How does one become a professional sword swallower? And what happens when things go wrong? Two of the world’s most accomplished performers open up to Amanda Smith.
Sticking things down your gullet for the entertainment of others may seem like a strange way to earn a living, but for professional sword swallowers it’s more fun than you can poke a stick at.
Take the case of Heather Holliday. A New York native, Holliday got her start as an intern at Coney Island during high school (by mistake).
You see, Holliday was supposed to complete her internship at the Coney Island Museum.
But there were staffing problems. ‘The snake charmer had quit,’ Holliday says. ‘They needed another girl on stage.’
Holliday’s first job was as what’s termed a ‘skin’. In sideshow parlance, skins are the good-looking assistants—no lines, no real skills, they’re just there to help out with some of the performer’s tricks.
Despite the limited room for promotion, Holliday ended up learning a range of sideshow skills, including fire-eating.
Holliday took to sword swallowing in particular because it represented a challenge. ‘Swords are the hardest,’ she says. ‘So that was the one that I was determined to conquer.’
For a time, Holliday—then 18 years old—was the world’s youngest female sword swallower.
‘I couldn’t wait to get rid of the title,’ she says. It doesn’t really mean that you’re good. It just means that you’re new.’
There aren’t many sword swallowers in the world—one estimate has the number of active performing professionals as low as a few dozen. And most of them are not women.
In her act Hollidays recalls her sideshow roots: she looks like she might have stepped out of Coney Island in the 1930s or ’40s.
‘I make my own versions of vintage circus leotards and also put my hair in rollers and get the look of that time that I really love,’ she says.
Her performance style, too, is very different from the touring sideshows that were popular when she started performing in the ’90s.
‘It was very harsh and alternative and even really scary, and when I joined the sideshow a lot of the people were like that.
‘Everyone had piercings and hot-pink dreads, and whenever they performed a trick it wasn’t “Ta-da!”, it was “Ye-aaarghh!”, trying to shock.
‘I just felt: why don’t I show that it can be done gracefully?’
There has been an unfortunate side effect of this approach, though: Holliday makes sword swallowing look a little too easy and audiences sometimes think she’s faking it.
‘One of the hardest things for me in my career has been building skills just to have people say, “That wasn’t real,”‘ Holliday says. ‘Since swallowing a sword is inside you, people want to come up with all kinds of ways it can be fake.’
The idea that sword swallowing looks too easy plays into one of the blade-based community’s most bitter feuds: a rivalry with magicians.
‘What they do is fake, and everyone thinks it’s real,’ Holliday says. ‘Everything we do is real, but everyone thinks it’s fake.’
Chayne Hultgren is based in Byron Bay. He performs under the name ‘The Space Cowboy’, and describes himself as ‘an extreme performance artist’.
Hultgren began performing when he was eight years old, when he first learned to ride his sister’s unicycle.
‘I would go down to the local markets and ride around and people would throw money at me, so I knew I was on to something good,’ he says.
By the time Hultgren was 19, sword swallowing seemed like a natural progression.
Initially he trained by putting hoses down his throat. ‘It was a couple of years before I actually swallowed anything solid, let alone blades,’ he says.
As a practice, sword swallowing dates back over 4,000 years and pops up throughout the ancient world.
‘It’s an art,’ says Hultgren. ‘Fakirs and shamans would defy death, prove their immortality and [show] how they could take on the spirits by pushing a blade down their throat.’
But what is the physiology of sword swallowing? According to Hultgren, the common misconception is that it’s simply a matter of relaxing your insides and letting the sword slide in.
‘You’ve actually got to physically hold the muscles open,’ he says.
Learning to control the gag reflex is the first step. ‘When you’re putting something long and solid down your throat it makes you want to retch, so the first part is teasing the gag reflex until you can control it and not throw up.’
The next task is learning to control the oesophageal sphincters—the muscles that retract every time you swallow.
Physically holding open the oesophageal sphincters, Hultgren says, is vital: ‘If they retract on the blade, then that’s obviously not a good thing.’
Once these two requirements have been mastered, Holliday describes sword swallowing as like ‘putting your foot inside a sock’.
‘It doesn’t seem possible, but your oesophagus straightens out for the sword,’ she says. ‘As it’s going in, my body takes the shape.’