How Hair Hanging Works

A member of the Swiss Circus Kirie juggled clubs while hanging by her hair in 1967.
A member of the Swiss Circus Kirie juggled clubs while hanging by her hair in 1967.
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Francisca Vazquez had never seen anything quite like it. It was 1916, in Mexico City, and young Francisca's parents had brought her to see the world-famous Barnum & Bailey Circus. The genius of P.T. Barnum's was to collect exotic acts from around the globe and showcase them to rapt local audiences.

The act that enthralled Francisca, herself a second-generation circus performer, was executed by a duo of long-haired Chinese men. Dressed in silk tunics, the men were lifted into the air by their long, black hair and spun around in a dizzying circle. As painful as it looked, the men wore serene smiles and even sipped tea from small tables set on their laps [source: Wadler].

This, as legend goes, is how the Ayala family was first introduced to the ancient circus art of hair hanging. Depending on who is telling the story, teenage Francisca either taught herself how to braid and tie her hair or was tutored in the secret practice by a "nice Chinese lady" [sources: Beck, Wadler].

Five generations later, the women of the Ayala family are still some of the premiere hair hangers in the world, their act showcased in none other than the modern-day Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus [source: Millat].

The members of Ayala family are some of only a dozen hair-hanging families worldwide [source: Barr]. The scarcity of hair hangers is a tribute to the difficulty of the act, which even the most seasoned performers admit can be incredibly painful. It's also dangerous.

In May 2014, eight hair hangers with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were seriously injured when a metal clasp suspending them 15 feet (5 meters) in the air snapped, sending the women toppling to the ground in front of 4,000 horrified spectators [source: Fieldstadt].

Marguerite Ayala, granddaughter of Francisca Vazquez, suffered her own disastrous fall in 1982, waking from a week-long coma to a broken neck. Two years later, though, she was back in the act [source: Wadler].

What are the secrets behind this feat of follicle strength, where did it originate and what does it feel like to be swung around by your scalp? Keep reading to learn all about hair hanging.