Beyond juggling, unicycle riding and eating glass lies the most challenging of novelty acts: sword swallowing. The danger and difficulty have caused the number of practitioners to diminish in recent years, but World Sword Swallowers Day on Feb. 22 will showcase the best of the art in shows across the U.S., as Dan Meyer, president of the International Sword Swallowers Association, told us.
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What will be the highlight?
We’re looking at breaking records. Last year was the largest event with 43 swallowers, and we have 42 confirmed already. We will have 10 in New York, 11 in Hollywood – including "Enigma," who is covered from head to toe in a solid blue tattoo – and six in Florida. We have a man from Bavaria who will perform in lederhosen, a girl who combines swallowing with martial arts and a lady from Panama who will do ballet at the same time.
What are the necessary skills and how do people get involved?
Most important is to have years of practice and to be very creative. People take it up for different reasons: I did because I was bullied as a child and wanted to do escape with magic. I learned juggling, unicycling, fire and glass eating before I tried swords. I practiced for four years, 10 to 12 times a day, with around 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, and another two years to be consistent. To be a registered member of the association you need to swallow a 15-inch [long] blade, and there are only a few dozen of us in the world. It’s impossible to do safely without risk of serious injury and most of us won't teach beginners unless they are incredibly determined. You need to be mind over matter.
Sword swallowers have to move their organs. Can you describe the process?
In several steps; you have to suppress your gag reflex, get the sword over your tongue and down your throat. Then you turn 90 degrees down the esophagus, past the voice box and Adam’s apple into the chest cavity, between your lungs. The sword slides into the junction around the heart, resting against it and nudging it to the left. If you watch closely, you see the blade beats with the heart. But you can go much deeper than that.