Life Lessons from a Professional Bullwhip Artist: Robert Dante - CircusTalk

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Life Lessons from a Professional Bullwhip Artist: Robert Dante

My name is Robert Dante. I am a professional bullwhip artist. Indiana Jones. Lash LaRue. Cowboys and Indians. Nightclub Variety act. Half-time entertainment for football fans. 6-foot, 8-foot, 12-foot bullwhips. Working with the whips has taught me some great life lessons, and here are a few:

In Texas, many years ago, when I was a working journalist, I saw someone cracking a whip and immediately inspiration struck. Ithought to myself, “Hey, I want to do that!” So I went out to a little tack shop and bought my first bullwhip. I beat myself half to death just trying to make that whip crack going AWAY from me. In desperate need of an expert, I tried to learn from anybody, everybody.

At that time, every few weeks, I was allowed to go out into the hill country to interview interesting old coots with fascinating stories. Character sketches, personality pieces, and human interest stories. I found an old rancher, he was sitting on the porch waiting for me. When I pulled in, he saw my bullwhip in the back seat. “Ah, you crack a whip? So do I.” He brought out his bullwhip, and I got mine.  In Texas, the horseflies are big as quarters, and there were quite a few buzzing around us. The rancher nodded with a grin and said, “Pick one out.” 

I threw my whip out in the general direction of a fly, not expecting to hit anything — but beginner’s luck was with me and I hit one. It exploded like it had hit a windshield. Pure luck. But I took credit for it. The old rancher nodded again and said, “Pretty good. Now I’ll try.” He picked out his fly and threw his whip out. It cracked, but the fly buzzed on, undisturbed.  

“Aha!” I said. “You missed!” 

“Oh, no,” he said. “That fly will never have children!” 

The man, the myth, the legend. Robert Dante.

And that was my first lesson: Humility. If you’re going to handle a whip, you’d better have some humility, the power to laugh at yourself. The power to fail, again and again, until you get it right.

Here is the second lesson. When you dance with a whip, the whip leads. You don’t make a whip crack, you let it. The power is already in the whip, if your form is correct. It’s simple physics. 

When you hear the whip crack, it is breaking the Sound Barrier. That means the tip of the whip— the lash, the popper, the cracker—is going faster than 761 mph. That’s 1,100 feet a second. 1,224 KM/hr. 340 meters/sec. 

The power is already there. 

For example: a 90-pound girl who is barrel racing on a horse doesn’t muscle the ton-and-a-half horse to the left or the right. She gets the power moving, and then she guides it. Same with a bullwhip. 

In a bullwhip act, it all happens in a heartbeat — like a motorcycle accident. 

My problem was how to stretch that micro-second into 20 minutes for an audience, without boring them to death. I had to mix it up, and try new things, which could be dangerous. 

A live act is in the moment, you have to get it right. You can’t reshoot a sequence, or edit it, or use CGI. The moment is especially cold and huge when I am working with an assistant. Knife throwers call them Target Girls. That means they hold the targets, they aren’t the targets themselves. It’s an irony: When I’m good, I miss. When I’m really hot, I miss closer. The audience isn’t paying to watch me beat up on a girl, they want to see her safely escape from danger, again and again. Keywords: Facing Danger, Coming Out Safe. 

That brought me to my third lesson. If I was tense and tight, the whip was tense and tight, too. I had to learn to relax. The answer? It’s a dancer’s trick: Relax your ass.

(Try it, right now, where you are sitting or standing… See? It’s real!) 

When you relax your butt, your whole body relaxes, and the whip becomes graceful as well as powerful. Less work, more power. Better accuracy. Getting in the zone. It’s a great technique. I have found it helps when I’m in a line at the airport (“Relax your ass!”), or when I’m in the dentist’s chair. “Open wide!” (“Relax your ass!”). It works. And that’s the best thing that can be said about anything. “It works!” That’s still the best thing I can say about anything good: “It works!” High praise, indeed! 

The fourth lesson was when I saw that kids were easier to teach than adults. Kids just seemed to get it quicker. The adults, they’d try, not get it, they’d try again, angrier, harder. Meaner, faster, more power, tense tense tense, and the whip would not dance for them. 

I’d remind them, “Relax your ass,” and that usually helped a bit, but the kids were still way ahead. 

Adults tended to have an idea, a vision, an image, of how the whip was supposed to crack, how they expected it to crack. They’d try to impose that image onto the whip. And the degree of their discomfort was in direct proportion to how far their expectations differed from reality. I had to turn these adults back into children. That is, to make them teachable. I put the whip into their other hand, their wrong hand, and let them crack. They had my permission to be awkward and clumsy. To screw up. To learn from their screw-ups. There was usually a lot of laughter. 

The artist and bullwhip at work.

And when they put the whip back into their dominant hand, they were surprised at how much their left hand just taught their right hand. This is a juggler’s trick. You practice everything with both hands, even if it’s going to be performed with one hand. This teaches both sides of your brain. The adult side of the brain with its critical thinking, and the child side of the brain being in the here and now. I saw a lot more “Aha!” moments-and the learning curve go from this (Flat Hand) to this (Hand taking off like a rocket.) 

Finally, I read somewhere that Rachmaninov, the famous Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor, was deeply insulted by critics when his first symphony came out. He plunged into a deep depression and worried he would never compose again. His friends took him to one of the early psychiatrists, and he used hypnosis. He asked Rachmaninov what he wanted to write next, and Rachmaninov said a concerto. The doctor made these post-hypnotic suggestions: “You are writing your concerto. You are working with a great facility. It is of excellent quality.” And it worked — for Rachmaninov. 

I decided to try self-hypnosis when I ran into a block. But it didn’t do a thing to help me. Not until I added the suggestion, “I am having great fun!” So the affirmation I made was, “I am writing my stories. I am writing with great facility. It is of excellent quality. I am having great fun.” Because if it isn’t fun, you won’t want to do it. So start your day with a good visualization, and be in the moment. 

The whips taught me these life lessons have had a ripple effect on every part of my life. I do not fear failure. I forgive myself a lot (my adult brain is being nice to my child brain). And I have fun. The whips have been very good to me; they’ve let me travel all over the world (my favorites are Australia and Denmark). And even with all that, in the back of my mind, I still hear that rancher telling me, “Oh no, that fly will never have children!”

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Robert Dante
Bullwhip Educator/Coach/Trainer -UNITED STATES
Robert Dante is a 4-time Guinness World Record holder, author of "Let's Get Cracking! The How-To Book of Bullwhip Skills," editor of The Bullwhip Newsletter, and Executive Director of the Bullwhip Hall of Fame. He has performed in arenas as varied as nightclubs and race tracks. He was a journalist, theater, and dance critic. He now lives in Minneapolis.
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Robert Dante

Robert Dante is a 4-time Guinness World Record holder, author of "Let's Get Cracking! The How-To Book of Bullwhip Skills," editor of The Bullwhip Newsletter, and Executive Director of the Bullwhip Hall of Fame. He has performed in arenas as varied as nightclubs and race tracks. He was a journalist, theater, and dance critic. He now lives in Minneapolis.