They learned how to eat fire, swallow swords and lie on beds of nails in Germantown [video]

“If you’re game for it,” said David Darwin, “I’ll light your hand on fire briefly.”

Ok, before we go on, some context is necessary.

Darwin is a juggler and sideshow artist who lives in Mt. Airy. He eats fire. Swallows swords. Walks barefoot on broken glass. And, among other novelties, lies on a personalized bed of four-inch stainless-steel nails.

So, those fiery words didn’t represent a menacing threat.

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Rather, they were spoken to a trio of students at his Philadelphia School of Circus Arts class in Germantown on Saturday.

Class in session

As Darwin, who can also insert a nail into his nose, was introducing one of four “Alternative Circus” workshops available at the Circus School this spring, he was shaving the cotton off one end of a Q-Tip.

Sideshow arts are highly individual, requiring expert one-on-one training, he explained.

Each person’s body is different, sure, but Darwin decided his class could practice “entry-level” skills like inserting a Q-Tip into their nose and reclining on the aforementioned bed of nails.

Tricks of the trade

Sideshow artists have to “learn the correct angle for inserting a nail into the nose,” because everyone’s nasal cavities are different, Darwin said. The shaved Q-Tip is the perfect practice object.

He demonstrated the skill with one of his own nails. (He does grind the nail’s sharp tip down slightly, but that modification is invisible to the audience.)

Gingerly, his students — Jen Lynch of New Jersey and Jaime Lynn and Wayne Kohler from Levittown — brought their own Q-Tips to their nostrils and slowly slid them inside.

Darwin warned that it’s best not to practice this too close to anyone else; newbies tend to suffer violent sneezes, and those violent sneezes can send Q-Tips or nails flying.

Next, he allowed his students to try their hand — literally — in a 1.5-pound antique-metal animal trap now illegal in most states for humane reasons.

Darwin demonstrated a few times. Then, he called for a volunteer.

Learning lessons the hard way

Lynch, in high-heeled sandals and a dainty white blouse, rose to her feet. She flushed pink and then thrust all four fingers into the trap’s snapping jaw.

“It’s really not that bad!” she exclaimed.

“Our kids probably think we’re ridiculous,” Lynn said after her turn.

She and Kohler are parents to an 11- and 13-year-old. The owner of a kid’s-party business, the Fishtown-native told NewsWorks that she and Kohler, a diesel mechanic, “always do weird kooky things when the kids aren’t with us,” so the sideshow class sounded like “a fun date.”

Lynch operates a Plato’s Closet clothing-resale store.

“I am a really big goody-goody,” she said, but will try something zany and new if an expert is there to help.

How to eat fire

Next, Darwin offered a fire-eating demonstration.

He dipped metal wands, wrapped in Kevlar yarn at the ends, in a bottle of lamp oil, tapping them on his table edge to remove excess fuel.

Then, he fished a lighter out of his pocket and one of the wands sparked to life. He delicately extinguished the flames in his mouth.

Different artists use different fuels, he explained.

Lamp oil, for example, is a toxic, carcinogenic and liver-damaging substance to ingest, but it burns in a stable way. While not toxic in small amounts, alcohol is much more volatile when it meets fire.

Darwin opts for the lamp oil, despite a troublesome side-effect: “The burps keep coming up tasting like lamp-oil forever.”

Might he ultimately quit performing that trick because of health concerns?

“I might make that decision someday,” he said, but “for now, I’m sticking with it.”

Then, he revealed fire-eaters’ secret: It’s not the wand, or even the fuel, that’s burning. It’s the oil’s fumes.

In about 10 seconds, the flames heat the metal wand enough to scald you, but with the right breath control, you can learn to quickly bring those flaming fumes into your mouth without getting burned.

He demonstrated by lighting a fire on each student’s oiled palm with one burning wand, before they painlessly extinguished the flames by closing their fingers.

Sword-swallowing and the bed of nails

Next, Darwin shared sword-swallowing secrets which took him several years to master.

“Sword-swallowing means you develop a very weird relationship with your gag reflex,” Darwin said.

He said he overrides bodily rejections by sliding the sword past the back of his tongue, and then past the point where his esophagus branches from his airway.

Then, after licking both sides of the steel sword, he threw his head back, slid it down his gullet until the hilt touched his lips and then — voila! — pulled it out again.

Next, he opened a battered rectangular box that held a bed of gleaming nails on a one-inch grid, custom-made to the size of his torso.

Those nails are not filed down, but an even distribution of body weight means that they’ve never drawn blood, he claimed, demonstrating the proper form for lowering oneself butt-first (“the worst moment,” Darwin said) onto the nails.

Lynn was the first student to try it, with careful spotting from Darwin.

“It wasn’t so bad,” she said after getting back to her feet, comparing the needles on her back to the sensation of pencil points.

“It looks so ridiculous, but I trust in the laws of science,” Lynch announced before taking her turn.

Don’t try this at home?

Darwin finished the class with his own broken-glass walking demo, but students weren’t allowed to attempt that trick.

Does he ever worry that someone will try one of his stunts without the proper training, despite the disclaimer?

“That’s always a difficult thing and people deal with it in their own way,” he said. “Your self-preservation is still your problem. Or, your parents’ problem.”

So don’t try this at home. Or do. With Darwin’s permission, Lynch — inspired to practice after the two-hour session — put a nose nail in her purse to take home for further experimentation.

Upcoming circus-school events

The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, located near the corner of Greene and W. Rittenhouse sts. in Germantown, will offering three more “Alternative Circus” workshops (costs range from $20 to $35).

Hula Hoop for students between the ages 6 and 13 will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday, with a class for ages 14 and up following at 6 p.m. (hoops provided).

Then, AcroYoga is scheduled for May 17.

Finally, Parkour, which is “a combination of martial arts falling techniques, acrobatics and freestyle creative movement,” is slated for May 31.

Those latter two classes are intended for ages 14 and up, with no experience necessary.

For more information or to reserve a spot, visit or call (215) 849-1991.

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