Oscar Anstey Hunte's life is one of inches. The six-inch flame at the end of the sword he shoves down his throat. The 12-inch Coke bottles holding up the flaming pole under which he shimmies. And the points of the four-inch nails he dances atop.
Last night, the numbers added up to a gasping audience of 560 in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium where Hunte, a West Indian entertainer, ate fire, stomped on broken beer bottles and pulled himself under the fiery limbo bar as part of the week-long Caribbean Independence Week celebration.
To the music of the Maryland Pacesetters steel orchestra, Hunte, wearing skin-tight red pants and a silver-sequined cape, pranced across the stage between his gruesome feats of mental and physical discipline.
"You have to always keep in mind that you're taking a chance," said the 38-year-old native of Trinidad, "but after 20 years, I don't worry too much." 3
Hunte now lives in Montreal, where he makes his living performing the native dances of the Caribbean at charity benefits, conventions and nightclubs. But in the winter, "when things are not going on as much," he works as a TV repairman and also has worked as a club manager.
"It is freaky," Hunte says of his work, "But you know, the trick that turns people off the most -- the one when I cut my tongue with a razor blade and make my mind stop the blood -- -if I do that in a club of 10 people, four of the 10 faint. But the next night the same four are back and they bring 20 people with them."
Hunte got his start in the business when, at 18, he left Trinidad to join a traveling dance troupe that performed in hotels throughout the Caribbean, opening for acts such as Johnny Mathis and Brook Benton.
"I love to travel and stay in the hotel with a sauna. And I like to party, and stay out late and fool around," says Hunte.
But after several years with the eight-member dance troupe, Hunte was told that in six months he would be laid off.
"I knew I had to get an act up if I wanted to stay," he says. "I didn't want to go home. I had a good job there with the government courts but I wanted to keep traveling."
So he went into training.
A friend coached him under the limbo bar again and again until "my legs didn't feel like they belonged to me anymore."
He watched members of the native Sango religious sect dance on broken glass until "I didn't feel it anymore." And another friend taught him to swallow fire: "I couldn't eat, I could only drink because I always burned my mouth."
Thus, when the six months were up he kept his job.
"Anybody can do it," he says.
"The music, I get so involved with the music I don't feel anything," he says.
Sometime, however, the music isn't quite right. "You know a lot of Americans think Chubby Checker invented the limbo and when I do a show they want to play his music, 'Limbo Rock.' But he does it with a rock 'n' roll beat and that's an off beat. I can limbo to disco because it's got a steady beat, but not rock 'n' roll."
At the moment, Hunte admits he's not in top limbo form. His record is eight inches, but lately he's had trouble getting under 12. But in preparation for an upcoming Montreal limbo competition and a Madison Square Garden show he has beefed up his daily regimen of "running around the block a few times," push-ups and pumping an exercise bicycle.
"Oh yes, there's another reason" he pushes himself through his torturous routine: the applause.
"I love to see the people. When I see them get in the mood, then I don't even think about what I'm doing."
And just before he went onstage where the 300 nails stood upright in their frame, and the shattered beer bottles were waiting for him in a Heineken box, there was one last prop:
As the Caribbean melody poured from the band's giant steel drums, Hunte knocked back a shot of whiskey.