GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - It may look like a new act for the circus, but it's actually closer to yoga or pilates - the shaky trembling of limber feet and outstretched limbs on a flat strip of rope strung between two trees. This is slacklining.
"You have to be aware of where you are in space. It's physical and mental," said Anthony Heiden, 20, of Grand Junction. Heiden was introduced to slacklining by a friend about a year ago.
Slacklining - which has recently grown in popularity among Grand Junction youths - started with rock climbers, who took their rope and carabiners to create pulley systems, and tightened their flexible webbing between trees and rocks. Think of it as a one- to two-inch-wide trampoline, which is walked on like a tightrope. While the line is pulled extremely tight, the tension creates a chaotic and bouncy walking surface, which is different from a conventional tightrope wire.
"I ended up walking across it by the end of my first day," Heiden said, who noted that a high level of calmness is needed for slackline success. This is not an aggressive sport, it's much like yoga. Rhythmic breathing and balance are a must.
Justin Fay, 16, a junior at Grand Junction High School, started out doing "parkour," also known as freerunning. He tried slacklining a few times with friends and found himself incorporating similar movements on the line that he used doing jumps and flips on various urban terrain. Fay bought a slackline in the spring and started bringing it to school.
"We started out with just a few kids, but more came along," Fay said. Fay and friends set up a slackline each Tuesday and Thursday in front of GJHS during lunch.
Josh Hughes, 17, a senior at GJHS, started slacklining over a year ago after seeing a friend doing it at a local park. Aside from being able to easily walk and jump on a slackline, Hughes frequently goes rock climbing, mountain biking, running, and is a proficient skier.
"Once you branch (slacklining) into other skill areas, it grows, it's your core," Hughes said. The upward-bouncing force of the slackline must be distributed evenly up through the legs, through the core, to the arms and head. This is a full-body workout, and Hughes noted the positive impact it had on his other sports and activities.
The World Slacklining Federation was founded in May 2011, and sets standards for difficulty, style and ranking systems for slacklining. And while they do sponsor official events and competitions, slacklining remains an activity well hidden from TV cameras and stadiums. Slacklining happens in backyards and city parks, campsites, college campuses, and remote high cliffs. It's not going to be on late-night ESPN 2 anytime soon.
Though the sport flies under most people's radar, it has gained a mild presence in popular culture, too. Pro slackliner "Sketchy Andy" Lewis (one of only a few people to hold such a title) recently performed with Madonna and LMFAO during this year's Super Bowl half-time show. And, yes, he was wearing a toga.
Lewis can jump, bounce on his back or stomach, then safely return his feet to the line. He's also known for slackline traverses over 100-foot canyons and crevasses, sometimes even without a protective rope or harness.
This is not a sport for everyone, however. Slacklines are usually suspended three to five feet off the ground, a fall can be sudden and unpredictable for beginners, and the risk of catching an arm or leg on the line is always present. Beginners should expect to hit the ground hard.
While a calm and grounded mind incorporated with balance and precise movement is necessary for walking the line, quick reflexes are as well. Slacklining requires a clear head, and a detachment from external stresses and worries.
"It's an art form, you can be creative," Hughes said. "People are so obsessed with what's in their face all the time. (On a slackline) you have to focus on what you are doing right now."