on February 23, 2013 - 10:01 PM
, updated February 24, 2013 at 9:18 AM
Sword swallowing just isn’t the career it used to be.
You’re always having to carry around X-rays to prove it isn’t a trick. The job opportunities have waned since the days of the circus sideshow. And then there’s the Internet effect.
“I don’t know how to put this nicely, but every idiot with the Internet now thinks that they can be a fire eater or whatever,” said Vanessa Neil, who claims the title as Canada’s only female sword swallower. “With ‘Survivor,’ suddenly bug eating was not so scary to people because they’d seen it.”
Bug eating was Neil’s gateway into the world of carnival oddities. Then came eating crushed light bulbs and walking on broken glass, until she finally made her way up to the pièce de résistance of the freak show – sword swallowing.
It was that staggering skill that brought her to Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Saturday to mark World Sword Swallower’s Day along with 33 others who performed the feat across the continent.
Yes, there’s a day set aside by the few-dozen sword swallowers left in the world to show off their talents, explain the intricacies of dropping a 24-inch piece of steel down your throat and let people know that sword swallowing isn’t just a thing of the past.
And it didn’t fail to impress. It took just 15 seconds for Neil to place the 2-foot sword to her lips, slide it into her body and take a bow before removing it, but it elicited loud gasps and cheers from the crowd.
“It was amazing,” said Natasa Djermanovic, after watching Neil slide a gleaming metal sword through her esophagus. “It just dropped into her stomach. I was about ready to pass out.”
Neil, 37, never tires of that reaction. The Toronto native spent years learning to control her gag reflexes so she could crank up her talents from eating bugs and crushed glass to pushing a very long, but dull, sword into her stomach.
“I can’t really think of anything else I would compare it to in difficulty,” Neil said. “With glass eating, you just kind of have to be stupid enough to try it and smart enough to chew it up enough that you don’t kill yourself. Sword swallowing is something you really have to want to do. It’s not something you can just pick up.”
Well, there is one thing that may be tougher. She was there to watch Nik Wallenda walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope last summer and concedes that would be more difficult.
“With a sword, you have to maintain that focus and awareness of your body for possibly an entire minute. It takes maybe 30 seconds to get it down, take a bow, pull it out, and that’s that,” Neil said. “But to do what he’s doing, you have to maintain that focus for a lot longer.”
The 4,000-year-old art of sword swallowing – which is believed to have started in southern India – hit its peak in popularity in the United States in the early 1900s, when every circus had a sideshow, said Dan Meyer, a full-time sword swallower who planned to perform in Baltimore on Saturday to mark his profession’s day.
Meyer is on a mission to spread the word about sword swallowing. And he almost makes it sound easy.
You know, just repress the gag reflex in the back of your throat, find the proper alignment into the epiglottis, through the upper esophageal sphincter, repress a second reflex, go past the heart and the sternum, through the diaphragm, past the liver and into the stomach. Voilà.
“Piece of cake,” Meyer said with a laugh. Then he tells you about the 10 to 12 times a day he practiced for four years before he got his first sword down. He estimates that was about 13,000 unsuccessful attempts. Today, he travels to about 20 countries a year with a motivational message of conquering the impossible.
“For me, it was a way of pushing the limitations of the human body and doing something that I thought was 99 percent impossible,” Meyer said.
He doesn’t discount the dangers. Performances have landed him in the hospital twice – once, he said, when he punctured his stomach while trying to swallow five swords at once and another time when he perforated his esophagus. Like Neil, Meyer starts every performance with a disclaimer: Do not try this at home.
Neil’s performances still make her husband cringe with worry.
“You kind of just think after that many times, what’s the worst that could happen? That’s when I start to freak out,” said Stuart Mundy, Neil’s husband. “It’s a bit nerve-wracking, but that’s what she does. She’s a professional.”
The two met while traveling in India four years ago. After years of traveling to show off her talents, Neil got married, got a day job and bought a house. Her friends expected some kind of big circus performance at the wedding.
“I walked out in a white silk dress and it was about the weirdest thing I could have done,” Neil said, “because no one was expecting it.”