To me, whip cracking brings to mind images of ruddy cowboys riding the range, the "snap!" of their trusty lanyards echoing through the night as they charge toward Tombstone, where sassy saloon girls wait with whiskey. Or maybe I've seen too many spaghetti westerns -- because, cliches aside, you certainly don't have to be a cowpoke (or Catwoman, or a devotee of Devo) to crack that whip. The appeal? For some, it's a chance for showmanship (try snuffing candles or popping a succession of balloons filled with colored talcum powder); for others . . . well, that's their business. But a growing group sees the sport as a family-friendly adrenaline rush. "To hold an unassuming length of braided leather and watch it produce such an unexpected boom is awe-inspiring," says Todd Beveridge, 36, of the Maryland Whip Enthusiasts. Here's how you can whip it good.
What to Expect: The sport may seem unusual, but whip cracking was once very much a part of daily ranching life; it likely began as a way for range rovers to pass the time on cattle drives. There are four basic sport-cracking whips (bullwhips, stock whips, snake whips and signal whips), ranging in length from 4 to 25 feet, but they all have the same essential components: the handle, the "thong" and the "fall" (the two leather pieces that make up the body), and the "popper" (the frayed endpiece that makes the noise). Whips can be made from nylon, but the best are fashioned from extra-sturdy kangaroo hide (marsupial lovers, beware).
Hai-ya! The sight of the dashing Lash La Rue (in 1950's "King of the Bullwhip") gets us itchin' to get whippin'.
(20th Century Fox/photofest)
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If you can wave at someone, you can crack a whip. There are basic movements and safety tips to learn, but beginners should be able to crack a whip overhead or "circus style" (in a vertical plane alongside the body) within minutes. The main thing you'll have to get over? Fear. You'll probably flay yourself from time to time -- even instructors suffer an occasional welt -- so at least one lesson will help newbies feel safer.
What to Bring: Aside from the whip, you'll want sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes. Gloves, jeans and long-sleeved shirts are also important -- the popper moves at over 700 mph, so keeping covered will help prevent injury.
Cost: The Maryland Whip Enthusiasts give free intro lessons; this Saturday, Beveridge is teaching a seminar in Bowie's Allen Pond Park from noon to 4 p.m. He'll provide a whip for a lesson, but you can also buy one on eBay for less than $100. If you want the best ($500 or more), try American whipmaker David Morgan (www.davidmorgan.com), Australia's Mike Murphy (www.murphywhips.com) or "The Whip Man," New Zealand's Peter Jack (www.thewhipman.co.nz). Laura Boswell
Bullwhip Home Page. www.bullwhip.org. A comprehensive guide to all things whip (a FAQ, video clips, a whip-care guide and more), compiled by Andrew Conway, author of "The Bullwhip Book" and a whip-handling teacher at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts.
Maryland Whip Enthusiasts. www.geocities.com/marylandwhipenthusiasts. E-mail Todd Beveridge at firstname.lastname@example.org. This family-friendly club offers lessons and a forum for area residents interested in whip cracking. You'll find message boards, a directory of whipmakers and links to international whip-enthusiast sites.
Wild West Arts Club. www.wwac.com. This Las Vegas-based group, which holds conventions around the country, performs and trains in whip cracking, roping, riding, gun spinning and other old-timey arts. Whip coach Alex Green has consulted on flicks including Jackie Chan's "Shanghai Noon."