It was an Odd Whip Lesson.
I did not know how to relax. My constant tension level was that of a classical composer trapped in a beginner banjo class.
I knew I had to learn a new way of being, so I consulted a psychiatrist. The advice I was given was good:
1. Go to a toy store.
2. Buy some bathtub toys.
3. Play with these toys in a hot bathtub.
I reported my success: I was able to make a fleet of six windup toys buzz around the bathtub in formation, timing the refresher windups so they were all always in action.
She shook her head. I’d gotten it all wrong, she said. I was told I needed to go back to the toy store to buy an official Sesame Street rubber ducky. It must neither squeak nor squirt water, she said. It was supposed to simply bob there in the water as I watched.
This was an alien concept to me, but I practiced diligently. trying to get to a point where I could simply “be” with the rubber ducky. Splish splash.
In between immersions I researched relaxation and I learned a few surprising things which I pass on to students.
Now I share it with you.
Did you know that a healthy human body farts on the average 14 times a day? I was way behind, but I was teachable. These days, if someone in my proximity passes gas, I acknowledge it with the toast, “To Good Health!”
It is amazing how much tension we hold in our buttocks.
I next consulted friends of mine who were dancers. Their advice was to relax my ass.
I tried it, and I saw that if you relax your ass, your whole body relaxes.
It’s true. Try it yourself…
So just what has any of this got to do with whip cracking, you may ask.
As I became proficient with the bullwhip and was asked to pass on my hard-learned knowledge to others, I saw that when the whip handler was tense and tight, the whip was tense and tight, too.
When the whip handler was loose and relaxed, the whip was relaxed. With power came grace.
This is the reason I will so often say in a teaching situation, “Relax your ass!”
Some of my former students even have T-shirts which say, “Robert Says Relax Your Ass.”
And that is my suggestion to you today.
Let me know if you want one of those T-shirts.
(Written with a nod to Sharon, Laura and Steven. Thank you, my friends.)
That Was That Summer, That Was
Sitting on a porch in Minnesota, savoring these last sultry days of summer sun, I reflect on the plasticity of time and how it molds itself to events, spikes and nubbles and fuzzies and all.
The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante was launched in May with a two-day appearance in Memphis, a fun city with spectacularly spooky graveyards. Outside their creaking gates, Life abounds in all its rich variety of restaurants, book stores and always, music. Between them, workshops, lessons, demos and parties. Ah, life.
Mission accomplished, we cruised to our next destination at our leisure, napping in rest stops until we reached Camp Crucible in Darlington, MD, a nine-day smorgasbord of workshops, demos and consults. The place, under the guidance of Uncle Frazier, retaught me how to relax. I liked the place strongly – and savored the positive vibes – enough to make this the venue to try to break the Guinness World Record, “Fastest Whip.” This entailed cracking 10 cups in a row with a whip. Simple enough, until you realize it had to be done in less than 4 seconds. First attempt went well, with ample volunteers to witness, record and deliriously cheer. But when we looked at the numerous videos afterward, it was obvious the gods were laughing. There were 11 cups lined up, not 10 — and I’d still broken the record. A few days later, we marshaled the troops once more – this time, it was clockwork, with the 10 targets struck with cracks in 3.87 seconds. All the evidence gathered, tapes burned to disk, statements taken, and off to London went the heavy package. In the past, Guinness took 6-8 weeks to affirm or deny new record claims, but now their email said it could take up to 12 weeks. Patience is exercised as much as persistence in the world-record racket.
Watching the videos, I was mesmerized by the slow motion of the whip. There also were 3-D versions of the exercise, which opened our eyes to possibilities for future videos. Everything came together – even the still photos by William seemed to be divinely synchronized, with 7 of the 10 target cups hanging in the air simultaneously as the uncoiling whip prepared to strike again.
Next gig, we motored to Burlington, Vermont, where our hosts were gracious and welcoming. One attendee came from Montreal, bringing a bottle of “Dante” red wine with her. I am not a drinker, and there was more than enough wine to go around for those who wanted some. I am told it was tasty. Out in the country, long-haired horses in paddocks and pastures watching, the whips cracked for two days, and I think I did pretty well with one hand.
Ahh – that “one hand” thing. Actually, it’s the left shoulder. Adhesive capsulitis, aka frozen shoulder. Endocrine problem, diabetic hazard, not enough slippery juice in the joint so things lock up, painfully, whether you’re moving or not. Gravity itself becomes the great enemy. Can’t tuck my shirt in, comb my hair, put my finger in my left ear, or steer the car with both hands. The cure is to give a general anesthesia, pump the capsule full of fluid, go inside the shoulder with surgical instruments and manually break the adhesions loose. I’ve been told it sounds like branches being cracked to pieces, but with a quality surgeon your bones won’t be broken — even if it feels like it. I now refer to my orthopedic surgeon as my ‘wingman,’ and I am happy to recommend Dr. Tom Walsh of Minneapolis for any problems you may have in your arms or hands.
