Antipodism in Mexico

This article first appeared in DokuCirco magazine, a Mexican circus publication.  To learn more about DokuCirco, visit Dokucirco.org

Translation: Thom Wall

Antipodism is the practice of juggling with the feet while reclining on the back with the legs raised upwards. It is usually performed on a “trinka” – a special kind of chair, designed for this purpose – though it is unclear when the trinka was first used.

Within antipodism, there are a diverse number of variations.  The artists not only juggle objects, but sometimes also other people – however, when an act is purely acrobatic, without using juggling or balance with objects, it is commonly called “Icarian games” or “Risley.”

“The practice of juggling with the feet is another of those balancing acts with an ancient origin – which is still performed today.”  – Wu Zimu, a scribe of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 [1]), describes juggling with bottles, plates, urns, and clocks that artists turned with their feet.  Peng Shiwang, of the Chi’ing dynasty (1616 – 1911,) described how an acrobat used their feet to perform juggling tricks – tossing an eight year old child, a table, a wooden hammer, and a ladder with nine rungs into the air.  An artist in Beijing painted one hundred screens to illustrate the customs of the Chi’ing dynasty.  One of those depticts an acrobat with a ladder balanced on the soles of his feet while another acrobat balances fearlessly on the ladder’s top rung. [2]

However, the Chinese are not the only culture with an ancient tradition of foot juggling.  This art was also practiced in pre-colombian Mexico – an ancient ritual called Xocuahpatollin.  There are communities in Mexico where antipodism can still be seen, performed in the traditional manner.  Circus historian Julio Revolledo [3] says that this ritual practice is one of Mexico’s greatest contributions to the modern circus community.

In 1528, when Hernan Cortes returned to Spain from his conquests in Mexico, he brought a troupe of indigenous antipodists with him – presented as a treasure of the conquered land to Emperor Carlos V of Spain, and I of Germany, as well as to Pope Clemente VII.  Armando de Maria and Campos describes the spectacle that these indigenous Mexicans presented in the courts of Carlos V and Pope Clemente VII:

“A dancer lay on the ground on his back and lifted his legs. The large beam made of wood was placed horizontally on his feet.  He began rotating it quickly, and stopped its spinning in an instant.  Several times, other dancers stood atop the sides of the beam.  Again, it was made to gyrate, and the standing men did not fall.

The word – the name of this game – translates to Spanish as “the game with timber on the feet.”  In the Florentine Codex (Sahagun, Troncesco,) you can see a scene with this performance.  Clavijero, in his History of Ancient Mexcio, depicts these games with many drawings…” [4]

The first antipodism number that went on stage in the United States was performed by Marino Perez in 1831.  This Colombian artist’s routine contained traditional antipodism feats, but was performed on the hindquarters of a horse that galloped around the ring.  This could be called “Equestrian Antipodism.” [5]

[1] – The Song Dynsasty was a dynastic government in China between the years 960 and 1279.  It followed the Five Dynasty and Ten King periods, and was followed by the Yuan dynasty.  It was the first government in world history that used paper money, and the first Chinese government that established a permanent navy.  The first known use of gunpowder happened in this dynasty.  This dynasty also discerned true North using a compass.

[2] A fragment of “The hundred amusements, two thousand years of endless acrobatic arts in China.”  Written by Huang Minghua and published in the UNESCO newsletter, January 1988.  You can find this edition with the full text here: https://www.academia.edu/11341719/Dos_mil_a%C3%B1os_de_inagotable_acrobaci

[3] Translator’s note – Julio Revolledo is the director of the traditional circus school of Mexico, located in Puebla, and part of La Universidad Mesoamericana.  He has written a number of books about the history of circus in Mexico.  He is also the nephew of world-renowned juggler, Rudy Cardenas.

[4] – Fragment from “Hernan Cortes brought to the courts of Emperor Carlos V and Pope Clemente – Remarkable Aztec Acrobats.”  Written by Armando de Maria y Campos.  The full text can be seen here: http://resenahistoricateatromexico2021.net/transcripciones/1057_540123.php?text

[5] http://www.circushistory.org/Thayer/Thayer3o.htm

Thom Wall

Thom is a professional variety performer, currently touring Europe with Cirque du Soleil's "TOTEM." Thom has a BA in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Washington University in St Louis and an MS in Nonprofit Arts Administration from Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. When he's not performing, he coaches juggling online and writes about his travels at www.thomwall.com/blog .

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