Tween lives up the high wire life

Tween lives up the high wire life

12-year-old Briana is a record-breaking performer who is always reaching for new heights

May 26, 2011
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Briana Phelps
Briana Phelps
Photo: Oliver Tsang
While most 12-year-olds spend their spare time playing computer games and reading comic books, Briana Phelps, from Florida, United States, has a rather different hobby.

"I enjoy the height, tension and excitement," Briana says of performing on a sway pole. A sway pole is a tall, flexible stick. The artist stands at the top and performs incredible stunts.

On her first visit to Hong Kong, Briana skilfully made her way to the top of a 17-metre pole - there was no safety net below - and waved to the crowd at a shopping mall, smiling prettily.

Part of the high wire troupe The Flying Wallendas, Briana holds two Guinness World Records. Not only she is the youngest person to climb a 25-metre sway pole, she also performs the "chair pyramid", a trick in which she balances on a chair placed on a bar supported by two men on bikes - all on a 30-metre high wire.

"It's a smaller version of the Wallenda's traditional seven-person pyramid," Rick Wallenda, Phelps's trainer and third-generation high wire performer, says. "She's the youngest person in history to have ever done it. It took her only 56 days to learn the trick and do it in a show."

Unlike most young high wire performers, Briana did not grow up in a circus family. One day she saw Wallenda, a good friend of her mother, doing a sky walk on the high wire, and was hooked. "I wanted to do it. I asked him, and he's been teaching me all the acts since I was nine," she says.

But success hasn't come easily as daily practice can be painful and tedious. Before a show, she has to practise as many as six days a week. "I climb a lot. I do a lot of stuff over and over again. That's how I build up my strength," Briana says. "It was physically tough at first and took a lot of practice. But when I figured out how to put my feet in the right pattern, I finally made it all the way up to the top."

Self-control and a strong character are also essential for performing on the sway pole and high wire. Briana has to be prepared for all kinds of difficulties.

"One time during the show, a bee landed on my nose. Luckily, it didn't sting, but I had to [deal with] the bee at the same time as balancing on a chair above the ground. You can't lose concentration at any time," she says.

Briana's mother has supported her throughout her blossoming career - although she doesn't dare climb the pole herself. She looks after other aspects of the show, such as music and sound effects. "My encouragement to Briana is letting her do it. It's her thing. She asked for it," she says.

Despite Briana's exceptional on-pole talent, she's no different from any other tweenager once she's offstage. And, she's not against the idea of a career change.

"I love to perform up there, but I would like to attend high school," she says. "I would like to work with animals in a zoo. I love animals, kids and babies," she smiles.

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