Stilt walking was the beautiful art that really drew me into clowning. I have been walking on stilts since I was in middle school, and it was a multi-faceted lesson in overcoming my fear of heights, pulling me out of my shell, and teaching me where the limits lay in the human body. This skill, to my surprise has helped me get jobs outside of entertainment and has come to use in many facets outside of clowning. I would recommend anyone to learn how to stilt walk if they had the opportunity.
So stilt walking, what is it? You probably have an image of people walking on sticks. Perhaps that image contains an extension of that stick coming up above your head so that you have a place to put your arms. Yeah, those are stilts. The ones with the arm poles are called Hand-helds and the other type are called Pegs. Hand-helds are interesting, They date back to the earlier phases of stilts. There are ledges for your hands and feet, but no way to actually hold them in place besides your own grip. Nowadays they are mostly used as toys for kids as they tie up your hands and limit your ability drastically.
Peg stilts are kind of the classic, artsy stilts that a lot of performers use. They contain a small foot at that bottom of the shoe or sometimes a block of wood running down from the foot. Many entertainers will claim that they take more skill, my training will prepare you for those. As a clown that does more than just walking around on stilts, I find them to be very impractical. I will explain later, but on these stilts you cannot stand still for much longer than a quick picture, and though they are a cheaper type of stilt (and one that many people can make on their own) I would not say to buy them as a first pair. Like other types of stilts, there is a place to strap down your foot. Excluding Digitigrade stilts, these kinds will strap around your legs and then follow a straight path below your feet that runs perpendicular with the ground. The Digitigrade stilts also strap to your leg, but they have a right triangle block of wood that places your foot on the hypotenuse of the triangle and then runs down to the ground. These are primarily used for specific costume representations, most performers will not have to wear them.
The more advanced types of stilts are Spring/Jumping stilts, which are reminiscent of prosthetic legs that handicapped runners use, these have small foot bases like the Pegs, and are designed for running and jumping high. They are fun, but highly dangerous. If you put those on, I recommend slow training and safety equipment. There are also articulate stilts, which are very similar to the type of stilt that I will spend the rest of this article on. The only difference between these and what I will explain further is that the engineering in the foot of stilt is built to imitate the movement of your own foot, including stretching and bending of toes.
Finally, we have Dry Walling (aka Dura) stilts, the name comes from the profession that they were made for and the nickname comes from the main reason that entertainers love them. They are indeed durable. These stilts have a brace reaches up around the leg like the other stilts mentioned (aside from the hand-helds) and they also have a place to strap in your shoes. There are larger or multiple support beams that run from your foot to the foot of the stilt, making the foot of the stilt larger and more useful that the foot of a peg. That is where stilt controversy comes into play. Peg purists will call it cheating, but I will always laugh and them as they must hobble back and forth just to stand in one place. These stilts allow you to stand still because the base is much sturdier, and they micmic more of what you can do on your own feet. With enough muscle you can stand on your toes and heels to walk around, kick higher, run around, and do most things, admittedly sometimes more. I prefer these as a performer, but especially for learning. One can pick the basics of these up faster, but a true artist will learn to look extremely natural in them. The skills you can learn in these also provide a safe way of learning to use pegs and other types of stilts.
So to learn!
There are 3 basic rules that I will give anyone I teach (and a 4th side note)
1. The most important part of the stilt is the brace. It makes the stilt nothing more than an extension of the leg. Always make sure that this part of the stilt is safely secured to your leg or else you can risk breaking bones and tearing muscles. Never do anything in a performance that can cause the straps to be compromised.
2. Keep your feet in a box. This is something that anyone can exercise, even without stilts. Stand up so that your legs are about shoulder width apart and in parallel. Now look down at your feet. They are currently making a box. As a stilt walker, you will always want to maintain that nice sized box. This size box creates a sturdy structure and looks natural from the audience’s perspective. Moving your legs closer makes the base of your human pyramid smaller, thus compromising the strength of the base. Making it much wider makes the shape look very unnatural and can provide some provocative moments. If you were to cross one leg over another, thus breaking the box, it puts the stilt walker in a compromised position. Thus, practice things like turning so that you do not need to compromise this box. As you become a more skilled stilt walker, it is okay to compromise the shape, but for now we are just doing the basics.
3. DO NOT lean back. Any stilt provides either a built in or a natural spring. Some stilts will have a spring on the front of the foot. It’s force will push upward and behind you with a constant force. Other stilts have the braces built a little lower on your leg so that your legs themselves will act as a spring. Either way, you are allowed to bend a bit forward into the spring and have a force acting opposite to even you out. However, there is no force that will push you forward if you lean back. In fact, the stilts with springs built in will continue adding a force that will push you even further back. When you get up on stilts for the first time, I suggest establishing your box and then hold on to a friend’s hands who are standing in front of you. Use them as support as you test your boundaries as you lean forward and back before you even begin to move your feet.
4. Remember that there are indeed boundaries. This sounds like common sense, but most of the time that people fall do so because they get cocky and gutsy and do not test the waters that they plan on diving into. Stilt walking is like dating. The first time should feel a bit awkward. Each time after that you can kind of test the waters a bit differently and learn what is okay to do. But if you do not take a slower approach to learning, you will probably fall flat on your face and be embarrassed.
That being said, the next steps are basically steps. I suggest utilizing a partner so you have two arms that you can rely on as you start moving about. Try to find a place outside on flat pavement and learn there. Try moving from one wall to another and back a few times in shorter distances and slowly ween yourself off of using both hands until you are capable of walking alone. Until you are very very very very very comfortable, you should probably keep someone around in case you panic and need support. Then try find some slight inclines to move up and down and test out areas with more terrain. When walking uphill, lean into the hill. You will mostly utilize the toes of the stilt. When going down hill you can utilize the heel of your foot and lean slightly back. Switching to terrain will help you begin to focus on your surroundings and not so much your feet. Really feel how the different terrain feels below you. As you learn, it’s best to focus on things other than your feet, you can have someone toss a tennis ball back and forth with you to put your attention on your hands, just don’t lean back to catch anything out of reach. Things like telling jokes are also a great means of keeping your mind elsewhere. But at this point it is your own journey. Take it in a wider stride!