How bad is it? This is a career-ender, an unexpected and abrupt stop of a 25-year journey. The seven stages of grief, dark thoughts of mortality, the futility of the mission, the nature of the human condition at ground level.
The floating roads took us to Cincinnati, where Mary’s folks welcomed us for a few days before we fluttered back to Minneapolis, home base, for an oil change. The month of June was not yet finished, and we had a full head of momentum going.
We sling-shotted out of orbit, destination Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, one of our favorite cities, for a three-day weekend whip fest. Kind hosts Laura and Claude let us rest up for a week before hitting the boards again, and Bryan was our benevolent host. From him, I got a ticket to “The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante,” which I will frame and hang next to my Guinness World Record certificates.
Claude is a Civil War buff and owns many interesting books about the era, including a three-volume work about the Battle of Gettysburg I read over three nights. He and I also watched a three-part miniseries about Gettysburg and Daniel Day Lewis’ flesh-and-blood portrait of Lincoln, right on the 150th anniversary of the history-changing campaign. Two weeks later, we’d drive through the actual battlegrounds in Pennsylvania.
Confident in Winnipeg, I took a shot at breaking a second Guinness World Record, “Most candles snuffed with a whip in 60 seconds.” The world record had been held by Adam Winrich with 50 candles. I was certain I could beat that number. But the record had been broken a few months before by a Chinese national who raised the number to 78 candles, a mountain quite a bit higher and steeper than I thought it was.
I stacked the odds in my favor using a nylon whip which sprang back into its shape faster than a leather whip would. I could muscle the whip to get more speed without sacrificing accuracy. The rules stipulate the whip cracker has to be 2 meters from the candles – I used a 5-foot whip, relying on the fall-cracker combination of the whip to make up the distance. I positioned myself so the whip would be close enough to puff the flames out without splashing candle wax. It was a good plan.
One hundred votive candles were lined up in five tiers for the first day’s attempts. I thought this would be easier if the targets were clustered – but they were so close that two and three candles at a time were being snuffed – and these candles would not count toward the total. Changing heights meant taking fresh aim every 20 candles or so. These results were not good.
Next day, we lined 100 candles along 30 feet of waist-high boards, each candle placed 4 inches from its neighbor. I planned to take mini-steps between cracks, the consistency of the motion allowing me to “cycle” the whip to go faster. This plan worked – but multiple snuffs of candles torpedoed me. The best clean count I could achieve was 74 candles. The record stood.
I do not mind failing. Babe Ruth was not only the home-run king, he was also the strike-out king. In my job, I put my neck on the chopping block again and again, like a matador. Failure becomes a dress rehearsal, no shame in not setting a new mark. You have to get out there, heart hammering, dry-mouthed, to stand on the line. You can’t go for it without “going for it.” Nothing is guaranteed. You play the odds do your best and hope your gods are smiling today.
End of June reached, Farewell Tour was clicking along like a Swiss watch. We bid adieu to the green veils of the Northern Lights and chugged back into the good old USA on July 1st at Pembina, North Dakota.
Here, problems arose. We had three bananas from Canada to eat on the road. We admitted it. This was enough to warrant a complete search of the car, apparently. Mary and I were held in a locked room while they tore our car apart (perhaps looking for citrus or onions, as well). We heard someone announce they had found a computer. We remained sequestered while they browsed our files. Finally, a flak-jacketed youngster informed us there were “questionable” photos on the computer, but they would not show me the “evidence.”
Curiously, when I pointed out that as a diabetic I needed to eat something after a few hours, they gave me – one of the bananas. They allowed me to eat the evidence against us.
We were held until late evening, patted down and groped, interviewed by an agent of Homeland Security. The laptop computer and several flash drives were seized. Here, 60 days later, the agent tells me they are still doing a forensic analysis of the computer, and they cannot tell me when they will be done nor what if anything they have found.
The computer, incidentally, holds all my financial records, contracts, contacts, backups for books and flyers, email archives, notes about phone calls, scripts, writings, internet backups – in short, everything needed to run my business and maintain correspondence. Within two weeks, we had turned down at least $1500 in gigs for the fall because we did not have access to our computer. Time to involve our congressmen, I guess.
