In addition to the pain of it all, you might wonder how hair can really support a human body.
A single strand of healthy human hair can hold 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of weight, the equivalent tensile strength of copper wire of the same diameter. So, theoretically (if not in practice) the hair on a typical human head could support 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) of weight [source: Lee].
A hair hanger might have 3 feet (1 meter) of hair. But it's not the length or even the conditioning that is the real secret to performing this feat.
The real trick is the braid. When the members of the Ayala family pass down their hair-hanging secrets to the next generation, it's all about securing the hair to the steel ring in such a way as to distribute the pulling force equally across the scalp.
If the tension on the scalp is uneven, chunks of hair can be literally ripped from the performer's head. Yikes!
The details of the braid – and the knot that secures it to the ring – are well-protected trade secrets. Each circus family has its own braiding technique that requires careful study and years of experience. Anastasia IV said she figured it out herself through painful trial and error.
Doing the braid requires time and a team effort. It takes her 30 minutes to brush out her hair in preparation for it to be braided. Then her husband and second helper carefully plait her hair like a rope, which takes another 45 minutes [source: Cawley]. The Ayalas have it down to a science, requiring only 20 to 40 minutes for the men of the family to braid and tie the women's hair to the thick support ring [source: Beck].
For lots more hair-raising feats of human endurance – and a few brilliant hoaxes – check out the related HowStuffWorks links below.
Author's Note: How Hair Hanging Works
For a few years, my family and I lived in Mexico, where there is a lively culture of small, family-run circuses. I wasn't surprised to hear that the Ayalas, perhaps the "first family" of hair hanging, originated in Mexico. We took our kids to several touring circus troupes, always named after the family (¡El Circo Guzman!). To drum up business, the circus would parade some of the animals through town during the week. I'll never forget walking with my 2-year-old daughter to the market and her pointing over my shoulder with eyes ablaze, "Tiger!" Expecting to see a Tigger balloon behind me, I turned to stand face-to-face with a large, very real tiger pacing her cage. The performances themselves were of wildly varying quality (one featuring an endless series of trained dog acts), but I do remember a few truly gifted hair hangers. Thankfully, there were also plenty of avocados.
More Great Links
- Barr, Meghan. "'Hair hanging' a rare, painful circus act." The Boston Globe. May 5, 2014 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/05/05/hair-hanging-rare-painful-circus-act/AHkuk1EUK00ooz6tOH7KyH/story.html
- Beck, Barbara. "This Act Will Curl Your Hair at the Circus; The Ayalas Really Go Back to Their Roots." Philadelphia Daily News. May 29, 1990 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://articles.philly.com/1990-05-29/entertainment/25890092_1_hair-high-wire-braid
- Cawley, Laurence. "Anastasia IV: How do you make hair strong enough to hang from?" BBC News. April 5, 2014 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-26712995
- Chinese State Circus. "2000 years of tradition explode in the world's greatest acrobatic circus" (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.chinesestatecircus.com/
- Columbia Artist Management Inc. "History of the Chinese Circus" (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.cami.com/worddocs/worddocs2109/HISTORY-OF-THE-CHINESE-CIRCUS.PDF
- Fieldstadt, Elisha. "Ringling Bros. at Fault for 'Hair Hanging' Stunt Malfunction: OSHA." NBC News. Nov. 4, 2014 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ringling-bros-fault-hair-hanging-stunt-malfunction-osha-n240991
- Krieger, Elizabeth B. "Top 10 Foods for Healthy Hair." WebMD. Oct. 20, 2012 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.webmd.com/beauty/hair-styling/top-10-foods-for-healthy-hair
- Lee, Jolie. "What is the circus hair hang act?" USA Today. May 5, 2014 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/05/05/hair-hang-circus-ringling/8719429/
- Millat, Caitlin. "Couple finds love in a three-ring circus." New York Daily News. March 9, 2008 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/couple-finds-love-three-ring-circus-article-1.287665
- Murray, Rheana. "What It Takes to Be a Professional Hair-Hanger in the Circus." ABC News. May 5, 2015 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/US/takes-professional-hair-hanger-circus/story?id=23593385
- Wadler, Joyce. "The Hair Hang Remains a Family Affair." The New York Times. April 7, 1998 (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/07/nyregion/public-lives-the-hair-hang-remains-a-family-affair.html