Pregnant Snake Charmer For Hire

Stephanie Torres is eight months pregnant, but unlike many other expecting working mothers, she has no upcoming maternity leave. And no steady paycheck to rely on. But she does have an eight and a half-foot albino python, and an alluring stage name, “Serpentina.”

A member of the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore cast since 1998, Torres earns a living as a snake charmer and continues to seek work even as her due date approaches.

This past Saturday night she performed at an event to benefit the Boys and Girls Club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, with other members of the Coney Island show. She also intends to entertain at the upcoming Coney Island Spring Gala in New York City this weekend.

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Serpentina and Pee-Wee Porterhouse. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Torres.

Since first taking the stage with Sideshows by the Seashore, Serpentina has charmed several serpents and built a rapport with each over the years, allowing her to sync her movements to the snake’s. In a typical performance, Torres — who towers at 5′-10″ and has a bifurcated tongue — dances with her slithering partners as it moves “this way and that way” to the music. Much of their choreography occurs from her knees. “The balance is easier when I have the snake up in the air,” Torres explains.

Holding the snake aloft as she kneels, Serpentina will seductively bring its face to hers as she bends backward — a feat she still pulled off successfully just days ago with the debut of a new four and a half-foot long albino python, Pee-Wee Porterhouse, at the Asbury Park show. “I was surprised and excited about it,” she says. Her recently retired partner, Firecracker, was also an albino python. In her experience, that particular breed is livelier on stage than others.

After three to five minutes, her shows typically end by affectionately drawing the serpent’s head into her mouth for a kiss. However, due to the Salmonella carried by snakes, that’s one part of her performance that’s changed during her pregnancy. “I don’t have proof, but I think I’ve developed immunity, but I don’t want to take a chance with the baby,” she says.

Other than that, she’s had no worries about her unique line of work. “Concerns about the snake getting aggressive or hurting me haven’t gone through my mind.”

Her boyfriend, Tim Porter, who earns his living as a welder and carpenter, is supportive of her career and continued work. “He think it’s cool,” she says. “He thinks it’s sexy.”

Winter bookings, however, aren’t in abundance for a snake charmer. Not only is it a slow season, but Torres hasn’t dedicated the usual time to pursue gigs because she’s been preoccupied readying her house for the baby — a boy to be named Gunner Steel Porter.

Baby proofing is something all expectant parents go through, to differing degrees. But Serpentina’s is a bit unique. She and Porter keep three snakes and three dogs in their home. At nearly nine feet, and weighing 30 pounds, Firecracker is the largest. It should be noted his full name is Firecracker Von Voom — a promotion from his original name, Cracker. “He started biting people, so I said I think we need to change it to Firecracker,” Torres explains. “Firecracker Von Voom.”

She had performed with him since 2007, but respiratory problems forced Firecracker to retire from the stage. His roommates include his replacement, Pee-Wee Porterhouse, and a California red-tailed boa called Pancho McBride, which belongs to Porter.

Their canine counterparts include a Chihuahua, a Chihuahua Yorkie mix and a large mutt. “Firecracker could eat both of the Chihuahuas,” Torres says. “You have to keep them well fed to keep them calm. I keep them on a regular feeding basis. That’s very important.”

The snakes live in the bathroom in individual terrariums, but will be moving into an empty guest bedroom. “Once they’re in the bedroom, we’ll padlock the door so once the kid starts walking around he can’t get curious,” Torres says.

Then, of course, there’s the baby’s room. They’ve already painted the walls to look like metal panels with rivets. “Like Gru’s lab from Despicable Me,” she says.

This spring, Serpentina will no longer be part of the Coney Island Sideshow cast, but she intends to continue snake charming independently. A few gigs a week earns enough income for her to live.

“It will be nice because I can spend more time with the baby once he’s here,” Torres says. “It’s better than a nine to five.”

© Marc Hartzman

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8 Motorcycles, 1 Globe of Steel

Danger always surrounds motorcycles. Especially when sixteen feet of steel in the shape of a globe also surrounds the motorcycle. Make that eight motorcycles—going at speeds of up to 65 mph.

But for the Torres family, stars of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, DRAGONS, zipping around the Globe of Steel is an everyday routine. Though they’ve been performing the act for 15 years, this is the first time they’ve attempted eight motorcycles. The death-defying feat is a world record for the five Torres brothers and three cousins (seven men, one woman).

The Torres Family in the Globe of Steel

The Torres Family ride 8 motorcycles in the Globe of Steel. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

In order to pull off the stunt and live to tell about it, the Torres’ use a system of whistle blowing and engine revs to cue each rider for his or her set pattern inside the globe. Aside from the obvious threat of collision, there’s also the risk of a bike chain snapping, a cable’s clutch breaking, and a bike choking.

