In 2020, you would be hard-pressed to find a sword swallower. Well, any sideshow act, really. In the age of entertainment media, traditional circuses and sideshow, performances grounded in sheer novelty and oddity have slowly disappeared.
In 2017, the Ringling Brothers Circus and Barnum & Bailey both closed. The last place you saw a traditional circus probably wasn’t even a circus at all, but either The Greatest Showman (2018) or in Dumbo (2019), two films that harken back to the golden era of vaudeville and live performance. Today, for a circus to survive, it must produce “new and incredible circus acts and apparatuses and shows that have an artistic context and theatrical storylines, or well-drawn characters. And this has been happening around the world for the past 10, 15 years or so.” according to Voice of America News. Shows like these don’t have names like Ringling Brothers or Barnum & Bailey. Instead, they’re called Cirque de Soleil and Shen Yun. But how are the sideshow performers, whose skills lie in shock value rather than artistic merit, faring?
The Sideshow Swordsmen
Today, there are few sword swallowers still exclusively associated with sideshows. To find those making waves within the last few years, you might turn to Betty
Widely known from his publicity in the Guinness Book of World Records, the Australian Space Cowboy is a magician, freak show proprietor and habitual record-breaker of many talents, sword swallowing among them. Traveling to theaters around the world, he swallows swords, juggles dangerous objects and shows off a collection of oddities he calls his “mutant barnyard.” Due to a congenital division of the stomach, he is able to swallow longer swords than the average performer, and as of the writing of this article, he can be spotted performing at The New Brunswick Picture house, a circus and cabaret.
In England, you might spot John Haze, a pillar of the sword swallowing community and the face of the Circus of Horrors, a show which saw its 25th anniversary this year. Haze is from a circus family; his father is a lion trainer, and he has been involved in performances since the age of 12. After growing up in a circus, he left to become a punk musician amid the horror movie explosion of the 1970s and later returned to Lancashire in 1994, where he conceived the Circus of Horrors. Haze has also made his mark on the next generation of sword swallowers as the performer who inspired Valkyrie, an English sword swallower who was inspired to incorporate sword swallowing into her cancer recovery after attending a performance at the Circus of Horrors. Valkyrie continues to hit the stage, but as economic reality is painful for a sword swallower who sticks to the live performance circuit, Valkyrie also supplements her income with her vegan soap business.
The Modern Magicians
Many of the most successful performers are those who have applied their talents to modern media. MisSa Blue straddles the divide between vintage sword swallowing and avant-garde artistry, incorporating her sword-swallowing talents into work that spotlights the Black and queer communities. She recently performed at Boulangerie, a showcase of drag and queer artists from across the world, and also produced an “arts-activist film supporting the Black Lives Matter movement from her home studio.” She is currently starring in her own solo show, “Black Sheep.”
Sword swallower Dai Andrews is a jack of all trades: he runs multiple entertainment agencies, teaches karate, participates in medical research and has appeared on countless television programs, in addition to his stage performances, where he swallows swords and performs other stunts. Andrews also has connections to the Circus of Horrors, picking up his idea for his trademark swallowing of curved blades from resident performer Wasp Boy.
The most famous sword swallowers in the modern age, however, did not gain notoriety from it exclusively. David Blaine, a television magician, also swallows swords, and so did Andy Kaufman, performance artist and “anti-comedian.”
In the grand scheme of stage performance, both past and present, sword swallowing remains an obscure art form, and one man is dedicated to keeping its history alive. Dan Meyer, a veteran sword swallower and performer himself, runs the SSAI, or Sword Swallowers Association International. The SSAI is “a private organization dedicated to networking the last few existing sword swallowers around the world, promoting dialogue between sword swallowers, encouraging safe sword swallowing practices and techniques, and preserving and promoting the art of sword swallowing worldwide.” Additionally, Meyer runs the world’s largest and most complete archive of sword swallowing history at swordswallow.com. The site hosts a record of four thousand years of sword swallowing, with X-ray photos and a hall of fame cataloging hundreds of performers.
Though the future of stage performance remains uncertain — particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the entertainment industry as we know it — fans of the esoteric can rest easy knowing that the culture of sword swallowers is properly preserved.