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A sword swallower is a person who performs the ancient art of sword swallowing. The process of sword swallowing does not involve the actual act of swallowing, but quite the opposite. A sword swallower tilts back his or her head, relaxes his or her esophageal sphincter to avoid the gag reflex, then passes the blade of a sword down into his or her pharynx, through the esophagus and into the stomach. Typically, a sword swallower will only have the blade of the sword down his or her throat for a few seconds before carefully removing it, as even with training it is very difficult to suppress the gag reflex for any extended period of time.
Today, most remaining sword swallowers are part of a circus or other form of traveling entertainment show. This may involve a side show, or simply performing at small parties or other events. Though the performance art of sword swallowing was once very popular throughout the world, it faded in popularity throughout the 20th century as other forms of entertainment, such as film, television, radio, and computers, came into greater use.
Like many other performance artists, a sword swallower will typically be part of a fairly niche market and is usually self-taught. Though there is a Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) that strives to ensure the art of sword swallowing survives, it can still be very difficult to find an instructor. According to the SSAI, the process of learning to become a sword swallower can take several years, and many more years to master the art.
There are also a number of very serious potential risks taken by a sword swallower. Though the blades being inserted down the person’s throat may not always be razor sharp, there is still a great deal of risk involved with inserting a length of metal down a person’s throat. Many sword swallowers complain of sore throats from frequent performances or while first learning the process. There is also the potential for minor to severe lacerations to the interior of the esophagus, pharynx, and stomach during the process of sword swallowing.
While there are relatively few recorded cases of sword swallower deaths due to accident while performing, it is still a dangerous art form. Anyone considering learning to swallow swords should do so only with the utmost caution and should practice controlling his or her gag reflex first. To become a sword swallower takes a great deal of effort, practice, and extreme caution.
Today, there are very few sword swallowers left, with fewer than a few dozen professional sword swallowers actively performing in the world, and no sword swallowers performing with the last few traditional circuses since the last circus sword swallower died in 1979. There are currently three sword swallowers performing with traveling circus sideshows, and a few others who are part of the new modern hybrid of neo-sideshow/burlesque shows.
According to research conducted by the Sword Swallowers Association International, there have been 29 deaths attributed to sword swallowing injuries over the past 150 years. The SSAI reports from three to eight serious sword swallowing related injuries each year that require hospitalization, with other injuries untreated or unreported.