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Hanging by a head: The Deanna on the “dark, raw elegance” of hair suspension

Suspension artist and all-around-aerialist The Deanna talks about her hair-raising shows.

Photo: Makar Artemev

If you saw Canadian aerialist Deanna Simone – stage name The Deanna – on the street, you wouldn’t have any reason to believe that her long black hair, which falls to her ribcage, regularly holds her body weight for minutes at a time as she spins, swings and dances through the air. But it does.

“Sometimes people think it’s fake. Or they’ll say to me, ‘Is it a wig apparatus? Is there a bungee cord attached to you?’ People want to touch the hair and see if it’s real,” says Deanna. “Sometimes I want to be like, it’s just witchcraft. But no, it’s actually real, I am hanging by my hair.”

Everyone asks me. Like, ‘is it some secret shampoo you’re using?’ And to be honest, I use Pantene Pro-V

Deanna is one of a handful of people in the world who practise hair suspension, an ancient craft where performers are suspended by their tensile tresses, which are knotted into a metal ring attached to a rigging system. It’s an extreme art form – and it’s Deanna’s speciality. “Hair is my Identity,” she wrote on Instagram in March.

Everyone’s second question, she says, is always whether her scalp is on fire. Hair is surprisingly strong and flexible – a single strand can hold about 100 grams, and in theory, a full head of hair could support up to 12 tonnes, the weight of two elephants. But of course, that doesn’t account for the acute discomfort of a pair of mammoth mammals tugging on your skull. “I would say it’s more of a sensation than something that’s excruciating pain. Of course, I’m still being pulled up by my hair. It takes a lot of mind over body,” she explains. It also requires a strong neck, spine and back. “I was already doing a ton of aerial training, so I was already very back and neck strong.”

In fact, Deanna’s training regimen, and her comfort with performance, began at age four as a child in Windsor, Canada. “I was a figure skater all my life. I trained before school, after school, and competed on weekends.”

She never gets dizzy while whirling through the air, and she attributes that to the sport. “I love spinning super rapidly in the air from my hair, and a lot of my spinning training came from figure skating,” she says. “I built up that spin tolerance throughout my entire life – from the ice and then to the air.”

She discovered aerial performance in 2012, when her uncle, a yoga studio owner, brought in circus artists for a workshop. Deanna was captivated by silks, straps, chains, lyra (aerial hoop), hammock – anything from which she could dangle or hang. “Air is my comfort zone,” she says. “When I perform on the ground, it’s a more vulnerable place for me. When I’m in the air I’m so much more confident to self-express.”

She came across hair suspension online in 2018, and “fell in love”. “One part was the shock value of it – how the fuck is somebody hanging by their hair? But it’s also really beautiful and elegant. I was like, ‘I need to learn this’,” she recalls. “I’ve always been fascinated by what people can do and what the human body is capable of. And that was my fascination with hair suspension.”

It’s not an easy skill to pick up. Hair suspension, or hair hang, is a traditional craft often passed down generationally, and it’s dangerous if executed incorrectly. Deanna reached out to hair suspensionists across the world, and eventually an artist in Spain agreed to teach her. She flew to Europe in February 2020 with tempered expectations – other performers had told her it might take months before she could hold her own weight. “I went into it with this mindset: okay, I’m gonna go learn how to rig, how to suspend properly, and then fly back to Canada and really train, and eventually I will suspend. And then on the second day I actually suspended, and I shocked myself. So I knew this was something that I could be really good at.”

As soon as she returned home, the pandemic closed venues across Canada – which gave Deanna the time and space to hone her newfound talent. Adding hair suspension to her roster of aerial skills meant extra changes, she admits. “I have to take really good care of my hair. I don’t dye my hair. I eat very healthy. I was a vegetarian before hair suspension, and I actually started eating salmon for Omega-3, because I knew it was really good for my hair,” she says. “What I do is a full-time job.”

There’s also special oil treatments for her hair, and, of course, shampoo. “Everyone asks me this. Like, ‘is it some secret shampoo you’re using?’ And to be honest, I use Pantene Pro-V,” says Deanna, jokingly adding that she’s not sponsored. “I’m a bit superstitious when it comes to my work. I was using that shampoo when I started, so it’s a little bit hard for me to change that.”

Last year, after building up her resume across North America, she moved to Berlin on an artist’s visa and began performing across Germany. Deanna does it all – she’s performed at fetish events and art galleries alike, danced on broken glass and incorporated hot wax and fire into shows. (“I don’t like pain, but I know I can handle it,” she says of her more extreme elements.) She also performs shibari, a Japanese form of erotic bondage with rope, in many of her shows – except she does it coupled with hair hanging and while suspending herself. “It’s completely new, no one else does it in the world,” she explains. “I sat down with all my rigging equipment, my ropes and hair, and I somehow figured out how to combine both of these. So now I have an act that is completely unique.”

Taking flight

All her acts, she adds, have a “dark, raw elegance”. They can be theatrical, sensual, scintillating. They can be playful. “I love creating stories on stage,” Deanna says. “I get things from different visions or daydreams, and I want to materialise my daydreams.” Right now, she’s particularly inspired by the big screen. “Lately, I’ve been diving into a lot of female assassin or spy movies. I really enjoy the power and empowerment of these women in the movies. They’re resourceful, they’re physically strong, and they’re flying down from buildings – just badass women.”

