Real Life: "I Ran Away and Joined the Circus!"

Real Life: "I Ran Away and Joined the Circus!"

25 Jun 2014

Get in on Joanna Sawicka's breathtaking life

When eight circus acrobats plunged to the ground earlier this month, it was a reminder of just how dangerous their work can be. The team were staging a hair-hanging act in Rhode Island, USA, when a piece of equipment snapped, sending them hurtling 7m to the ground in front of their horrified audience. Before the shocking accident hit the headlines, few had even heard of the feat, but this breathtaking art is how Joanna Sawicka makes her living. The 26-year-old, who uses the stage name Anastasia IV, practises the ancient art of hair-hanging, wowing onlookers as she’s suspended from the ceiling without the aid of a rope or harness. It’s a far cry from her pre-circus life as a biochemistry student, and a world away from her privileged upbringing as a member of the Polish aristocracy.

Joanna’s life changed when she met sword-swallower Hannibal Hellmurto in a London pub. The pair fell in love, and she decided to ditch her degree to join him on tour. She says: “The idea of running away to the circus was romantic. I had no idea I would end up doing something so crazy. But I’ve found my calling and it feels fantastic!” 

Before long, Joanna was lying on beds of nails and swallowing swords herself, but she was keen to find a niche of her own and chanced upon the ancient art of hair-hanging. Thought to have started in China, the bizarre practice involves tying the hair around a metal ring and dangling mid-air, often while performing other tricks such as juggling. The techniques used to master the skill are a closely guarded secret passed from mother to daughter in circus families, and it was on the verge of dying out when she began her training. Mastering the art took Joanna months of effort and often brought her to tears, but her hard work paid off and now she tours the world with Britain’s Circus of Horrors. She can now spin so fast her face becomes a blur, all while hanging by the strands on top of her head. Amazingly, she even managed to pull a 2.5-tonne hearse 20m down London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, and earned the Guinness world record for the heaviest object lifted using hair alone. She has even insured her hair for a cool Dhs6.16 million.

It’s hard to believe, but strands of human hair are as strong as aluminium or Kevlar, the synthetic material used in bulletproof vests. A single strand can hold up to 100g, while a whole head of hair combined is said to be able to support 12 tonnes. Joanna’s daily hair care regime lasts an hour and a half, and she gets through two bottles of conditioner a day keep her tresses in tip-top condition; during a tour, she has to condition her hair five times a day – first thing in the morning, once in the middle of the day and again just before a show. Her mane must be thoroughly brushed as any knots or tangles could weaken the rope-like structure, and she’s assisted by her husband and two helpers, who plait her wet hair in a specific style to ensure her weight is distributed evenly. At the end of each performance she adds yet more conditioner, leaving it to soak in for an hour, and it’s the last thing she does each night before going to bed. “To be suspended by your hair feels exactly the way it looks,” Joanna adds. “It is definitely not a pleasant act to learn and it can be painful at times. But I’ve been doing it for four years now and it feels more like a sensation now rather than pain. The first few times I tried hair-hanging it was quite scary but it also felt fantastic. It is the closest a person can get to actually flying as you are lifted by your head. Unlike in other more classical aerial acts, your hands and feet are absolutely free and you are not holding on to anything. It’s exciting, and it’s also really special.

“Hair-hanging is not something you can learn in any circus school – the secrets of plaiting the hair are passed down from generation to generation. Thankfully I don’t have any split ends!”

Circus work is a dangerous game, and Joanna’s well aware that anything could happen with one false move. Her husband, known professionally as Hannibal Hellmurto, almost died on stage when he accidentally cut his throat. While swallowing a neon strip-light, still attached to the mains, he tore a hole in his windpipe and was rushed to hospital, but not before finishing his act.

Speaking to The Daily Mail at the time, Joanna said: “He had already swallowed a giant sword and a curved serpent sword, as well as swallowing simultaneously, but the lit neon tube is one of the most deadly of all and proved a step too far.

“Many performers refuse to attempt it as if it breaks it will leave glass inside you, and it contains mercury as well as also being powered by electricity, any of which would almost certainly kill you if it went wrong. Luckily the tube did not break as he attempted it but it did rip a 10cm hole in his oesophagus. He is lucky to still be here to tell the tale and help us wow audiences in the future.

● Dubai Circus School offers classes in circus arts to adults and children. Skills taught include aerial arts, involving moves performed on suspended apparatus such as trapezes, hoops, straps and ropes, as well as circus acrobatics, a combination of tumbling, hand-balancing and mini-trampoline stunts. You can also learn to juggle.
INFO: Sun, Mon and Thu, 5.30pm-7pm; Sat 11.30am-1pm; sports hall, Al Sufouh Secondary School for Girls, Al Mehemal St, Dubai, 050 943 8087 or 056 102 9596,

Big Party Box organises one-off workshops teaching a variety of circus skills, including juggling, and balloon modelling. Most participants are children, but sessions can also be arranged for adults – perfect if you’re planning a hen do!
INFO: Christina, 050 257 5010,,