The thrill and their passion for the sport, of course, outweigh the risks.

“We feel a rush of adrenaline mixed with the aroma of gasoline,” says Jose Angel. “And to be honest with you, there is no better feeling than just that.”

The few broken bones and bruises they’ve endured along the way, he says, “All come with the job.”

The Torres family hails from Paraguay, where they competed in motorcross events before discovering the sphere of steel that would become their livelihood. That epiphany came when the circus visited town and presented “El Globo de la Muerte”—the Globe of Death.

“We were already fascinated by the name,” Jose Angel recalls. “There were two bikes and they were awesome. The adrenaline, the speed, the maneuvers. We felt that we were part of the show already.”

They met the performing duo after the show, who invited them to give the globe a shot.

Entering the Globe of Steel

The Torres Family prepares to conquer the Globe of Steel. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

“We thought it was easy, but we realized it was not,” Jose Angel says. “It took us several months to just take off because the reaction of the bike is way different inside the globe. We had to learn how to shift, how to use the clutch, how to use the back and front brakes.”

Within a year they perfected the act and were invited to perform in various Latin circuses. Now, having taken the art to a new level with eight riders, they’re ready to push it even further.

“We will try nine and we would actually love to try it now!” Jose Angel says.

What’s one more motorcycle? And who’s the lucky member of the Torres family who gets to ride it?

© Marc Hartzman

The Hair Hanging Wonders

An early 20th-century Barnum & Bailey circus poster depicts an extraordinary act featuring three Chinese performers drinking tea with their legs crossed—as they hang in the air from their hair. In the background, several other acrobats can be seen swinging from their tresses as well. Today, the daring act lives on in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which is celebrating the Chinese Year of the Dragon with its show, DRAGONS. Viktoriya Medeiros and Widny Neves form the remarkable Hair Hanging Wonders duo. With their hair tied to metal rings and a swivel, Medeiros hangs from Neves, who is suspended upside-down high above the arena floor. As she hangs, Medeiros calmly juggles and spins dizzyingly like a twirling figure skater.

Hair Hanging Wonders

Viktoriya Medeiros and Widny Neves, the Hair Hanging Wonders. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Their act also involves a long silk attached to Neves’ mane, from which Medeiros twists her way down toward the ground. She considers it their most difficult routine. “I need to be really careful not to give an extra push,” she explains. “Holding by my hair is one thing. Holding someone else is using totally different muscles, and you’re upside down. You can prevent movement in your own body, but not in your partner’s body. You always have to be ready. Always.” If dangling from your hair sounds excruciating, that’s because, well, it is. “It’s really painful, it’s not for everybody,” Medeiros admits. “Some days are good, some days are bad,” she says. “You just smile to the public. I love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s something different and I like to be different. Nothing is easy in any job. But if you love it, you can be happy.” Hair happens to be an extremely strong substance. The tensile strength of a single strand can support about .25 lbs. A healthy head of hair having 100,000 strands could then support more than 20,000 lbs. Of course, the act takes much more than hair strength. The feat requires great muscle strength in the neck and back as well. And these muscles have to be exercised regularly. Medeiros trains about every three days to maintain her abilities. “Once you stop, you start over,” she says. “I need to continue constantly. If I stop for one month, I have a hard time.” According to Medeiros, whose genes have fortunately given her strong, thick hair to begin with, her locks have also gained strength from hanging. “Once you start to hang by the hair, it builds muscles. It gets stronger and stronger.” In addition, she’s diligent about hair care. No blow-drying. No chemicals in her shampoos. And she keeps a particular diet. “I drink a lot of vitamins that are good for hair. I eat a lot of eggs and avocado,” she says. “I used to hate avocado, but it’s good for strong hair so now I love it.” Medeiros began training as a gymnast at the age of 5 and started studying circus skills in 2001. She eventually partnered with her husband, Andrey, in a high wire motorcycle stunt—which they received as a wedding gift in 2004 and still perform today. It was about five years ago when Medeiros decided to turn her head of hair into a new act. “I started with my best friend, we wanted something different, no one is doing it,” she says. Andrey helps make the act possible. He’s the only one who ties the hair around the metal rings and swivels that allow the duo to safely hang. “It’s not 100%, but I trust my husband, he’s the only one who can tie my hair, I don’t even trust myself,” she says. “He ties Widny as well. Accidents can happen, but I trust him. He knows how to do it.“ © Marc Hartzman

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