She’s always been drawn to femme fatale characters, she says. “They’ve been inspiring, even from a young age. I remember falling in love with Catwoman from Batman Returns.” At a September burlesque variety show at the Wintergarten, Deanna performed as an assassin, playing with martial arts elements. There was also a spy show. “I called the act ‘Honeypot Operations’. I came out and I was playing this nerdy spy, I had this eyepatch and a clipboard where I was writing things down, trying to look for my opponent. I’m taking my clothes off, kind of like a honeypot operation,” she recounts. This show typified the balance of her personality. “I’m very nerdy. I get into a lot of movies or podcasts… I go to museums, and I read a lot of books. I would say that I’m an extroverted performer, but an introverted person. Some of my nerdiness comes out in my acts – still staying this powerful, dominating, seductive character, but how can I pull out some of these things?”

As entertaining as her shows can be, they’re also deeply personal. “All of my acts are very true to myself. I’m still myself on stage, but there’s always curating to the event and the theme,” she explains. In April, she performed an act at Untergeschoss der Pandora Art Gallery inspired by her own internal struggles. “I used black paint on my body, and the paint represented my pain and trauma. I also had my rig enclosed in a transparent plastic, and it created this cocoon. I called the act Exhumation of a Spirit,” she recalls. “It was very intimate and very vulnerable, and creating it was very healing and therapeutic. And maybe it resonated with somebody else that has also gone through some struggles.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

That connection between Deanna and the audience is a favourite part of what she does. “There is this shock factor involved, and I love it,” she says. “If I’m on a big stage with a lot of light sometimes I can’t see their faces, but I hear the claps and the shock. Sometimes when you get a video back, you can kind of hear what they’re saying – like, holy fuck.”

In theory, a full head of hair could support up to 12 tonnes, the weight of two elephants

Behind the scenes, she manages nearly every aspect. She climbs up on a ladder to inspect the rigging, plans her costumes, and – of course – styles her hair, often creating custom hairpieces to exaggerate her volume onstage. It can take hours to prepare for a show, she says. “I have a routine. I’ll play really good music, I’ll get my head in this headspace to be patient with how I’m rigging my hair,” she explains. “I have to really slow myself down and take my time with it. It has to be perfect, because if I don’t rig it properly, something could happen.” The only detail she outsources is muscle; while she sometimes suspends herself just by lifting her feet off the ground, she often has a rigger backstage whose job it is to hoist her up and down. “They’ll pull me up with a pulley system, and that’s how I fly,” she explains. “There’s a lot of trust in the other person that I’m working with. They need to know my body cues, and it’s a lot of communication back and forth before the show so it all works out smoothly and safely.”

When she’s finally in the air, the audience is treated to both her fine-tuned choreography and creative improvisation. Deanna also places a lot of focus on nailing her onstage outfits, most of which are black and full of netting, latex, leather and mesh. “With aerial, I was a little bit confined to certain costuming, because it could get tangled in the silks, or the lyra,” she says. “But with hair suspension, all my limbs are free. So I have more freedom with my costuming and what I’m going to wear in the air. I put a lot of effort into it. I really enjoy the aesthetics of costuming and how I’m going to present myself on stage.”

Deanna’s hair suspension acts can be anywhere from three to 15 minutes – just a song or two – though her tolerance has increased. “At the beginning of hair suspension, it would kind of take out my entire body. I would be really exhausted after. Now I can perform multiple shows a week,” she says. The first time she swung back and forth by her hair made her especially sore, she remembers. “The next day I sneezed, and it was like, ‘Oh, wow. I can really feel the different muscles that I’m using.’ Now I can swing four days a week and be fine. It took a lot of dedication and time not to rush it.”

Going higher

After nearly a year in Berlin, Deanna has found a community in the city. “Here I can really push my work and get inspired by other people. There’s so many amazing artists that are really pushing the boundaries,” she says. “You can be totally who you are, and be accepted for that. And I think this is why I really enjoy Berlin and performing in Berlin, for the freedom of self expression… I’ve met so many dark artists. This is a very kinky city. And, you know, this is me. I see how I fit in. And it’s really nice.”

This month, Deanna will wrap up a whopping 75-show run for Movie Park Germany’s Halloween Horror festival, where she performs as a nurse for the theme park’s ‘Madhouse’ production – a full-circle moment, considering she completed four years of nursing school before her affair with hair. She’s no stranger to being booked during spooky season (she even leans into that aesthetic: “For me Halloween is all year round,” reads an Instagram caption) but it’s a particularly exciting gig for someone who loves height-based thrills. “I grew up going to so many different amusement parks, and I loved roller coasters. I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie,” Deanna says. “The producers [for Madhouse] were like, are you gonna go on any of these rollercoasters? I was like, yeah, but sometimes I feel like I get more g-force with my hair suspension, especially when I’m spinning like crazy. These rides are like nothing for me.”

Ultimately, Deanna says, hair suspension is a kind of euphoria for her. “It’s an interesting feeling to be suspended. I’m floating, I feel free. Sometimes it feels like there’s no noise outside of me. I’m in my head and in my space – it’s a meditative experience,” she says. “I can’t sum it up in words, but if this is what flying feels like, then I definitely know that feeling.”