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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments