The swords of various length and width glitter from atop the black tablecloth on the back of the stage. Some look like props from a Shakespearean drama, complete with cupped hilts recognizable from any movie about pirates. These swords are very real, though, and Dan Meyer knows every inch of them.
He’s swallowed all of them at some point.
“This is the one that almost killed me in June,” he says casually, holding up the sword with the cupped hilt. It’s longer than a dagger but shorter than Excalibur, about two feet total. He cleans it expertly and replaces it with the others, some of which have also nearly killed him. “I just swallowed it yesterday.”
Meyer doesn’t match the traditional image of sword swallowers, who were frequently found in circus sideshows in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He doesn’t have a single tattoo, and during his performance at the Kenai Peninsula Fair on Saturday, he wore jeans, sneakers and a tasseled Southwest Native American-style jacket.
He found himself at the Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik this weekend as a side trip connected with his upcoming performances at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer from Aug. 23–Sept. 3. Despite the rain, a crowd gathered before the stage to watch as he paced through a routine, gradually swallowing larger and larger blades, including a pair of hedge clippers and a large straight razor.
Sword swallowing is real magic — while there’s some showmanship involved to make a good show, there’s a lot of skill and technique associated with it.
“I do a lot of medical associations, science events, science festivals, science fairs, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, universities all over the world,” he said. “So I like being clean cut, showing up in a suit, doing a keynote and then pulling out a sword at the end, and nobody really believes I’m really going to swallow it … There’s a lot of science involved in sword swallowing, where it goes, a lot of history. I love doing it.”
The act is only part of a lifetime of defying his fears. In the 1970s, he found himself in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where he was serving as a missionary. That was where he witnessed sword swallowing for the first time, in the area where it was invented nearly 4,000 years ago.
But when a bout of malaria took him close to death, he made a list of life goals that he’d pursue if he made it through. Making a deal with death, he told himself that if he survived, he’d accomplish goals like seeing Mt. Everest at sunrise and learning seven languages. He grew up with extreme fears but wanted to do real magic. Eventually, he learned juggling, fire eating, glass eating, unicycle riding and stilt walking.
Over the next 20 years, he moved from place to place ticking items off his list. But in 1997, he heard that there were less than a dozen sword swallowers left in the world. In a TED talk he delivered in Maastricht, the Netherlands in 2013, he said he added to his list.
“I met a sword swallower who I asked to give me some tips,” he said. “He said, ‘Sure, I have two tips for you. Number one, it’s extremely dangerous — people have died doing this. Number two, don’t try it.’ So I added to my list.”
He practiced for years, and with no teacher or textbook, he had to figure it out as he went. There aren’t many sword swallowers left where it originated in India, and though American circuses displayed it in sideshows in the 19th and 20th centuries, the last circus sword swallower died in 1979.
Sword swallowing isn’t strictly swallowing — it’s actually suppressing the normal muscle movements involved to allow the throat to stay open and the sword to reach down to the stomach. He successfully swallowed his first sword in 2001.
At least 29 people have reportedly died from unsuccessful sword swallowing, largely through lacerations to internal organs. Meyer’s had his own injuries and close calls.
“I went through my stomach swallowing five swords at once,” he said. “That was the first time I’d done multiples. I got a little bit overconfident … My stomach was punctured. I was in the hospital for about three weeks — almost quit, almost died.”
Less than a month later, he was back at it, swallowing five swords on a documentary shoot.
By compiling research and studying practitioners, he published a medical research study on sword swallowing and its side effects published in the British Medical Journal in 2006, tracking the history and potential injuries and side effects of the practice.
For about the last 20 years, he’s given shows at fairs and expositions all over the world, from Kazakhstan to Arizona and appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2008 and in 2016. But a major highlight for him is giving talks on stages like the TED talk in Maastricht, encouraging people to overcome their fears.
“I try to downplay me and inspire them that they can do the impossible in their lives,” he said. “It’s not so much about me showing off, it’s trying to inspire them. For me, that’s a big challenge, to get inside of people’s heads and get in their hearts. A lot of people will come up and they’ll be in tears, they’ll give me hugs. That’s what makes it worthwhile for me.”
The traces of that fearful, socially anxious man are gone. After his afternoon performance Saturday, he walked the pathways among the crowds and food vendors at the Kenai Peninsula Fair cheerfully, occasionally stopping to offer an enthusiastic greeting to someone in the crowd. Children who’d seen him perform came scampering up to tell him they’d loved his act and to offer hugs.
“You’re not going to try that, though, right?” he asked a group of girls.
Bright eyes and smiles wide, they shook their heads with an emphatic “no.”