JP’s comment last week mentioned the Fliptwisters. Allow me to explain.
The Fliptwisters were a bunch of elementary school kids who performed “tricks.” That’s what we called our gymnastics-ish routines—we were too young and our world was still innocent enough not to snicker over some conjectured double entendre.
Led by our gym teacher (we’ll call him Mr. M), we met for an hour every morning before school and at least two hours after school, practicing and learning new tricks. We performed choreographed tumbling, unicycle, and mini-tramp routines during intermission at college basketball games, at old folks’ homes, for disabled kids, during parades. I was a member of the “Spanish Fleas,” the elite tumblers who performed increasingly more difficult tricks, from forward rolls to aerial front-walkovers, down the mat to the tune of Spanish Flea (most of you will know the song from a Simpsons episode but to those of us alive in 1965, it was a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass hit). Yes, indeed.
I was an original Fliptwister. I don’t remember what year it started—I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade, maybe 1969-1970. It started out with just tumbling and mini-tramp routines, and then unicycles were added, and then Mr. M kept finding more obscure vehicles for our talents. There were stilts and rings and really tall unicycles and the dreaded German wheel. We even had a see-sawing ramp for the unicycles. I don’t know where he found these things. They struck me as European—had I known what “Felliniesque” meant when I was 11, that’s what I would have called it.
Mr. M was a tough customer. If he hadn’t been an elementary school gym teacher, I’m certain he would have been a high school or college football coach, modeling himself after Woody Hayes. He had blond hair, looked German but carried himself like a gruff Midwesterner, tall and muscular, a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy. Looking back, it is hard for me to imagine what motivated him to create this traveling show. Maybe he was trying to honor some Germanic ancestor with feats of strength and agility, accompanied by vaulting horses and rings and things.
The Fliptwisters quickly became “popular”—in the relative sense, of course; no one outside of our suburb knew about us. By the 5th grade, we were touring around central Ohio and appearing on the local news as snappy human interest material. We had t-shirts and uniforms. We all had unicycles.
In my ongoing effort to reconstruct my childhood, I googled “Fliptwister.” To my surprise, I found a comment on a blog, a testimony to the curious little subculture in which we lived:
When I was in elementary school, few people rode bikes, most rode unicycles to school. I didn’t think twice at the time but it must have been pretty funny. The people who were really good rode high rise ones (like 6 feet tall). There was a team called the fliptwisters and they did all sorts of gymnastics, plus unicycle tricks like two high risers holding a pole, riding in circles, between them while someone did flips on it (pre-lawsuit days obviously). Crazy stuff that you do when you grow up in Ohio.
I recall being one of those doing flips. I didn’t weigh much so I was often selected to do the trickier tricks—and test new equipment, like the German wheel. Cirque du Soleil has a web page about the German wheel. One look at that thing reminds me why I hated it so much. Mr. M insisted that I be the first to try it. At no more than 4’8″, I was not tall enough to reach from one end to the other. I tried to reach the handles on tip-toe but I was terrified of falling out, skeptical of momentum or any other law of physics that might apply. Mr. M and I had a showdown and I nearly quit the team. It was one of the few times we argued.
I had forgotten that we rode our unicycles everywhere. I learned how to ride by the tried-and-true method of clinging to the chainlink fence that bordered the blacktop playground. First, you master the quick step onto the pedals, and with each rotation of the wheel you pull yourself along the fence. Once you get used to the feel, you push yourself off the fence and fall and do it over again. I was too short to manage the 6′ tall unicycle, not having the leg length to reach the pedals. And anyway, I found them impractical. Where could you go? The slightest dip in the ground could send the thing flying.
I have a vivid memory of an afternoon spent riding around the neighborhood on our unicycles, calling our fellow Fliptwisters out into the street like pied-pipers, creating a long train, riding up and down the streets that were named after poets (Longfellow, Poe, et al).
Anytime I hear a song from this time period—1968-1972—I flash back instantly to the gym. We had a small turntable-in-a-box, the kind you would find in a classroom, and everyone brought in their favorite 45s to play during practice: Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack, Three Dog Night, Al Green, Carole King, the Stylistics, the Staple Singers, the Osmonds, the Partridge Family. One year, some girlfriends and I—mostly Spanish Fleas—choreographed a routine to the Partridge Family’s “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat.” We performed it in the dark with blacklight and wore white socks and white ribbons in our hair so they glowed in the light. Tell me you’re not impressed.
After sixth grade, we were expected to put away our unicycles and join a real gymnastics team, which I did until I discovered pot and cheerleading (another story entirely). In high school, I attended Mr. M’s retirement party. Most of the Fliptwisters were there, and some of us were drunk (3.2 beer was legal for 18 year olds, which really meant that all beer was legal). My friend Chard (short for Richard) and I found a grassy spot outside the reception hall to do backflips and aerials and other tricks. I sprained my wrist.
If I were ever to see Mr. M again, I’d tell him what a blast that was. All of it.