Dagestan’s Last Tightrope Walkers: A Photo Essay
Dagestan, a mountainous republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, has long been known for its tradition of tightrope walking.
Now the preserve of a few devoted practitioners, it is said that the practice was originally born out of the need for mountain peoples to commute between different auls, or villages.
As legend goes, locals simply strung up ropes between mountains and walked over valleys — or, perhaps more likely, over collapsed bridges — out of convenience, rather than any artistic pursuit.
While there are several villages with tightrope walkers in Dagestan, Tsovkra is considered by many to be the birthplace of the visually appealing and immensely technical art. One man in the village continues to teach it — Ramazan Gadzhiyev. He currently runs a school dedicated to keeping the tradition alive, but he says he may not continue for long.
Here is a scene from the life of the mountain village:
Ramazan Gadzhiyev, Tsovkra’s sole remaining tightrope walking instructor. “This art is dying,” Gadzhiyev laments. People of all ages are moving to larger settlements in search of work or easier living conditions.
There are other tightrope walkers in Dagestan, but Tsovkra, set against a striking mountainous background, is considered by many to be a traditional center for the art.
“Zaur walks well,” the coach declares as his student steps out onto the centimeter-wide steel cable, “but he never listens to anything I say.” With grace often demonstrated by elite athletes, he makes his way confidently along the line, demonstrating great reserves of skill and physical strength.
By his second or third run, he is stopping mid-line to perform acrobatic positions with the careless ease of a natural – but without any signs of arrogant showmanship. He wears a head-to-toe blindfold on his next crossing.
A few minutes later, it is the turn of 11-year-old Fatima, dressed in bright red pumps and a purple performing costume.
Stirred on by the virtuoso performance of Zaur, and against a backdrop of 3,000-meter peaks dusted with a new coat of snow, she too starts to cross back and forth along the impossibly narrow cable.
Despite the timeless feel of the performance, it is all over far too soon. Each has their own life to get back to: Fatima wants to become a nurse and move to Paris and Zaur is nearing the end of his school studies. Ramazan himself, Tsovkra’s last master funambulist, says he is planning to move to Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala with his wife.
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