An attractive young woman balances precariously with both of her feet on her partner’s head, while they both juggle flaming torches.
A young man runs and leaps, somersaulting through the air over 13 people lined up in a row below.
The “Fire Guy” jumps on his skateboard through a flaming star, followed minutes later with a spectacular display of fire breathing.
Many people see street performers as simple entertainers, but they’re more than that. Buskers are artists, pursuing their dreams, living to share their artistic skills with others.
I have always been fascinated by buskers (also known as street performers), having learned to juggle in my early teens – one of the few activities I shared with my father. He had a friend named Larry, a professional juggler, who would sometimes come over to our house driving his old black hearse (with the license plate “R U NEXT”) to practice with us and teach us new tricks. Larry would lend us video tapes filled with recorded juggling performances that I would study repeatedly. One of my favorite acts was a three-man troupe called “The Flaming Idiots.” The part of their act I remember most vividly was when two of the guys would pass heavy clubs as the third guy walked between them. Wearing a large black wig, each of the clubs flicked his hair as it went past — “swhoosh, swhoosh.”
A little later in my life, when I lived in Montreal, one of my favorite summer weekend activities was to head down to Vieux Port to watch the street performers. (And once upon a time, in Quebec City, I borrowed some torches from a performer between acts to impress my now-wife with my fire juggling prowess.) And now, while I no longer juggle very often myself, I’ve returned to Toronto for the past five years in a row for Buskerfest.
It just doesn’t get old for me. I appreciate the skill of the performers – both their physical abilities as well as their ability to work a crowd. Even if I’ve seen a performer before, every show is unique – a combination of the various elements that come together such as the weather, the size of the crowd, and how involved in the performance the crowd becomes.
I was especially excited this year to meet Rob Williams of the KamiKaze FireFlies, formerly “Gyro” of the Flaming Idiots. (He was also excited to hear that someone still remembered them!) Rob started his career in 1984 on the Renaissance Fair circuit with a variety show involving lots of stand-up with whips, fire, and juggling – and after the first few years, has been making a living from it ever since. He continues to perform because of his passion for it as a creative outlet. He strongly believes that artists “have to be original” and “do their own thing.”
One thing that struck me as I spoke with a number of performers this year was their passion for staying true to their vision. They care most about the integrity of their performance and making people smile. After performing together with her husband for the past 14 years, Sophie of Dream State Circus tells me, “I enjoy it even more now because I’m good at it – I especially enjoy when I feel I’ve given a good show.”
Setting out last year to pursue a full-time career in photography, I can’t help but feel emboldened by these performers who are living their dreams. It is possible!
While busking can be short on the financial rewards, it is a life full of new challenges, experiences, and opportunities for artistic expression. As David Aiken, aka the Checkerboard Guy, put it, “It’s the greatest job in the world – well, except for being a dad.”