"You have to run as strong as you can because there are rocks underneath, and then you jump and bring your knees to the chest like a strong punch and you look up until it becomes down…". The confidence in the tone of this 7-year-old boy was rather unexpected considering he reached the height of my chest. He briefly gave me a look of confirmation as if he was commanding a trip to outer space and then turned around and embarked on a 7-meter sprint followed by a huge gainer (backflip travelling forwards). His form in the air was crooked but impressively precise in the way he penetrated the water horizontally at the end of it.
The line of kids behind me seemed indifferent. "Yalla my friend" shouted the oldest member of the line (I'd say he was around 40 but it was more than 20 years ago, and my perception of age wasn't so accurate). It was an interesting moment. I certainly didn't want to jump. I thought it was quite ironic, I knew how to flip well on the ground, probably better than any of them could. Forwards, backwards, sideways you name it. If I have so much knowledge and skill, why am I afraid? Maybe because I have more to lose? Strange thought… How can one person have more to lose than another. And isn’t that in itself already an act of looking at something from a superficial perspective?
"Habibi don't worry!!! Everybody is scared the first time, also the second and the third. But then you continue and slowly it becomes fun. Enzur aly!" The old guy from the back went past the line and gave a huge sprint, in the air he closed his body into a ball, and he hit the water with one of the biggest splashes I've heard in my life. "YOOOWUHOOOUW" He shouted after his head popped up again in the water, and then he continued with something in Arabic I couldn’t understand but sounded like satisfaction. All the kids were laughing and seemed quite pleased with the loud spectacle. One of them said "Yalla your turn, but you need to do the forwards backflip eh?".
Now, I had to go. But I couldn't ignore the fact that if I didn't get enough distance from the wall during the drop, which probably meant 4-5 meters of travelling forwards, I wouldn't reach the deep waters and could possibly die hitting the sharp rocks underneath me. "No thinking equals no mistakes" I said to myself (my motto as an acrobat adolescent every time I was confronted with an overwhelming challenge). I gave the run of my life and at the very last step broke my trusted motto and made the swift decision to jump with the head upwards instead of going for the backflip. I saw the rocks underneath me and realized that passing them was much easier than it seemed because of the momentum. The drop, though, felt much longer than I've imagined. Total ecstasy. I entered the water feet first with a straight body. The adrenaline escaped the body all at once and fled into the cold sea. I reached up to immediately see the next kid in line throw another backflip, his failed attempt to split his legs in the air causing huge laughs from the other kids.
I swam back, climbed out on the ancient and ruined stairwell carved in the stone and went immediately back to the end of the line. "You are a cool man", said another kid that seemed like he was standing in line with his sister. "You are very strong in the body but afraid like a little boy! It is OK because you try again with us!".
I went back to the wall in Akko about 3 years later and jumped a few more times with the locals. On my next visit I was already in my 20’s, and didn't feel like the hustle of getting wet and standing in line during my evening stroll in the old city. I am not sure exactly what I learnt on that day, but I do remember that I took something home with me. And I would end up searching for this generous connection with strangers years later in different countries and occasions. There is a very unique intimacy in sharing a risk, in finding an obstacle that is relevant for any age, language or gender. Through the risk a stranger could transform into an accomplice or a friend, someone you feel like you know closely. It is definitely something we lose with age, maybe life becomes conceptual, understanding and assessing risks is entangled with intelligence, an essential pursuit in the world of adults.
I've been teaching adults acrobatics for more than half of my life now. I always felt more of a dancer than an acrobat, but acrobatics always make me FEEL something real. Something raw, truthful and non-verbal.
Expanding on the learning process of acrobatics has a lot of benefits: The learning of one's body, its capacities and limitations. The changes that could happen in mechanics and anatomy through careful process of added difficulty and complexity. The lesson of planning and being consistent with the plans until an achievement is fulfilled. The ever-changing relationship with softness and fear, how when one of the two is out of balance the other becomes a greedy monster that consumes all the rest. And breathing, how it all connects to breathing, how it all collapses when the breath is gone. All of these are things I've developed and learnt in my years of training and articulated through teaching. Paradoxically, when all of them come together they are forgotten, and the sensation is like returning to childhood. Picasso said it took him more time to learn to draw like a child than to learn how to draw well. This is a great metaphor to the practice of acrobatics.
Even though I was flipping before this day, this jump in Akko triggered something different. So different that like an addict I am still craving to go back to it and recreate it. It was the sense of instant community and the embodied understanding that life has no value other than the current moment.
I doubt that the next time I will be in Akko I will jump again, I feel I have too much to lose already. I've joined the world of adults. And yet, I think that being able to take playful risks is something worth fighting for. Looking around at our modern culture I see a genuine possibility that future kids will not be able to take physical risks anymore. Certainly not taking risks together with others who come from different backgrounds, different languages and cultures or social economical classes. Movement practice is a worthy alternative in that sense, it has the potential to bypass differences and focus on the movement itself which is rather universal.
Years later I can see that I was following the footsteps of this 7-year-old more than I've intended. The same kid who told me to run for my life and tuck my knees to my chest. It is incredible how a single event can direct our lives in such an unexpected fashion. This young mentor sent me forwards with happiness and meaning for years to come, and the inertia of this event is still present in what I pass on to the people who practice and study with me.
In the photos: The infamous wall of Akko where the story took place and a much easier and safer jump last weekend in the city of Geneva.