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African-stilts

Stiltwalking has been part of legends, rituals and festivals from around the world for millennia, especially in celebrations of growth and achievement, or just for having a high old time! Young & old alike gravitate to a stilted character towering head and feet above the crowd.

The following history, stories and poetry on stiltwalking has been gleaned from many sources. I have tried to credit all of the sources I know. If you have other information, stories and pictures of interest to others, by all means send them to me, and I will post them, with credit and link to your web page if you wish.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Excerpts from Stilts,
by S. Carl Hirsch,
Illustrated by Betty Fraser

China’s Liao River is an unruly stream that has often flooded its banks. The town of Newchwang owes its custom of stiltwalking to those days when the river water lay deep in its streets and covered the surrounding farms.

The Liao has since changed its course, leaving the town high and dry. But stilts are still among the traditions of Newchwang and remain dear to the hearts of its people.

Each New Year the town holds a pageant amid fireworks and lively music and colorful costumes. It is a parade on stilts. The main attraction is a twisting, rearing dragon, with its many long legs mounted on poles.

China’s stiltwalkers go back thousands of years in time. Stilting is also an old tradition among people whose customs differ greatly from those of the Orient.

Stilts are part of legends from around the globe. Stiltwalkers clearly shown in decorations on ancient ruins. Black slaves brought stiltwalking to America...In digs of Benin civilization in Nigeria is a large beautiful plaque showing sword-carrying stiltwalker.

Half a world away in the Mexican state of Yucatan, some temple decorations of the ancient Mayan Indians were discovered only a few years ago. Clearly depicted were men on stilts who took part in religious ceremonies and dances. These stilt-dancers were supposed to bring good luck. Such rituals are still to be seen in the southern part of Mexico. Masked men dance for hours on four-foot stilts, performing according to ageless custom.

From the legends of ancient Rome come stories of street dancers on stilts who appealed to the gods. The dancers, dressed in costumes made of many-colored patches, were called grallae in Latin. The same word is used today as the scientific name for certain long-legged wading birds.

It is easy to understand why stilts were used especially in those rituals which celebrated the growing up of young people. In what is now Tanzania in East Africa, an old rite centered around a tribal dancer who was called the man in the treetop. Standing high on his stilts, he would pray that the young people of the tribe might grow tall and healthy and reach the very height of their ambitions.

Still another kind of religious ceremony has been carried on in the Central Provinces of India, where the shortage of food has long been a problem. A dance on stilts is performed each spring along with the sowing of seeds. The gods are asked to make the crops grow as tall as the stiltwalkers.

One of the oddest of folk tales about stilts comes from New Zealand. As do people everywhere, the Maoris sometimes lose things. Household items seem to disappear without a trace. To explain the mystery, people tell the fable of the thieving devils, who are pictured as going about stealthily on stilts. These mischief makers, it is said, reach into people’s houses, snatch things, and vanish -- without ever leaving a telltale footprint!

Land of the stilt people

On the seacoast of southern France lies a soggy region called Les Landes. Changing seasonally from salt marsh to damp plain, much of it is neither land nor water. For centuries its people found their own strange way to live with wetness. They relied on stilts.

Propped up on stilts, the shepherds tended their flocks. The mail carrier made his rounds, stumping on his stilts from dawn to sundown. Stiltwalking housewives, chatting in the market in their black clothes, were said to resemble large ravens perched on dead branches.

As for the children of Les Landes, they did their chores, went to school, carried on their play and sports--all on stilts. There were days when they hardly ever seemed to touch ground. No wonder they became the most skillful stiltwalkers in the world.

A young baker of Les Landes named Silvain Dornon even strode his way into fame. In the spring of 1891 Silvain set out on an odd journey. Towering on his stilts, he began walking eastward across France and beyond. He was an astonishing sight as he stalked through the villages, over the mountains, and across the farmlands of country after country. Silvain moved rapidly, taking great strides. He was out to make a record that no one has equaled to this day. The young baker ended his stiltwalking tour in Moscow fifty-eight days later, having covered a distance of more than two thousand miles!

