If you saw the Super Bowl halftime show, you probably wondered, “Who’s that guy in a toga bouncing crazily on a rope next to Madonna? And how’s he doing it?” The guy was Andy Lewis, a slacklining champion from California, and he did it after many, many years of practice.
Slacklining is different from tightrope walking. Instead of a taut line, it’s performed on inch-thick nylon webbing that stretches and bounces. That lets folks like Lewis, aka “Sketchy Andy,” defy gravity like a cartoon character.
To find out more about it, Pop Omnivore spoke with climbing legend Dean Potter, who was featured in a recent National Geographic story on climbing and who’s done a bit of slacklining himself.
What is slacklining?
Slacklining started in the 1970s, when climbers were walking on nylon rather than tightrope. It was more accessible for everyone, because you could do it anywhere, and it’s like walking on a one-inch trampoline. After that you just start grooving with the movement.
How did you get into it?
I first learned slacklining in 1993 from a homeless man named Chongo (Charles Victor Tucker III). He had a line stretched between a blue Chevy van and a boulder, and I walked it first try; other passes have taken years and years. The line finds your weaknesses, and you have to deal with a lot of emotions. It can become a major form of meditation: You focus on nothingness, yet it gives you everything.
How do you feel when you’re on a line?
I would say I have extra emotion. But everything I do on the line—it’s not a battle or an overcoming, but it’s a oneness. You become OK with the fear and the ground pulling at you.
Why you do it?
I have no rules, I’m not limited by what others have done before, and I just do what’s natural for me. Remain calm—everyone can relate to that. Don’t be restricted by convention and limited by fear. I’ve been practicing yoga my whole life. My mom was a yoga teacher, and I started just absorbing by watching her. Everything I do is a mental discipline. It’s not a sport so much as it is the art of walking lines.
When did variations like trick lining start to emerge?
Variations on line walking have existed for thousands of years, and people have always done tricks on the line. There are a few books on the history of line walking, and you can see people doing back flips off the wires in old black-and-white pictures.
What did you think of Andy Lewis’s Super Bowl performance?
I’ve been watching him since he started, and he is at the utmost level. I was very impressed with his composure.
What else should people know about slacklining?
Slacklining is [still] considered more art than sport. For me, it’s about making myself and the group I’m with a part of the most beautiful nature painting. I like turning people on to this magical thing that they can do anywhere. I’ve taught 3-year-old kids and grandmothers to [do it]. If you can walk you can walk [on a line].
Any words of wisdom for newbies?
There’s something compelling about the simple act of walking a line. Although it’s such a simple exercise, it takes all of your focus and coordination to stand on the line. It’s hard for many people to have that same feeling in normal life.
You have to ask yourself, “Do you have the natural desire?” You have to be OK with falling, do it in a safe way, and practice—it takes repetition.
– Matthew Ellis