Twice a day, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Michelle Quiros juggle torches, twirl hoops and spin while suspended 40 feet in the air -- by their hair.
"You have to train yourself. But it does hurt," said Ms. Rodriguez, a fifth-generation circus performer.
The women are part of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, which pitched tent yesterday morning in Harundale for performances through Friday. This is the fourth year the three-ring show has come to town as part of its 110-city, 35-week East Coast tour.
During their show, Ms. Quiros is strung up by her hair for 6 minutes. Ms. Rodriguez comes down about halfway through the show to do other acrobatics. Neither suffers headaches from hair-hanging, but it is a little rough on the face and neck, and there's no talking during the act.
"The first time I saw a lady hang by her hair I thought she was crazy," Ms. Rodriguez said.
Though she grew up in a family of aerialists, learning trapeze routines from the time she could walk, she was wowed by the hanging lady. It was what she chose to do when she became a teen-ager and had to pick a specialty act.
The women don't tie their long, dark hair in a half-hitch knot to get tugged to the top of the tent. Rather, their locks are plaited onto a steel hook capable of holding up more than a ton. They said the hook's strength gives them a feeling of security. Just how secure you can feel dangling from a cable a few stories up in a hippodrome is anyone's guess. The loop of the hook gets attached to a cable, and the performer is hoisted up, up and away for the show.
"The higher you go, the more the audience is thrilled," Ms. Rodriguez said. "And we are here to give them thrills."
The act's success lies in the braiding. The art of braiding the hair into a hook is a circus secret. Every strand must be in place. The work must be done evenly. There can be no tangles, Ms. Quiros said. A single hair out of line can result in sharp pain. A proper braiding job takes at least 15 minutes. Angel Quiros weaves his wife's hair.
"My father trained him," Ms. Quiros said. "He was the one who used to do my hair. He taught him how to get it right."
When the show starts, the women are tethered in the two end rings of the circus. They go through four quick costume and hairstyle changes and are part of other daring aerial acts, most of them done with relatives. Ms. Quiros and Ms. Rodriguez are cousins. At least half of the aerial performers are in some way Rodriguez-related.
That's the nature of the circus business. Performers tend to marry other circus performers, raise circus performers and leave the ring for other circus jobs.
This is a line of work in which a person really has to trust his relatives, and like them. They work and travel together in RVs for 35 weeks.
Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus is a 180-person, 78-vehicle moving village. It changes ZIP codes every few days. There are electricians, tutors, pets and concessionaires, elephants, tigers and bears.
Commonly, performers have a multitude of skills. Jenny Thomas, 24, thought she had left aerial work when she married her husband, Sean, a little over a year ago and opted for shooting him out of a cannon.
But then a Rodriguez became pregnant and could not fly through the air with the greatest of ease. So, Ms. Thomas rehearsed for a day before performing. She still fires the cannon, and is less nervous about her own aerial work than about having her husband fly out of a cannon at 65 mph. For one thing, he often has backaches. For another, she is in charge of the cannon.
"You have to check it every time, check the temperature, how high," she said. "I'm the one who is working it. I have to make sure the airbag is up and make sure the machine is perfect.
Though danger is ever present at the circus, Ms. Quiros, 24, has not been hurt in the 12 years she has been performing.
"I'm blessed," she said.
Ms. Rodriguez, who declined to tell her age, has had a few injuries in her 24 years as an aerialist, but has never searched for a different career.
"It comes with the territory," she said of the injuries. "I have not found something that fulfills me as much as this."
She doesn't know how long she will continue to perform. Her father quit performing at age 53, but manages the acts of his eight airborne children and their partners.
"It's a hard life," said Ms. Rodriguez. "You have to always be in shape. You can't eat this or that. You constantly travel."