At 58, Russell Nesbit has spent most of the last 30 years lying on the floor with his feet in the air. What's more, he intends to spend a few more doing the same thing.
"I thought I was great in my twenties," he says of his supine skill, "but there's no comparison with the way I am now. It's really, really, honestly a discipline thing. You got to have hear t and soul in it."
Nesbit is, as he puts it, a "Risleyite," an acrobat who has devoted most of his adult life to the study of a juggling specialty. Named hundreds of years ago for the English acrobat who reputedly invented it, Nesbit says, Risley happens when one strong acrobat learns to flip another of lighter weight -- called a flyer -- using only his or her feet. The flyer learns to make mutiple twists from the back to the stomach, to somersault, to balance and to land, all from the treacherous scaffold of the partner's tootsies.
"Once you get into Risley, you leave everything else alone because you can't go no higher than that," Nesbit, who has taught the acrobatic art since 1943, claims. "It's like the PhD in the acrobatic idiom."
Nesbit's fascination with acrobatics began in his boyhood in Statesville, N.C., where he and his buddies used to sneak into circus tents when they didn't have the 10-cent admission. After the show, he'd jump into every available sawdust pile to practice whatever he had seen there. Later, when his family moved to Washington, Nesbit stationed himself in YMCA's around town, trying to pick up ad hoc tumbling lessons.
He first saw Risley when a German acrobatic team joined the Ringling Bros. Circus and performed in D.C. It was destiny from there.
Nesbit, who lives at 307 50th St. NE, calls his troupe of 10 youngsters "The Flying Nesbits" even though the original members -- his ex-wife Madgeline and their son Michael, now 33 -- have long since hung up their tights for other pursuits. Today's members range from 19-year-old Phyllis Howard to 3-year-old Elaine (Pebbles) Williams whom Nesbit says is his latest superstar.
The Flying Nesbits were born in 1943 when Nesbit met Madgeline at Cardozo High School, where they were rival acrobats performing in a school talent show. They married soon after graduation from high school. After serving in the Army, Nesbit returned to Washington, where he and his wife continued to practice acrobatics in their front yard for their own enjoyment.
"The kids would crowd around and some of them would be brave and want to learn," he said. "One would stick with it, then another and another, and pretty soon we had a pretty large outfit going here." Nesbit, who has worked full time for the past 15 years as an artist's model at the Maryland College of Art and Design, says Tony Award-winning choreographer Louis Johnson (of "Purlie" fame); American Ballet Theater dancer Conchita Figueroa, and Bernadette Roe, the first black ever featured in the British magazine Acrobat, have all been members of his troupe.
The Nesbits flew through the touring circuit, beginning in 1955, when they traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters as half-time entertainers. Since then, they have appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips, Billy Eckstein and the Spinners -- usually in an Atlantic City nightspot called Club Harlem -- and have performed throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The Nesbits have not been without low points: in 1962, three members of the group were killed when the car they were traveling in, en route to St. Petersburg, Fla., lost a wheel on the highway.
Two years later, Nesbit was arrested here for violating a little-known 1885 law barring children under 14 from working as acrobats -- it constituted cruelty, the statute said -- and given a suspended sentence. The charge was later dropped on appeal, and the law reinterpreted because, according to the text of the opinion, the intent of laws can change with time.
In the course of the trial, Nesbit pulled out all the stops in an effort to defend his right to teach acrobatics. He called as character witnesses an FBI agent, a Catholic priest, members of the Police Department and members of various citizens groups and educational associations.
Nesbit, still indignant, said "They practically cursed this man out," referring to the original ruling judge. "They said, 'What are you trying to do? Stop him from bringing this gift to these kids?' I had all the parents' consent. There are some narrow-minded people, let me tell you," he fumed.
The Nesbits' next scheduled appearance will be on the local children's show "Stuff!" on Channel 4 in September. To recruit acrobats for the fall season, Nexbit held demonstration/tryouts at the Arthur Capper Recreation Center in Southeast last week. He said he often finds his performers simply by standing in the playgrounds, watching for children "who aren't content to just jump and run, the ones who are so full of life they don't know what to do with themselves."
The Flying Nesbits will be doing doubleduty to find the right recruits, Nesbit said, because in Risley "the feet have to be magic."