The hamlet walking a tightrope of survival

One man in Dagestan is fighting against unemployment and migration to revive the circus tradition

The remote hamlet of Tsovkra looks like many other villages in Russia's chaotic southern region of Dagestan. The picturesque smattering of cottages that clings to the mountainside several hours' drive along dirt roads from the regional capital also suffers from the same problems that plague the rest of the region – unemployment, migration from the countryside to the cities and the threat of radical Islam. But in a tradition stretching back longer than anyone can remember, there's one thing that makes Tsovkra unique: absolutely everyone here can walk the tightrope.

It's a talent that made Tsovkra famous across the Soviet Union for decades, as its tightrope walkers filled circus big tops throughout the vast empire and won prizes at international competitions. But Tsovkra's glory years ended two or three decades ago, and the local teachers who are trying to resurrect the art say that if they don't receive better funding, the tradition may die out for good.

Even so, every one of the village's 48 schoolchildren retains the skill. Ramazan Gadzhiyev, who runs the Tsovkra tightrope-walking school, says proudly: "Not everyone can do tricks on the rope, and some of the older people don't do it anymore because it's too hard for them. But every single able-bodied person here can walk the tightrope."

Extra-curricular activities here mean only one thing. Three times a week after school, children come to the tightrope set up on the edge of the village to practice their skills, watched over by Mr Gadzhiyev, 47. They practice in any weather and even during the winter when the temperature can drop to minus 10C.

Mr Gadzhiyev opened the school 10 years ago in an attempt to breathe life back into the village and to create a new generation of tightrope walkers. But he is fighting a losing battle as more people desert the village in search of work in bigger towns. There used to be about 450 households in Tsovkra; now there are 70. The children who remain don't have the facilities to train properly.

"We have children here who are talented enough to go all the way, to continue in the great traditions of Tsovkra, if only the funding was there," Mr Gadzhiyev says. "But at the moment most of the children just do it for a hobby, because there is no future in tightrope walking these days."

Two of Mr Gadzhiyev's pupils, his own son, Magomed, 12, and Tuti Ulubiyeva, 15, perform tricks on the rope as evening falls on Tsovkra. Their repertoire does not quite match the awe-inspiring stunts that grainy celluloid footage shows the Tsovkra stars of old performing, but their small feet skip nimbly across the rope, which is not more than a centimetre thick, and they never look in any danger of falling.

"I first walked the tightrope when I was about six-years old," Tuti says. "I was scared at first. Now I'm never scared, not of the tightrope, and not of anything."

Nobody is quite sure how the tradition first started, though it's known to stretch back over100 years. One apocryphal tale claims that the amorous local men needed a way to get across a mountain ravine to woo the female denizens of a neighbouring village, so they strung a rope across and made their way over, proving their bravado – and the depth of their love.

More prosaically, Mr Gadzhiyev says it might have started due to the inclement weather in the region that had a habit of destroying rickety footbridges across fast-flowing rivers – while the bridges were being repaired, villagers had to make do with a rope.

However it started, records show that by the beginning of the 19th century, the residents of Tsovkra realised they were on to something that was not only a functional skill, but could also be marketed. Troupes of Tsovkra tightrope walkers began to tour neighbouring villages, putting on shows of their skill and earning a few roubles for their efforts.

In Makhachkala, Dagestan's chaotic capital next to the Caspian Sea, the heir to the most famous Tsovkra tightrope-walking dynasty is also trying to keep the legacy alive. Magomedramazan Ramazov, a jovial 65-year old who grew up in Tsovkra, runs a circus school that takes the best tightrope walkers from Tsovkra and the rest of the republic. Over shots of cognac he recounts the story of his life, which is inexplicably linked to the tightrope.

He first met his wife in 1967, when his circus troupe was touring in the city of Kokand, now in Uzbekistan. She came to watch the travelling Dagestani artists, and immediately fell in love with the man on the tightrope, waiting for him after the show to tell him of her admiration. "I was 22 and she was 17," Mr Ramazov recounts. "Each year, our troupe would return and our love would get stronger and stronger." Eventually, he took her back to Dagestan with him and the couple married.

The Tsovkra school today is a modest two-room shack, unheated and with the paint peeling from its walls. The funding to set it up was provided a decade ago by a wealthy Dagestani businessman who had made his fortune in Moscow, Mr Gadzhiyev says. The businessman had promised much more. But before he was able to deliver he was shot dead in a business dispute. Since then, funding has been hard to come by.

In Makhachkala, Mr Ramazov says he pays for the school largely with his own money, lamenting that there isn't more state support to keep Dagestan's traditions alive.

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