Tricks with Sticks

...In many a land stilts have sprouted suddenly in the rainy season. People have used them to ford swollen streams and to pass through flooded areas.

Such use is made of them still during the early spring in villages of southwestern Germany. The same idea occurred to the people of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. During the period of heavy rains, stilts are the fashion.

In the Sudan the Ekoi people tell a story about a wise old man. He had been working on his little farm, planting yams. But the day was hot, and the ground was like a griddle, burning his bare feet. The old farmer sat under a tree and whittled a few branches. Soon he had some walking sticks on which he could carry out his planting in comfort. And it is said this was how the custom of wearing short stilts was begun in that sun-baked African land.

There are islands off Asia where, because of the ocean tides, the houses are built high above the ground. Some of these islanders have found a way to visit from one house to another without endlessly climbing ladders. They move among these stilt houses on stilts of their own!

Many stories have come down to us about battles won and lost because of stilts. One such tale recounts how invading soldiers on stilts crossed a wide moat and stormed a British castle. Still another "tall story" of the past comes from Spain. It tells of a walled city, well protected from its enemies--until a clever commander attacked it with an army on stilts.

In modern times it is common to see a stiltwalker advertising some event or product or service. Sometimes he appears high above the jam-packed city streets, carrying a sign or shouting his message or showering the crowd with handbills.

Recently the town of Pasadena, CA, was getting ready for its annual Rose bowl parade. As usual huge throngs gathered in the morning along the line of march. For anyone without a front row place, One family came on stilts for ringside seats!

One of the greatest clowns of all time was Ray Harris. He was the star-spangled performer in the giant circus that opened in San Diego in the spring of 1938.

Harris’s specialty was high jinx on high stilts. But his biggest moment did not occur during a performance in the sawdust ring. It came between the acts and behind the scenes, as he was standing on his stilts in a narrow corridor that ran from the big top to the wild animal cages.

From his vantage point Harris could see that something was wrong. Just ahead, the plumed horses were acting strangely, snorting nervously and rearing on their haunches. The tension was being picked up by the herd of elephants just behind him, who were milling about, trumpeting in fear.

Suddenly a cry rang out--"Tiger escaped!" Harris looked down at the commotion. Men and animals had backed away from him in terror. Beneath him, between his stilts, was the giant striped cat, crouched and snarling!

The clown had to look twice before he remembered that it was his wooden legs and not his real ones that were down there next to the tiger. But the danger was great enough. Harris knew that the beast might easily set off a stampede in which he would be crushed to death.

At that moment the circus manager arrived with his pistol drawn. He fired several times, trying to chase the tiger back toward its cage. From his high perch Harris watched the bullets thudding around his stilt legs. Slowly the tiger was forced back into its cage.

It was a shaky clown who finally came down to earth. Stunting on high stilts can be a risky business, but never before had Ray Harris felt so weak in his wooden knees.

Mr. Highpockets

Mr. Highpockets, a familiar type of long-legged clown, may be found where the fun is. He is at the carnival and the county fair. He is seen at Halloween. He leads the Thanksgiving Day parade that opens the holiday season in New York City. And he is there at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Often he is wearing an Uncle Sam suit, his striped, baggy breeches flapping around his skinny legs. However, this kind of comic also shows up at festivals and fun shows all over the world, from Rome to Tokyo and from Bombay to Buenos Aires.

The earliest circuses were staged in the ancient towns along the Mediterranean Sea. A kind of Pied Piper on stilts can still be seen in some Italian ports leading the children of the town to a plaza where a small traveling circus puts on its lively show.

One famous big-top performer lives in London near Piccadilly Circus, which is not a circus at all but a busy circular area in the heart of the city. Harry Yelding claims to hold the world’s record as the master of the tallest stilts of all.

