Claire Gurley is tired of being short, proud of the fact that she has finally grown past 5-feet-tall.
“I’m 5-foot and a quarter,” the 12-year-old clarifies.
A few times a year, she gets to add another 40 inches to her height and tower over the rest of the crowd, thanks to a pair of stilts. And Claire loves being that much further from the ground.
“You see things from a different perspective,” she says.
Claire learned how to walk on stilts when she was 7, and for the past three years she has been performing semi-professionally as a stilt walker with Olathe-based Theatre Tech Productions. For the next several weekends, the Clark Middle School seventh grader will be found on her stilts at least once a weekend at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival’s Bonner Springs fairgrounds.
“It really evolved out of something for her to do with our weird family,” said her mother, Dani Gurley. “She took it and made it hers.”
The Gurleys are definitely a family dedicated to all things Renaissance Festival. Dani Gurley's first job was at a festival when she was 14, and she now works professionally with costumes. Claire’s father, Matt Gurley, performs as a magician, and the pair met at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival.
So naturally Claire had to find her own niche within the family. When she was 7, a friend of her father’s who is a stilt walker noticed her interest in his performance.
“He made a pair of stilts for me to try out, and I liked it,” Claire explained.
She started just 12 inches off the ground. She goes up about six inches every time she’s ready for more height. She practiced at the tennis courts near Bonner Springs High and Clark Middle schools because it was flat ground and had a tall fence to hold on to. Then she moved on to grassy areas.
“There was bumps and everything, and a whole new set of things to learn, like to pick up your feet, use small steps if you have to, and look for holes,” Claire said.
Still, it only took a few weeks before she made her stilt-walking debut in 2008 at the Renaissance Festival. Soon a family friend, Paul Craig, the owner of Theater Tech Productions, made a suggestion.
“It started out as going out and walking around and having fun, then he started to say ‘Hey, you’re unique; I can put you to work,’” Dani Gurley said. “Female stilt walkers are pretty rare.”
As are 12-year-old stilt walkers. The family is fairly sure Claire is the youngest professional stilt walker in the Midwest. Claire was put to work at events such as the Light the Night Walk, Lenexa’s Enchanted Forest Halloween event, and a Step Up for Downs event at Arrowhead Stadium. She puts any money she makes in a savings account meant either for a car or college.
She has performed in western Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, sometimes at Renaissance Festivals and other events where her father goes to perform.
“I do Renaissance Festivals just for fun — I just walk around and see how people are doing,” Claire said.
Because it is just “for fun,” Claire said she is unlikely to be on her stilts at the local festival on sweltering hot days and days when it has rained significantly the day or night before, to avoid getting stuck in the mud.
Aside from her stilts, Claire is in choir and band, is the vice president of her 4-H club, raises rabbits, plays softball and volleyball, and is active in her church youth group.
She doesn’t want to be a stilt walker for life. She said her goal is to be a professional singer or, if that doesn’t work out, a lawyer. Still, she’d like to increase her stilt “lift” until she makes it to eight feet from the ground to the bottom of her feet, the minimum height that the Ringling Brothers Clown School requires for those who audition.
“Our approach is that if she wants to run away and join the circus for a year, one of us will go along and she can do it,” Dani Gurley said. “You only get to do it once in life, go for it.”