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Health Fitness

The Calypso King

You’ll find them on any warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon in New York’s Washington Square, in a fringe of chess games, sun-worshippers, singers, exhibitionists, hustlers, and a group of young people muttering “Smoke? Smoke?” to anyone who is not indigenous (which is almost everyone, since this is where the tourists come to hang out, trying to feel indigenous people while enjoying the show). At first, he may not know the Calypso Tumblers apart from the other performers vying for crowd share. So you look for the biggest crowd growing in the park. And you listen for harping on the babble of the British West Indies. Singing in unison, applause. A glimpse of a body catapulting madly through the air. Nearby, an aspiring break-dancer with a relentless barker tries to push the viewers away, earning little more than a glance… suitors, timeless upstarts to the degree that they should know better, should concede that when it’s showtime. , Calypso glasses own Washington Square.

At the heart of things is Alex Bartlette, a handsome boy from St Kitts, with dreadlocks and gleefully aggressive banter. He says he’s 35, 5’7″ and 175 pounds. None of that is apparent; he looks younger, more compact. Shirtless, he shows off a torso and arms worthy of a middleweight lineup at Nationals. But his things are functional, because Alex is not only the leader, promoter and director of the group, but he is its star artist. He is also one of the most incredible athletes I have ever seen. More than anything, it’s what I saw Alex do one summer afternoon that stopped me there to watch a while longer.

A staccato of forward and backward aerials, executed so naturally, with such ease, as if it had just occurred to him at that moment to do it. Vertical push-ups: more than twenty, the last half dozen with the forearms resting on the pavement. Alex walks up the steps with his hands, jumps those steps with his hands. He juggles three or four raw eggs and catches one behind his neck and tossing it back into the air, before catching it (now scrambled) in his mouth. With a running start – only shoes on concrete and no springboard – she launches herself over a pole held up over six feet tall, flipping and landing on his feet. Alex culminates the act of him doing the same on a row of nine women drawn from the audience.

You may have seen some of this at the Arnold Fitness Expo a few years back, where the act included a guy named Abdul doing a mind-blowing one-armed move. plank grind atop wobbly piles of bricks. It was not easy to get the boys there; It took him a year of begging to get a tape from Alex to send to Jim Lorimer. It’s not that the Calypso Tumblers are strangers to the media; In addition to appearing in nearly every New York newspaper (plus a host of foreign newspapers), they have had numerous television appearances, including Arsenio Hall, Good Morning America, The Today Show and NBC Showtime at the Apollo. They have performed at major festivals, carnivals, and corporate functions, in the US and abroad. And they’re a huge hit at the Arnold, where attention is hard to steal if you’re not Trish Stratus or beyond surreal. But amidst these spikes, despite their fantastic marketability, the Calypso Tumblers still make a daily living as street performers, pleading with an audience together, passing the hat around. Seems like a terrible waste to me.

Alex took me to his gym, a modest little strip in Jersey City. He doesn’t come here much, but then again, he doesn’t need to. If intensity rules, Alex’s street performance efforts are on par with the regimen of any SynthOlympian, few of whom could handle a vertical pushup. And who needs squats with body throws like these? So Alex avoids the heavyweights, even though he’s obviously capable of it. Most of his training consisted of just two movements: lat pulldowns and crunches on steep incline planks. Besides, I don’t remember seeing him eat anything that day except some fruit and a few hard-boiled eggs, which he unceremoniously peeled and popped into his mouth as he drove his Ford Explorer toward the Holland Tunnel. “Your body won’t take this forever,” I told him. “The pavement is going to kill you. Sooner or later your joints are going to shoot out. I have advanced arthritis in my right shoulder just from lifting uncompetitive weights. You are thirty-five now. What will you be doing in five years?” Alex smiled. “Real estate. I have property in St. Kitts.”

He had grown up there, in a family with ten siblings. Superb genetics and the eventful childhood of island life, where you fought in the streets for a dollar and engaged in body stunts on the beach, gave him the physical foundation to brave the New York pavement. Alex didn’t find the Calypso Tumblers when he arrived in 1986; that had been done five years earlier by MC John “Dr. Juice” Allicock, who would guide him from some rudimentary stunts to mid-air wonders. Aware of his gift and attractiveness, Alex moves at times with an informed arrogance. He knows all-the cops, the salesmen, the hustlers. Young women give him phone numbers, occasionally with condoms. He is a player in a landscape characterized by anonymity. He should know that there are much greater possibilities beyond this, maybe he does, but he finds the street thing enjoyable and will come back to it again and again.

I couldn’t help but think of Alex and his boys while attending the Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas last fall. At the Mandalay and elsewhere, I watched dozens of hulking guys wandering the casinos, conspicuously bloated with site-injected splendor so excessive as to have abdicated their role; I could imagine them flailing helplessly as the turtles flipped onto their backs. Yet these same fellows would no doubt laugh at the stunts of John Grimek and his ancestors, old geezers who had felt the absurd need to do stuff with his strength, to have fun demonstrating his usefulness… that “physical culture” crap. Meanwhile, all over Vegas I see billboards announcing star appearances by singers, comedians, and conjurers in casinos and hotels, none of whom risk life or limb with every performance, few of whom are truly electrifying, and all of whom they will probably order more in a week. of what Alex earns in a year.

“They’ll probably be treated like royalty too,” I tell him. “Limousines, the best restaurants, maybe even all the showgirls who want…” It’s a warm November morning in Battery Park. Alex and the boys are working on the boardwalk as they usually do on weekdays, though the tourists visiting the Statue and Ellis Island are dwindling with the season and the terrible events of two months prior. Alex isn’t paying much attention to my talk about showbiz. “Excuse me for a minute,” he says, hyper-enunciating each syllable. I have to take care of business. And he trots toward the line that forms for the boat, addressing the crowd with the mock formality of a non-existent park official: “Everyone on board, please line up behind this rope…thank you, it’s so polite- me love Polite people… I must inform you that the Statue and Ellis Island are closed for security reasons. The ship will circle around you…” Alex pauses to flirt with one or two of the women, making a big fuss in her knowing tone about how pretty they are, her angels. “Now, while you wait, my friends and I am going to sacrifice our own personal safety to entertain you. If you like what you see, clap your hands. Like this: “He claps, and the other Tumblers get high, clapping too.” whose like what you see, please clap your hands anyway…”

Alex has them now; the crowd warms to him, if only in curious amusement at his cheeky charm. The ship hasn’t docked yet and then he has to throw up, so these people aren’t going anywhere, not for a few minutes. And the queue is building, a captive audience -street-style. Show time. King Calypso stops a dumpster, jumps on it, removes his shirt and begins.

December 2001

PS: In 2007, the Calypso Tumblers appeared to great acclaim on “America’s Got Talent.”

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