This clown performs on a pair that measures twenty-two feet from his ankles to the ground. Yelding sometimes strolls through the London streets, window-shopping in third-story windows.

Walking Ladders

In the fruit orchards of California they have a saying, "One pair of stilts is worth a dozen ladders."

That’s why stilts are commonly used by growers of peaches, plums, and apricots. On aluminum stilts, these fruit farmers can prune and harvest their trees in the most handy manner.

Often these are triple stilts, each one made of three aluminum poles joined together like a three-legged stool., Two long poles are strapped to the sides of the leg just below the knee. The third piece is shorter and extends from the underside of the footrest to the ground. When the farmer mounts his walking ladders, every part of the tree is within his reach.

A few years ago in Phoenix, AZ, Bob Skaggs made makeshift stilts for lath & plastering. Then he opened a factory supplying bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, painters, and plasterers with aluminum stilts.

In Europe, thatched roofs are repaired on stilts. Hops harvesters in England use stilts. In Toronto there is a large factory where outdoor window washing is done on stilts. In southern France, an artist has been at work for years decorating the inside of a chapel -- painting while on stilts.

Play’s the Thing

Among western Indian tribes, children played on stilts of forked branches. In the South Pacific, island people still tell of stilt races that were enjoyed in the old days. Boys and girls of all ages ran like large storks along the beaches. On festival days stilt races were spirited events, and the winners were honored with prizes.

On the island of Tahiti, each player kicks with his stilt at a stilt of his opponent, trying to bring him to earth.

In Nigeria, it is usually the boys who are on stilts, trying to outdo each other in their stunts. They hop on one stilt, vie to outreach each other, and compete in their skill at stilting with no hands.

Play on stilts sometimes mimics the creatures seen in nature -- the daddy longlegs spider, the tall wading birds, the giraffe.

The Bamboo Horse

It is common to see Japanese boys & girls walking through newly fallen snow on their bamboo stilts. There are special bamboo horse games which are played only in the winter months. Other games are for the season of heavy rains, when only the most skillful young stilters manage to stay up out of the puddles.

Sometimes there is a contest to see who can take the longest step. ...Adults often speak of a close childhood companion in these works: "He was a friend of my bamboo horse."

Tall Tales from Other Sources:

Trinidad Stiltwalkers ClubA friend from Trinidad tells of very tall, festively costumed stiltwalkers in the Marde Gras parades there, where over 50,000 masqueraders parade through the streets. In Trinidad and the Virgin Islands, the stiltwalkers are called "Moka Jumbie" (pronounced Moku Jamby), meaning something like, "Giant Spooks" - related to Voodoo's "Mumbo Jumbo". Naughty children are told, "If you don't behave, the Moka Jumbie will get you!"

Moko Jumbie fromThis Moko Jumbie stilt walker dances in the sand to entertain guests and chase away evil spirits at Hurchell Greenaway's Harbormaster Beach Club Barbecue on Protestant Cay in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

The name means "dancing spirit", and these 12-foot-high stilt walkers appear at street festivals and at Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, and during religious ceremonies in West Africa. Wearing special costumes and masks which add to their mystery, the Moko Jumbie is both feared and revered. Because of their great height they are seen as all-powerful figures accompanied by joyous music and feelings of awe.

"Mocko" by the way, is a West Indian word for "make believe".

Moko Jumbie-Sheraton202

 

My experiences as a Moka Jumbie with thousands of children over the years have led me to a tall speculation of my own. Did Giants roam the earth in ancient times, striking terror in the hearts of puny humans who crossed their path? Is there a genetic memory of this lodged in our cells, close to the surface in dreamy little toddlers? The reason for this speculation is the reaction of some one-to-two-year-olds -- They refuse to look at me, even look my way, and when their enthusiastic parent turns their head for them to see me, they refuse to look at all, or become quite distraught. Fortunately, they soon outgrow this stage, and terror is replaced by fascination and wonder!

