NEW YORK -- "Hair hanging" is an incredibly painful, highly specialized aerial performance in the circus world, confined to certain families who pass their secrets about the tradition down through generations of performers.
Eight circus acrobats plummeted to the ground during such a performance at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Sunday in Rhode Island when the apparatus they were hanging from fell. Experts say the rare performance art -- in which acrobats literally hang from the scalp as they fly through the air and perform various tricks -- is practiced by fewer than a dozen circus families around the world, though it has existed for more than a century.
"It's a very unique, traditional circus act. And most circus schools that I'm aware of don't teach it," said Elsie Smith, the artistic director at the New England Center for Circus Arts.
Each acrobat's hair is wrapped around a steel cable ring attached to rigging that hoists the performer upward. And therein lies the secret: The specific technique used to secure the hair to the rigging is closely guarded.
"We all keep it to ourselves how we tie our hair and how we do it," said Christopher Williams, a 24-year-old hair hanger who counts some of the injured performers among his friends. "No one really knows the secret."
A third-generation hair-hanging circus performer who grew up on tour with his family, Williams has shiny brown hair that dangles down to his elbows. Like most hair hangers, he has a strict regimen that keeps his hair strong, including a regular treatment mixture of avocados, eggs, mayonnaise and vinegar.
The hair must be tied to the rig in such a way that the load of the person's weight is evenly distributed across the scalp. Otherwise, performers can literally scalp themselves accidentally or fluid can pool in one section of the head.
"It is very painful. There's a reason that not many people do it," said Williams, whose act includes juggling fire and hula-hooping while suspended high in the air. "We smile and we look like we're not in pain."
Out of respect for his friends, Williams canceled his scheduled performances on Sunday for Circus Sapphire, which is currently touring in Martinville, Ind. But he was soaring skyward again on Monday.
"The reason I put up with the pain is because of how rare it is," he said. "It's beautiful. It's really a beautiful act."