What is a Tightrope?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tightrope is a length of rope or braided wire that is strung tautly between two locations, typically high above the ground. Performers such as acrobats can then walk across the tightrope, occasionally performing feats of skill in addition to simply walking. It is also sometimes referred to as a “highwire,” referencing its thin nature and the classically extreme height at which it is installed.

Some famous tightrope events have included walking across Niagara Falls.
Some famous tightrope events have included walking across Niagara Falls.

Tightrope walkers are acrobats who have specially trained so that they can walk on the rope. They typically wear flexible shoes made from materials like cloth and thin leather that allow them to curve their feet around the tightrope for greater security, and in some cases they may go barefoot, so that they can use their toes as grips. Walking across a tightrope alone is a feat; adding in things like juggling, handstands, and various other acrobatics moves can be quite challenging and even more impressive to see.

A tightrope walker is a person trained in acrobatics.
A tightrope walker is a person trained in acrobatics.

Depending on the venue and the walker, the materials used to construct a tightrope vary. Wires tend to be easier to make taut, but they are harder on the feet, and they can become slippery, especially in humid conditions. Ropes need to be re-stretched on a regular basis, as well as being weight-tested to make sure that they are safe, but they offer more traction, which can make them safer to use. In both cases, safety nets are highly recommended, to ensure that tightrope walkers are not injured in falls.

Circuses often feature an assortment of tightrope stunts along with other acrobatic acts, and such acts are also sometimes used in promotions for the circus. Walkers have also historically strung tightropes between unusual places and crossed the rope as a publicity stunt; for example, a rope could be strung between two very tall urban buildings for this purpose. Tightrope walkers have also done things like cross Niagara Falls on a rope.

Learning to walk safely on a tightrope typically starts with refining one's sense of balance, and learning to control one's center of gravity. Working on tightropes which grow progressively longer and higher, aspiring acrobats can practice learning to move and then develop tricks to make their acts more dynamic and engaging. Many circus schools offer tightrope training as part of their acrobatics programs, and some teach advanced skills, like cycling on tightropes, and working with a team of acrobats to do tricks together.

Low tightropes can be used in balance training.
Low tightropes can be used in balance training.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Some people are just born risk takers. Some of them prepare for their adventures and some just take off on a wild adventure with abandon.

The tightrope walkers, who take on a tightrope walk on a rope strung across high buildings or across rivers or waterfalls,are usually prepared and trained. But a gust of wind or something...eek!

I read an article recently about attempts to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The last trip that was approved by government was way back in 1910. I think there have been other attempts since then, and I think some were fatal.

There's this guy who is trying to get permission from the Canadian government to go across. He is anxiously waiting for the "go ahead." He comes from a long line of tightrope walkers - seven generations. He started tightrope walking at the tender age of two years.

He's also waiting for the okay from the New York government. He expects it to be an amazing experience.

The best word to describe him is an "extreme daredevil."


I have read about a man who plans to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. I know other people have attempted this before, but don't know if anyone has ever been successful.

I don't like heights or water, so I don't even think I would be able to watch something like this. For someone who has done tightrope walks for most of their life, this is probably not as hard of a task as it seems to someone like me.

If he goes through with it, I am sure there will be a lot of attention surrounding the event, and I would sure hope it would be successful.


I have always been fascinated anytime I have seen a tightrope walker at the circus. I always watch intently, while I am holding my breath until they make it safely to the other side.

It always amazes me how they can keep their balance on such a small rope, and be so far up in the air. Many of them will also do tricks while they are on the rope making it much more difficult than just walking across it.

I think if someone is a tightrope walker and does not use a net underneath them, they are absolutely crazy. It would not be worth taking a chance of falling without some kind of safety protection.


Most tightrope walkers probably start learning balance and other techniques on the ground and then move onto ropes that go higher and higher and longer. I think most of the tightrope performers come from a family of acrobats - so it's in their blood, so to speak.

I love to watch them perform at circuses and other events. They show such great balance and muscle control. I admire all the practice they have to do to perfect their acts. They must have great discipline.

But I don't like to watch them when they don't have a safety net under them. My stomach tightens up into a knot.

Circuses are wonderful entertainment!

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