< Picture on left is my Moko Jumbie costume, dancing to my son Ian’s Steel Drum Band at the Seattle Sheraton Ballroom.

 

STILT STORIES FROM OLD ANTHROPOLOGICAL WRITINGS

I have collected many narratives of native stiltwalking traditions from around the world.  I am sorry that many of them have no reference to the source of the articles.
 

This story is dated October, 1951, by Ralph E. Ogden:
Action and Excitement

Of all the dances native to Mexico, the seldom-performed Stilt Dance is unique.  Masked Indian men, some in feminine dress, and all in odd tatterdemalion costumes, dance for hours on four-foot stilts with only a few short pauses for rest, and never a tumble, as seen right.
This stilt dance is one of the oldest Indian dances and its origin and significance are lost in the dim mists of antiquity

mexican stilt-dancers-old scan03

dated March-April, 1944, in MAN

STILT-WALKING AMONG THE MURIAS OF BASTAR STATE, by Verrier Elwin

The use of stilts during the rains is common throughout central India and no doubt elsewhere1, and it has been suggested that the practice has some magical significance aimed at encouraging the crops to grow.
’The Geeree,’ says Col. Ward, describing the custom in Mandla’, ‘can hardly be called a festival: it is remarkable more for its absurdity than anything else, and is left to the children to celebrate.  This they do by walking about the place on stilts for some days, praising the institution of the Geeree or stilts, as placing them above

 

http://www.um.edu.ar/orillas/galeria/ghana-d.htm

GHANA: Report from educator William Asamoah Parbi and students (ages 15-18) at Accra High School in Accra, Ghana.

This is a photograph of a cultural display of my countrymen -- a man dressed in female costume standing on a Stilt. Stilt

walking is a traditional display as a form of entertainment in Ghana by the people of Winneba.

Research on the mathematics involved in stilt walking

Responses from an interview we conducted during the holidays have shown that experience is an important factor in maintaining balance on the stilt. As such all those who used to walk on the stilt gained their experience from childhood. It started as a recreation and as they practiced they gained their experience. It was also revealed that certain factors needed to be considered before selecting a stilt to walk on. Such factors include the weight of the stilt walker, the length, diameter and weight of the stilt. Also, for one to walk with the stilt he needs to raise the legs a few times in order to transmit the load of the stilt onto his thigh muscle. It does not only consume much energy but it also requires concentration to be able to stand on it. Actually one needs to concentrate and meditate a few days ahead of time.

The research has also shown that "Dantai" is the wood used (because it can bend like that of the cane) however any other wood can be used. The male "Dantai" is stronger than the female so the male is mostly preferred. What is interesting about "Dantai" is that it can bend like cane without breaking. It's only when it is too dry that it breaks or when it is stretched beyond its elastic limit. The wood after it has been cut need to be seasoned to make it a bit light so that it can be used but care must be taking not to make it too dry. A special Carpenter is employed to work on the foot lap. Foot lap is the base on which stilt walkers place their foot before it is tied with a rope.

On the average, the length of the wood should be 280cm, diameter 6cm and 5cm respectively. This is so because the wood has top face and bottom face; the top face is tapered to the base hence the difference in the diameter. The height of the person who stands on the stilt is very important such that when the person is tall he needs to use a shorter stilt. However, on the average one needs to be about 1.66m tall. Again, on the average the weight of the stilt walker should be 66kg and that of the stilt 75kg.

The tensile strength of the stilt using the averages should be 233.5 N/M2. This will however depend on the weight of the person and cross sectional area of the stilt chosen. The tensile strength is inversely proportional to the cross sectional area so that the smaller the cross sectional area the greater the tensile strength. Again, the force that is expected to exert on the stilt should be 66.0 N on the average. It is also observed that at the point of equilibrium the gravitational potential energy is a constant. However, the kinetic energy is not constant for as soon it becomes constant the person will fall. In spite of these, the sum of the kinetic energy and the gravitational force acting at a point in time should be a constant.