Turned loose, we zoomed to Minneapolis and immediately bought another laptop computer, so we were at least still online.
We raced east, reaching Piscataway, NJ before July 4 for Tesfest 2013, where we sold our remaining stock of dvds and books. After a jam-packed weekend of workshops and demos (and complimentary whip repairs), we aimed the wrinkled nose of our car north to hang out for a few days with my friend R in upstate New York. Some private workshops paid for this part of the trip, a green immersion in the verdant thrum of the forest. I filled the quiet evenings with whip repairs and cracker weaving. An oasis is La Domain Esemar.
Next stop Pennsylvania, via Gettysburg, the chilling, gaudy tourist-fest of statues and pastures passing by on both sides of us, mile after mile. That evening, we camped at a friend’s charming little bed and breakfast where Mary chatted with the resident ghost from the early 1800s (Mary will talk to anyone unselfconsciously, living or dead, a remarkable talent).
The rolling hills of Pennsylvania gave way to the steeper hills and forested mountains surrounding Roanoke, Virginia. I remember I lectured to a packed room, trying to talk loudly enough so the folks down the hall could hear me.
Once again, we embarked for Cincinnati. Mary’s parents had renovated a downstairs bedroom for our use. We indulged in a week of blissful nothing, feeling peaceful. Already, we had traveled more than 3,000 miles from Canada. After we caught our breaths, we programmed the GPS to guide us to Greenville, Ohio for our last appearance of the summer, the Annie Oakley Days Festival Showcase, ramrodded by bullwhip pioneer and showman Gery Deer.
It’s always good to see old friends – Kirk Bass and Melody (and their amazing kids), shaman Elk, Gery, a very tall Chris (The Whip Guy) Camp, lightning-fast Luke – a lot of whip handling talent there, so the whip demos drew the largest audiences of the fair, from the first show to the last
I tried for the candle-snuffing record again. I had held myself back, not participating in the contests and shows, but my left arm from shoulder to wrist by now had me in constant agony, draining my energy and my patience. I gave the candles two good tries, but I did not come as close as I had in Winnipeg. Knowing I’d have shoulder surgery in one week made the bitter pill of defeat easier to swallow, but it also made me wonder if the Annie Oakley Festival was jinxed. In 2009 I tried to break the ‘most cracks in a minute’ record, two weeks before my first surgery on my right shoulder. The results, still floating around on YouTube for the world to see, were disappointing. Hmm. Coincidence?
End of the road, back to Minneapolis and my Aug. 5th surgery (number 3).
That was that summer, that was. The Farewell Tour of Robert Dante in 2013. People still presume to ask my wife if I am ever going to get a “real” job, but as the Magic Eight-Ball says, “Don’t count on it .” I stopped arguing with the gods years ago and accepted that a big part of my job is simply to do the best I can with what I have at hand – usually, that means either a bullwhip or a pen.
Posted by Robert Dante at 1/26/2013 3:58 PM
Insight on Crackers & Lashes
“What is the best material to use for making a whip’s cracker ?”
Good question! I cannot say there is any one “best” material for a cracker. They all have their plusses and minuses.
Personally, for everyday use, I use mason’s twine from hardware stores. I can skin it down to the thinness I want, I can choose my own colors (lighter for darker rooms) and it is not cost-prohibitive. I also use embroidery thread, which is durable and makes a sharp crack.
I’ve been given some human hair to see what I can do with it, and that experiment is still going on. I have used horsehair, silk, polyester thread, twine, fishing line, etc.
After choosing the material, I look at the end use of the cracker — will I be performing soft wraps around a finger, or do I need to be able to slice a banana, or do I want a LOUD crack with the least effort, etc. This allows me to make the cracker that will most suit the purpose, because when you make your own crackers, you have a lot of control over that aspect of your whip’s performance.
As I said, as a rule, for ordinary purposes, I’ll ask Mary to use her Dremel to spin out dozens in a short time. The key, whatever the material, is make it as tightly as possible so it will carry the energy wave without losing power due to internal friction.
“I have heard about the mason’s twine from hardware stores.
“If I do use the mason’s twine, do I cut off about a 15-18 inch piece, double it over and twist it ? Do you suggest adding a knot 2-3 inches from the bottom ? (or is that not needed ?)”
Okay. Figure out how long and how thick you want the final cracker. Make the length of the original string 4 times that, and make the thickness 1/4 of what you want the final cracker to be.
Make a loop (add a knot), put a chopstick through each end of the loop and start twisting one while you anchor the other one between your knees. When it is tight as a guitar string and won’t go any tighter without starting to double on itself, pinch the center of the twirled string and pull toward yourself, allowing the two chopsticks to rest against each other.
