(Indiana) Jonesing

Whip artistry: a how-to

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Gery and Barbara demonstrate whipping tricks with flowers, decks of cards, candles and more; photo: Bill Franz

 

There are a few things you should know about learning to use a bullwhip. The first, as with any new skill honed, is patience. Almost always, this is easier said than done. The second thing to remember is the harder you work at making sure everything goes right, the more likely everything is to go wrong. The sound of the crack—or lack thereof—will tell you this before your instructor has the chance.

Luckily, Gery L. Deer is a patient teacher.

Over and over again, keeping his cool smile (maybe a small grimace) he repeats his mantras: “elbow up;” “eyes straight ahead;” “remember your wrist.”

For this to work, everything must fall into place. Eight feet of whip snakes behind me (I glance back to make sure it won’t grab my ankle on the way up), the butt of the handle knocks against the palm of my hand, eyes forward at the red fire extinguisher on the far end of the studio.

We’re in Gery L. Deer’s “The Whip Artistry Studio,” a converted barn with carpeting and grey-blue walls. Vertical panels help Deer track the lines of his students’ whips as they rise and fall, searching for that “snap.” There’s a memorabilia corner, which houses trophies, performance photos and movie-used items. There’s also a small office, where Deer manages the business side of his whip lessons, organizes events and rounds out his resume as a writer.

And there’s me, somehow, with a cowboy hat on my head, safety goggles over my eyes and a bullwhip in my hand.

I raise my arm, trying to maintain an almost-90-degree bend in my elbow. The whip leaves the floor and arcs over my shoulder. What I’m looking for is a loop in the whip, one that will travel down the length and send a “Crack!” through the frayed tip called a “popper.” That loop is traveling at more than 760 miles per hour.

What I get is less crack, more fizzle. But hey, it’s my first time.

Earlier this morning, I watched Deer snap a flower out of his wife Barbara’s mouth. Then he whipped away a deck of cards, one by one, from her hand.

Let’s just say I’m not there yet.

Getting a handle on it

Deer grew up on a family farm. He had a whip as a child, and played around with it casually, but had never really had a keen interest until he watched “Don Q: Son of Zorro,” the sequel to “The Mark of Zorro,” the original 1920 movie with Douglas Fairbanks, based on Johnston McCulley’s story, “The Curse of Capistrano.”

The film’s lead character featured a whip instead of a sword—an Australian stock whip, to be precise—as the protagonist’s weapon of choice.

Deer immediately recognized the utility of lead character Don Sebastian’s whip—but it wasn’t bad guys Deer was trying to wrestle. Instead, he saw a way to fix a problem on the family cattle farm.

“The electric fencing was one continuous loop of electric fence, so if it went off or got damaged, it stopped pretty much from that point on,” Deer explains. “So I was trying to find a way to get the brush off of the fence wire without getting the pulse, because the electric was still on, and you’re trying to keep the cattle from walking through the fence somewhere else while you’re working on it one place. After I saw that movie I thought, you know I could use a whip to do some of that!”

Don’t be fooled—it wasn’t perfect right away. I can relate.

“This seemed like a good idea at the time,” Deer remembers. “Of course, when I started, it didn’t come out quite like I had in mind. But after some practice I kind of got better at it and I finally got a little bit better with a whip, and time went on and it just kind of got out of control.”

And with that, his love of the whip was born.

Enter the mentor

Every craft has a community, and every crafter eventually finds a mentor. Deer’s was Australian-born, stuntman Alex Green. A 40-plus year veteran of Hollywood, Green was a stunt player. He doubled for movie stars like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. Deer met Green shortly after the release of Antonio Banderas’ “The Mask of Zorro” (1998) in which Green doubled for Anthony Hopkins.

“He kind of just kept me going,” Deer says. “He was more practical with the whip application than most of the people that I saw because a lot of them were martial artists or whatever. He was a whip expert; he was in it for show; he wanted to make it look good. He wanted his actors to be dead on.”

Deer and Green bonded over their focus on accuracy and targeting. Sure, the stunts had to look good, but they also had to be right.

And outside of looking good and being right—and the occasional cattle farming—there really isn’t much else for which a whip should be your tool of choice. Particularly when it comes to self-defense.

