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.
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