When you let go of the string, it will spring into action and become your cracker. Add the knot wherever you want, making the fuzzy part as short or long as you like (or as I often like, half and half for a two-tone crack).
Trim off the excess (such as the original knot when you made the loop). You’re ready to go.
If I want something more aerodynamic, I will tie the cracker’s knot in a fisherman’s double hitch, making the knot smoother and smaller.
When in doubt, remember that tighter is always better. It’s all about the physics.
There are pictures in my book “Let’s Get Cracking! The How-To Book of Bullwhip Skills” that shows you how to make and how to tie your cracker on to your whip.
I hope this helps you. See you down the road!
Posted by Robert Dante at 1/5/2013 2:06 PM
Pirate captains used to write “last letters” to their crews before buckling on their swords. In that sense, I am writing such a letter to you, here.
I am retiring from professional performing as a bullwhip artist in the near future.
Adhesive capsulitis (“frozen shoulder”) in my left shoulder limits my range of motion and drains my energy with pain. I am being treated with therapy and injections, but the constant pain is tremendous. Gravity is once again my enemy.
The same condition in 2009 froze my right shoulder as I was preparing to break my own Guinness World Record for most bullwhip cracks in one minute. I flew to London in a promotion for a new Indiana Jones video game. I failed in the attempt. I then tried again when I returned to the US at the Annie Oakley Festival. The number of cracks was exactly the same both times, miserably short of my goal.
One hydroplasty and two surgeries later, my right shoulder was operating again, although not to the degree it was before this endocrine-based ailment ambushed me.
I covered up, using my left arm more and striving more for accuracy than speed. I talked more in my shows and Mary started cracking a whip and standing closer to the front of the stage. It worked. The shows were still good, edgy, and held entertainment value.
I considered seeking a disability, but my lawyer (Greeman-Toomey) threw me under the bus and withdrew moments before the hearing, agreeing with the off-the-record judge that I could obviously still work if I could keep my website updated and use email. (We won’t talk about the definition of “due diligence.”)
At the same time, I’d developed lateral epicondylitis in both arms (tennis elbow) and carpal tunnel syndrome in my left hand (probably from all that updating of websites).
Happily, my belief that my method of cracking bullwhips would not lead to carpal tunnel syndrome was true — it’s all that other stuff that you have to look out for, like writing emails.
My type 2 diabetes sent me to the Emergency Room twice. It killed Brian Chic, a friend and fine whip cracker from Los Angeles. It now affects my eyesight in the form of a vitreous gel detachment in right eye, smudging everything to my right as though through an oily smeared window. This is not good for someone who takes the pips off a playing card from 8 feet.
Recently, two fine doctors – my internist and my orthopedic surgeon – told me point-blank this is my last year.
I am ending before I think I am finished, and that’s a bitter one to swallow. You always think the party will end for others, but not for you.
I have several ongoing projects I did not complete. I see no one else pushing to get whip cracking into the Olympics. The prejudice of entities like Oregon State against whip cracking as a hobby and a sport needs to be publicized so others can see it for what it is. I wish I’d made the dvd version of my book, and made it a useful resource. I wish I’d seen a credible bullwhip TV show on the Travel Channel.
But that’s the nature of change. The nature of growth. The nature of being who I really am in the world as it really is.
You’ll continue to see me around, more as an alumnus like Arnold Palmer and less as a joke like Mike Tyson, I hope.I will try to step back with grace and style, because the whips have been good to me. I’ve tried to give some of that back, and I hope I can continue to.
In the meantime, do you hear that sound? It’s the gods laughing.
Everything is as it’s supposed to be.
Today, I watched six Bulldog Drummond movies back to back. Totally cracker jack, they were made in the late 1930s to be fast, cheap affairs with predictable plots punctuated by free-flying fisticuffs, frog-shrouded streets and gunfire.
Imagine my amazement when I found a few diamonds among the muck.
A guilty pleasure like half-price pie at Perkins after 9pm, several things helped the binge rise beyond being merely self-indulgent mediocrity. First, of course, was the presence of scene-chewing John Barrymore as the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Nielsen. It was uncomfortable to watch such talent being wasted after its shining moment of glory, but it was also heartening to see this consummate professional bring his seasoned experience to his character to make the story a richer experience for the audience and, I imagine, for his fellow actors.
Here, as well, I enjoyed watching a bad guy’s henchman being played by a frighteningly young Anthony Quinn, giving hints of his own greatness to come in an otherwise one-dimensional character.