“The reality of it is that it doesn’t make a very good weapon,” Deer says. “It’s classified as a weapon in most places but even law enforcement doesn’t understand that a whip is not a very dangerous thing to someone else. Unless someone’s literally going to be tied up, or they’re standing there letting themselves be hit, there’s no way that you can’t get out of its way. I mean you can throw it at them if you want to but you’re not going to get much with that. … If you really want a martial arts weapon out of it, turn it around and use the handle on them because the handle’s got a lead weight in it. So if you really want do some damage, do that then run for the hills!”

Which whip is which?

Back in the studio, Deer gives me a run-through of the equipment.

He explains that there are essentially two major classifications of whips: the stockwhip and the bullwhip. Both the bullwhips and the stockwhips in Deer’s studio are made by professional whip makers.

“You can’t make them with a machine because they’re multiple layers,” Deer explains. “There’s a whip inside a whip, inside a whip. So there are three layers to the professional bullwhip construction.”

It starts out with a metal or some sort of polypropylene or a heavy plastic handle.

The first level of the whip is braided over that. Then comes a layer of bolster material—a piece of leather wrapped down the length of the whip—and then another layer of braided whip.  Then another layer of bolster. Then there’s a final layer over that—that’s the pretty black or brown braided part you can see called the “overlay.”

Performance whips are typically 6-8 feet in length, with handles that vary in length on one end, and a popper on the other. The whip itself is surprisingly heavy, because of the layers, and the lead in the handle is meant to counter-balance the length of the whip—much like the handle of a sword counteracts the blade. The popper at the other end is a small bit of frayed-looking string, which actually disperses the sound of the whip’s crack, making the satisfying pop we all strive for in the studio.

While there are only two main types of whips, there are hundreds of variations, including the hybrid model you’ll see Indiana Jones using. (By the way, the wrist loop on Indy’s whip? Totally decorative.)

Whip with me!

So what is there to do once you’ve whipped your skills into shape? I ask Deer to explain who and what comprises the whip community—minus the “50 Shades of Grey” stuff.

“Prior to the Internet, the community was very isolated,” he says. “I would say there’s maybe a handful of what I would consider professional whip artists out there. You know, people that actually do this for a living. Then there’s sort of what I would call the sideliners. These are people who are a professional at something else, they’re maybe magicians or sideshow people or they’re performers of some other type, or they’re stunt people and they need the whip as part of their act or part of their skill level. Then you have the hobbyist. The hobbyist is the person who just likes it. [Maybe] he’s an Indiana Jones fan or a Zorro fan or he likes Westerns, he just thinks it’s cool.”

Deer often takes his show on the road, with his lovely wife Barbara assisting, holding items that often get snatched from her hands (or her mouth), and standing still to let Deer wrap a whip around her torso. They tell me about some recent ventures, one including a Mega Church that invited him as part of an Indiana Jones weekend. He’s also the producer of the Western Arts Showcase during the Annie Oakley Festival, an annual Darke County event that features quick-draw tournaments, shooting contests and, of course, bullwhip demonstrations.

“The Annie Oakley event started better than 50 years ago,” Deer says. “I was brought into it in 2002 just to do a show. A guy calls me up and says, ‘Hey, will you come and do this? We need a performer for this thing…’ I had never heard of it before, which is kind of weird considering my background.”

Now, Deer basically runs the joint, with his friend Kirk Bass from Xenia, a knife-thrower. The event is held the last full weekend in July and features the only bullwhip fast-draw display in the world.

And, of course, Deer also runs The Whip Artistry Studio. It’s the only permanent facility in the U.S. dedicated to the non-combative study of whip artistry for sport and performance art, and Deer, the senior of two instructors including Bass, teaches groups and individual students of all levels. Luckily, I’m not the first beginner he’s had to deal with.

“You are always a student if you’re good at it,” Deer says. “If you’re not good at it and you walk around and say, ‘Oh I know everything,’ you’re not going to do very well, and not only that, people are just not going to like you.”

I can respect that.

 

For more information about the Whip Artistry Studio, please visit thewhipartistrystudio.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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