging from ceiling are a lot more important than they used to be. Yes, many of you are nodding and grinning in agreement right now.

Despite all the above, stilting, like any other art/skill, is fun. You love what you do and you want to get better at it. Like anything else, it changes you as you grow. You start to love more of the finer details, or even the origins of the art. You feel accomplished when you get off the starting blocks. Being able to just walk around without feeling like you’ll fall is great! Then you add more skills like sewing costumes or makeup. Then you and your art become more defined. Then, once you are established, and everything is second nature, the real fun begins! After almost two years, I’m at that place and I’m really excited about the future!

At some point you take further steps in your art and craft your own tools of the trade. In November 2016 I built my first set of circus peg stilts at Makers Local 256, the hacker space here in Huntsville. It was exciting and scary to build stilts, for the first time, with little wood working or tool knowledge. The folks at Makers taught me a lot about tools. This helped me save time and build my stilts better, with fewer mistakes. Fast forward to January, I successfully built my peg stilts AND completed a dream: building a quad stilt rig.

20170124_164202Backing up for a second, you might wonder what the difference is between all these stilts. I started on drywall stilts from Alabama Drywall. Drywalls are really just metal scaffolds with a foot so you can stand still. This is a little different from circus peg stilts that have a very small point to stand on. If you don’t keep moving on the latter, you fall over. That’s why some circus people look like they’re dancing. Now a quad stilt is basically a four legged creature looking thing with stilts, usually pegs, on the legs and the arms. A good example of this is Living World Entertainment’s Living Vines, aka DiVine at places like Disney Animal Kingdom. Excuse me while I still fanboy over them for a second…

Building a quad stilt rig, was pretty big accomplishment for me as an artist. Artists, naturally, want to stand out from the crowd (yes I know what I just did there). It’s exciting to have this new platform/tool and do new things with it. It’s also a rarer version of stilting I’ve always loved. It’s big. It’s crazy. It’s weird. It’s kinda like my big mouth and crazy personality. (If you’ve ever met me in person, this is not a surprise at all folks…and the jokes don’t get any better).

So this is what it’s like to be a stilt walker. You learn. You create. You dream. You balance. You love your art and share it. But most of all, you just have fun with it.

Hope to see and meet many of you in the future as I’m out and about! Deep thanks to Geek Out Huntsville for letting me share part of my world and for being just fun folks in general. Grateful.

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