But the biggest jolt for me was seeing an unexpected talent in Porter Hall playing a bearded villain, suave and soulless, in “Bulldog Drummond’s Peril” (1938). His performance was standard for the time, but what made me sit up was his very credible handling of a bullwhip. He executed only circus cracks and overhand flicks with enough variation and smooth continuity of action to show his expertise was not due to little more than deceptive camera angles, special effects and clever editing, like so much of what I see now. His costar John Howard (as Bulldog Drummond) apparently had enough confidence in him to let him crack that bullwhip damned close to his sensitive bits, even to taking a gun out of his hand with only inches to spare on a set draped with curtains and breakable props (and cameras, lights and mikes) on a crowded set (and yes, they probably did “sweeten” the whip cracks in post-production, which was/is standard).
In this 76-second fight sequence, we see the fatal flaw in using a long bullwhip as a weapon. Facing the cracking whip, our hero holds a sabre which is outmatched by the longer-reaching single-tail. After being slashed a few times, he makes the whip handler miss and tangle enough to give him time to slice the whip in half with his sword. The bad guy, seeing he now grips a thick wobbly leather noodle that could not possibly coil enough to make anything near a satisfying crack, sagely retreats with a bewildered look of horror.
So I introduce to you Porter Hall, another overlooked bullwhip talent like Akim Tamiroff and Charles Laughton, among so many others waiting to be (re)discovered.
Looking for a cheap bullwhip? Caveat emptor!
A well-made bullwhip will practically crack itself. It will take the energy you put into the handle and magnify the power without the loss of a single atom of energy before it breaks the sound barrier. Further, it will keep to its line and be durable enough to give years of pleasure (with the right maintenance). A quality instrument, a good bullwhip can run to three and sometimes four figures in price. An “Indy-style” David Morgan bullwhip can cost up to a thousand dollars (unused).
But if you want this experience on the cheap, the answer is a bit more convoluted. All roads may lead to Rome, but none of them are straight.
A few years back, I tried to find bullwhips for folks who want to try whipcracking without investing a couple of hundred dollars in equipment they might not use after one or two times.
I looked at nylon whips (and whipmakers). There are some good ones, but the drawback is that the material itself is porous enough to absorb the energty of a throw — in effect, the whip “falls asleep” before it can crack. To compensate for this, the whip wielder will usually throw faster and harder, trying to “muscle” the whip through its arc. This lowers accuracy, increases the energy required and tires out the thrower. It’s more work and less fun.
In my research, I discovered that goat leather is halfway between cow leather and kangaroo leather in strength. This meant that goat leather can give a whip strength at a fraction of the cost of a comparable kangaroo whip.
I experimented with leather braider No. 1 from Pakistan. The price was right, and with some coaching, he gave me a decent product at the right price. Over time, though, the quality started to drop. The material being used became greatly inferior to what it had been., and there was no telling how soon an order would be fulfilled. Some shipments took months beyond promised delivery dates, and I lost untold opportunities to sell whips at workshops and demos. As a result, I fired him.
Whip maker No. 2 also was from Pakistan. He appeared to be making the whips correctly, at least in the pictures — he certainly had the braiding down. But when I ordered bullwhips from him, I was horrified to see what I was sent. Whips had broken strands. Falls snapped off easily. Whips were loosely braided, and the dye jobs were not consistent, even in a single whip. The whips were, in a word, crappy. And I had taken orders for these whips, and folks bought them, based on my good reputation. When I sat down and saw what had happened, I made refunds to everyone. Yep, once again, I lost money. As a result, I fired him, too.
Still hopeful, I found a website that offered a vast selection of whips and riding crops along with other tack supplies. I purchased several stockwhips and a few coach whips. I received them and saw that the braiding was loose, the inner weight out of balance, and a few other thingsthat showed me I’d wasted my time and money. They were returned, and although my money was refunded, I lost dollars on the restocking fees.
So — where can you find a cheap whip?
First, stop looking for a “cheap” whip. If you must, look for an inexpensive whip of good quality.
Just remember, you will likely get what you pay for. And just as there are no shortcuts to greatness, there is no substitute for quality — at any price. So choose wisely.
How cool — I wrote this book “Let’s Get Cracking! The How-To Book of Bullwhip Skills,” a few years back, and I saw tonight that it is still in Amazon’s Top Twenty Percent of popular books…Then I remembered Amazon has 11 million titles, with mine rated number 600,000. Hmm. I do not want to sound ungrateful for that monthly royalty check, but perhaps it’s time for another book. I’ve had one percolating for a while. More to come.
Even in the present tense. So how better to make sure the right story — the real story — gets out than by doing it myself? So, dear reader — let’s have some fun!