Six generations of Ayalas have been hanging by their roots for circuses all over the world.
"My great-great-great grandmother learned how to hang from a nice Chinese lady," says 20-year-old Michelle Ayala, who with her mother, Marguerite, and her 17-year-old sister, Andrea, will be hoisted by ropes 35 feet above the Spectrum floor, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opens today and runs through June 10.
And, folks, there's no safety net. So let's get to the basic hair-raising facts.
* Michelle will admit that being pulled up by her hair "only hurts a little."
"I don't think about it too much anymore," says Michelle Ayala, who started this ancient Chinese act when she was 11.
"It's not the type of pain where you want to cry and scream out. You just feel a little pressure. I wouldn't do it if it hurt. I spend my time concentrating on my act, so I don't think about the pain in my head or my neck. The act makes me forget everything."
* It takes Michelle's father 20 to 40 minutes to comb and braid her sister's and mother's waist-length hair into an enormous hook, which is attached to a cable that eventually hoists them into the air. Their hair shoots straight up so that their heads look like some kind of reef creature striking a defensive posture.
* The Ayalas do not use a special shampoo, although they spend as much on shampoo and conditioners as many of your smaller nations spend on defense. And all of the Ayalas receive special monthly scalp treatments.
* Don't do this act at home. Not everyone with waist-length hair can become a hair-aerialist. "My grandmother's sister couldn't do it," Michelle Ayala says. "She tried, but it was too painful for her."
* Is hair hanging so good for stretching your skin that the Ayalas will avoid crow's feet? "Oh, I never thought of that," Ayala says. "We'll have to see in 20 years."
* And, finally, only the Ayala men are losing their hair.
"There is nothing else I have wanted to do in my life," says Michelle, who is engaged to Angel Quiro. He spends his working hours 40 feet above the circus floor on the highwire. When they have children, she says, she won't mind if he or she hangs by his or her hair. "It's safer than the high wire."
IF YOU GO
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Spectrum today through June 10 for 24 performances. Tickets: $7.50, $10.50, $13.50, $10.50 and $7.50. Tickets available at the box office or Ticketron outlets.