Photo by Brian Hockensmith

Walking Tall

What do you and your friends do when you hang out? Board games? Beers?

Jessica Minshall’s swing from trapezes, ride unicycles, breathe fire, and walk on stilts. Her Amazing Giants, a delightful band of circus performers, illusionists, and freelance freaks, give new meaning to the concept of friends in high places.

Formed in Columbus in 2011 by Minshall, a musician and self-taught stilt walker, the group oonsists of about 30 friends and local performers who appear all around the city and state at festivals and private gigs. “Performing is something we love doing together,” she said.

Minshall – also known as Jessijem, her stilt walking alter ego – first became interested in the art form through a chance invitation to perform for The String Cheese Incident in Colorado. “I had done hoop dancing, but this was my first ever performance on stilts in front of 10,000 people.”

Learning to walk on three foot extensions can be a tall order according to Minshall, who considers the need to keep moving at all times the most challenging aspect. Still, she says, with the right mindset, anyone can learn.

“I came back to Ohio after that and convinced a few of my friends to learn, and people started taking photos and calling us,” she said.

From those early practice sessions in Clintonville’s Park of Roses, a company was born.

The group, whose larger-than-life talents has been steadily garnering them fans around Columbus, began performing together under the name Amazing Giants, and they have appeared at hundreds of events since then, wowing the crowds and having a great time building their friendship.

Minshall, who stands nine feet tall on stilts, said that her company has grown so much that performing is now her full-time occupation. “It’s awesome to be able to do this as a real-life job.”

The theatrical nature of stilt-walking attracts Minshall, especially the costumes. “I have loved playing dress up ever since I was a toddler.”

The costumes, vibrant and surreal, are a spectacle unto themselves. “We usually dress for whatever the event is. Most of it is drawn from the realm of fantasy.”

Their performances continue to evolve with the addition of choreographed dances and acrobatics. “We used to just dance crazy, but now we have started experimenting with synchronized routines,” said Minshall. “We are always pushing the boundaries of what we think we can do.”

If dancing on three-foot platforms is distinctive, the addition of fire arts makes it even more so.

“Our fire eaters take torches and move them up and down their bodies, touching the surface of their skin to create the illusion that they are on fire.”

They also carry flaming parasols, jump through burning hoops, and spew blue flames from their mouths. Most of the group, whose numbers have grown steadily since it was formed, are multi-talented, with skills in aerial arts, dance, and theatrics, but stilt-walking, said Minshall, is the crowd favorite.

“Stilters are with you,” she explained. “You are not on stage. You are not removed from people’s reach. You have very close interaction with the audience.

Experiencing their joy makes us feel almost high – no pun intended,” she added with a mischievous smile.