TSOVKRA-1, Russia (Reuters) - By a quirk of history that goes so far back in time no one really remembers it, nearly every man, woman and child in the remote mountain village of Tsovkra-1 can walk the tightrope.
For children in the village on Russia’s southern fringe, after-school games means balancing on a wire suspended one storey above the ground.
“I‘m not afraid,” 12-year-old Magomed Gadzhiyev said as he stood in a scruffy field on the edge of the village. “My mother was a tightrope walker and I will be too.”
Behind him an 8-year-old girl wearing a pale green costume gingerly walked across a tightrope about the height of a single-storey building and the length of a goods truck. She held a 3-metre long pole by her waist to help her balance but there were no cushions or mattresses to break a fall.
In its glory years after World War Two, Tsovkra-1 provided tightrope walkers for the Soviet Union’s circuses. They entertained crowds across the world with daredevil acrobatics and won the Soviet Union’s highest award for artists.
That period ended about 30 years ago, but the tradition never died out and now the village is trying to revive its reputation as a world tightrope walking centre.
Tsovkra-1 -- so called because there is a second Tsovkra nearby -- is a farming village in Dagestan, a republic jammed between Chechnya to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east in Russia’s turbulent north Caucasus region.
From Makhachkala, the dirty, sprawling Dagestani capital, Tsovkra is a four-hour drive along asphalt roads and then dirt tracks, over jagged mountains and through steep-sided valleys where villages retain independent languages and culture.
In the centre of the village Nukh Isayev, a wrinkled 72-year-old, sat surveying life. Nearby a simple plaque commemorated the 17 men and women who made the village famous throughout the circus world for its tightrope acrobatics.
“The golden age was from the 1950s through the 1970s,” Isayev said. “The whole world knew about us then and we could sell out a circus in any European capital with our tightrope walking skills.”
The village’s two most renowned tightrope walkers won the Soviet Union’s Artist of the People award, a prize more likely to be bestowed on writers, painters, ballet dancers and opera singers.
The Gadzhikubanov family team -- a father and his seven daughters -- used to balance on a tightrope on each others’ shoulders in two columns of four people.
The villagers’ most popular explanation for centuries of tightrope walking is that the young men of the village grew bored with trekking for days to court women in a village on a neighbouring mountainside, and instead came up with a shortcut.
They strung a rope from one side of the valley to the other and hauled themselves across. To show off, the most daring began to walk the rope and the skill became a prized test of manhood.
With the rising popularity of the Soviet circus after World War Two, dozens of the best left to entertain crowds with their stunts and acrobatics in cities across the world.
“We had to work hard then and tightrope walking was a way of escaping,” Isayev said, a smile creasing his wrinkled face.
“But now most want to leave the village and, you see, life now is too good, you can eat and live well easily.”
As Isayev talked, a hunched old woman passed herding a donkey weighed down by bundles of hay, two girls ran in and out of wooden doorways and a swarthy, sun-beaten man lugged a pitchfork from the fields.
The population of Tsovkra has fallen to 400 from around 3,000 since the 1980s, villagers said.
But 45-year-old Ramazan Gadzhiyev, Magomed’s father, plans to change that and resurrect Tsovkra’s reputation. Eight years ago he reopened the tightrope walking school.
“The world’s best tightrope walkers used to come from Tsovkra but now they are from China and Japan,” he said as he stood watching a boy on the rope.
The boy bounced up and down in the middle of the tightrope. He crouched down, lay on his back and then gracefully stood up again and walked to the end of the rope.
“I hope that one day they will be great again,” Gadzhiyev said. “That Tsovkra’s tightrope walkers will once again perform in America, Britain and Japan.”