If you’re a Wallenda, you join the circus. That’s just how it goes.
“For us, it’s quite normal,” said Tino Wallenda, 66. “It’s what my family did before me and their family before them.”
Wallenda, along with his children, their spouses and his grandchildren, exhibited the family’s trademark tightrope skills Thursday at the opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, part of which is devoted this year to a celebration of the circus arts. Equipped with balance poles and decades of experience, the performers took turns walking a high wire set up on the Mall, finishing with a three-person chair pyramid.
Circuses may be an endangered species, as evidenced by Ringling Brothers going out of business this spring, but Wallenda doesn’t plan to change a thing about his family’s old-school act.
“Our job here is that we represent the traditional family element of the circus,” he said. “I’m the sixth generation, and then there are my children and grandchildren. We’re representing three generations of circus legacy here.”
Tino’s grandfather Karl was born into a German circus family and founded his own troupe in the 1920s. The Flying Wallendas, as they came to be known, were lauded for their daring stunts and pitied for a series of tragic mishaps. One of Karl’s in-laws fell to her death; another suffered a fatal shock when he came into contact with a live electric wire during his act. Karl himself died, at age 73, in a fall from an open-air tightrope on a windy day in Puerto Rico.
The most haunting incident came when the troupe performed its signature seven-person chair pyramid in January 1962 at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum — a stunt that required four performers to stand on the tightrope while balancing two others on their shoulders, who themselves carried yet another Wallenda, wobbling on top in a chair. The acrobats toppled that day, killing two and paralyzing a third — Tino’s uncle Mario.
The family continues to form chair pyramids to this day, but only if “it’s 100 percent,” insists Tino’s daughter Alida, 43.
“The safety precautions that we take are just hours and hours of practice, a lot of repetition,” she said. “We know what we’re doing.”
Thursday’s performance began with Tino’s daughter Aurelia Wallenda, 33, doing trapeze-like acrobatics in a dangling loop of rope, a routine known as the “cloudswing.” Her brother, Alex, 29, and his wife followed with a juggling act, during which he performed a comic monologue about a juggler’s four worst enemies: wind, sun, gravity and lawsuits.
But the crowd, filled with eager tourists, had come for the risky tightrope act. One by one, the red-jumpsuited or leotard-clad Wallendas walked across the 40-foot wire, which was strung 25 feet off the ground. Tino and Alex both stopped to lean down and carefully balance on their heads.
When it came time for the pyramid, Alida’s husband, Robinson Cortes, 49, stepped ahead, with Alex a few feet behind, a sturdy pole braced between them. And then, somehow, the family patriarch, his brow furrowed, managed to climb on top, balanced in a chair straddling the pole, to a loud round of applause.
If it seems like the Wallendas are everywhere these days — well, there are a lot of them by now. After nearly a century as a brand name, the acrobats in the family have split off into groups: Tino’s immediate family performs as the Wallenda Family Troupe, while his nephew Nik Wallenda and Nik’s aerialist wife, Erendira, have made names for themselves with their TV-friendly daredevil stunts. (Both have dangled by their teeth from trapezes hanging from helicopters, Nik 250 feet above a Missouri theme park and Erendira 300 feet above Niagara Falls in June.)
Nik’s act tends to veer from the family’s tightrope roots. But “I feel that there’s a place for everything,” his cousin Alida said. “There’s a place for the modern, there’s a place for the traditional.”
Even if the “traditional” carries an unusually high occupational hazard rate. Tino said he recognizes the constant potential for death but gives a shrug.
“The casualty rate of driving cars is much greater than tightrope walkers, and there’s lots of tightrope walkers,” he said. “You just have to be careful about what you do.”
If the family’s accident-filled past weren’t enough to deter them from proceeding with their stunts, they won’t let the declining circus economy do it, either. Tino’s mother, Jenny — Karl’s daughter — wanted him to attend college and become a lawyer or doctor. There’s “no future in the circus business,” Tino recalls her saying. But circuses aren’t their only outlet anymore; to keep the family business going, the Wallenda Family Troupe has taken gigs at a “broad range” of events — festivals, grand openings and state fairs among them.
“Well, I’ve survived until now,” Tino Wallenda said. “ My children are surviving, and my grandchildren are going into it as well. It’s what we do. It’s something you do from your heart.”
Because the Wallendas tend to perform well into their golden years (“not until I drop, but probably until I can’t anymore,” Tino said), they’ve often married others in the same business who understand their lifestyle.
Alida and Alex Wallenda performed alongside their spouses on Thursday. Cortes as well as Alex’s wife, Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan Wallenda-Zoppé, 25, came up as circus people themselves and were quickly branded as seventh-generation Wallenda performers in their own right.
“We do a lot of traveling eight to 10 months out of the year, so with a lot of people, it’s difficult to get up and go,” Aurelia said. “You pack a suitcase, you get in your trailer, you go to a hotel — that’s moving almost every day.” She brought her 1-year-old son, Marcus, to the festival.
Though she joked about Marcus joining the family business in a few years, it’s fair to assume that he’ll at least try it out. Alida’s three children — Ysabella Cortes, 15; Lucas Cortes, 7; and Tomas Cortes, 5 — joined the show on Thursday, and young Tomas even sat on his father’s shoulders as he walked the high wire.
“We don’t ever push or pull somebody to do something,” Aurelia said. “We do practice and encourage, but if they’re just not into it, we’re not going to force them. That makes it a safety hazard for the person and the people around them.”
Alida added: “We don’t let our kids up there until they realize that risk. They have to get a respect for it — it’s not a fear, it’s more of a respect that we try to instill in them — knowing that they can do anything they want to do, but they have to be careful and pay attention.”
The Wallenda Family Troupe will be performing every day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is on the Mall through July 9. Closed July 5. A detailed schedule is available online at festival.si.edu.