There are various costumes used; what is in this project is a male dressed like a woman. When the stilt is too long, its centre of gravity reduces and as such, care must be taken to avoid falling by cutting the stilt to the required dimension. It is alleged that some of them fall on slippery grounds as such some of the stilt walkers are learning to balance on slippery grounds. The following specifications can be of use as others think of using plastic instead of wood. In that case, the volume should be about 0.79m3 and weight about 75kg.

 

NAME

HEIGHT OF STILT WALKER

LENGTH OF STILT

WGT OF STILT

WGT. OF STILT WALKER

DIAMETER TOP FACE/ BOTTOM FACE

AKWETE

162CM

280.4CM

74KG

65.5KG

6CM/5CM

MIKRONG

170CM

336.0CM

75KG

66.5KG

7CM/6CM

KOW ATTAH

165CM

270.0CM

74.5KG

65.4KG

6CM/5CM

KWESI TUNTUM

164CM

250.0CM

75.0KG

64.5KG

6CM/5CM

KOFI POH

150CM

264.0CM

74.6KG

65.5KG

5CM/4CM

AVERAGE

162.2CM

280.08CM

74.6KG

65.48KG

6CM/5CM

If there is any further information as to how we came by the specification do not hesitate to get me informed.

William Parbi.

 

Mali ~ Fête des Masques - April
The Dogons are famous for their masks and during the five-day event many of them are used in ritual ceremonies that go back more than 1000 years . At each Sigui festival, a new ceremonial mask is carved especially for the occasion, then placed in the Tellem caves. Remnants of these masks going back hundreds of years have been found in the caves.
 

From a private letter 1999 from West Africa (Mali):


After all of the other VIP's arrived we went in procession to the stadium where the festival was waiting to begin for the honcho's to get there... including us.   The place was packed.    We drove right into the stadium around the track to the other side where front row center seats were saved for us--nice to be a part of an ambassador's group! Within five minutes a parade of all of the outlying village people in costume and the center of attention the mask of each village--each had a couple of minutes to do their dance right in front of us.    The masks are a very spiritual item of the village--no important decision in the village is made without first conferring with the mask (obviously someone is behind the mask--but the mask has its own persona--the person is just the vehicle).    The Grand Mask was quite a big one and had not been out in public for the past fifty years.   The wearer of the masks not only wore the mask but also huge grass skirts--many times they had a staff in each hand to support them.    The masks were garish and usually painted red, white or black.   Some villages had troupes of dancers and singers.  There were a few acrobatics groups of men a girls 3 to 5 years old. The men threw the girls around as if they were battons--looked pretty hard on the young girls' backs but that was not their only hazard beyond being dropped--as the girls were being flung around long knives were waved around just missing the girls--these acrobatic groups are well known in the area and when a girl joins a group she leaves her family till she is too old--then she returns to her family again.   The part we all liked the most were the men on the stilts--also well known from this area.    They were great!  Their legs are tied to the 6 to 12 foot high stilts and then tight pants are worn over legs and stilts making them look like they have very long legs.    They wear a black stocking mask over their faces and usually bright colors to help them stand out--as if being about 18 feet in the air did not have them stand out in the crowd.    The amazing thing was that they could do amazing maneuvers on the stilts--very graceful and dramatic.   They would twirl around on one stilt with the other flung out straight behind them!  The crowd would roar with approval.   We stayed for about three hours and then returned after a bit of a rest and lunch.   After we left we heard one stilt walker fell and broke his leg.   The other unique group were the men with the snakes. It was amazing and kind of creepy to watch him wrap these big black snakes around him and then shove a couple of small ones plus a huge black scorpion in his mouth!
 

For a fascinating history of Stiltwalking records and amazing accomplishments, see “Stretch Coleman’s” excellent web site.