Question: "How are magicians / illusionists able to levitate / perform levitation tricks?"
Answer: Some, after witnessing instances of apparent levitation, are convinced the magicians/illusionists are somehow supernaturally/demonically empowered. This is highly likely not the case. The vast majority of a magician’s levitation tricks rely on variations of a few themes. As in all magic tricks, misdirection and confusion are crucial to the illusion of levitation. Also, illusionists may use wires, hidden support beams, specialized lighting, or body angles to obscure what is happening. It’s also common for magic shows to use a plant—an assistant pretending to be an audience member—to help sell the illusion. Modern technology goes a long way to aiding the success of magic tricks. Cameras, modern lighting, steel cables, and computer-controlled devices have enabled more elaborate deceptions.
The core attraction of stage magic is the audience’s assumption that what they see is staged, but they can’t figure out how. Effects produced by illusionists are small enough in scale that an observer has every reason to believe they are just tricks. What magicians do in front of skeptical eyes is never grand enough to suggest that the event is truly miraculous. This is mentioned in the magic-focused film The Prestige. In that story, a character develops a device seemingly capable of the impossible and is told by his producer to modify his trick, purely to allow the audience some way to doubt it is “true magick.”
The requirement in stage magic that viewers willingly suspend their disbelief places magic tricks in a completely different category from biblical miracles. Despite common claims of skeptics, the miracles described in the Bible are not the sort one could pull off with trickery and sleight-of-hand. Jesus was not drawing playing cards or restoring a cut rope. Nor was He floating an inch off the ground to impress people or draw a crowd. Instead, He performed acts of great import that were impossible to fake: He raised men from the dead (John 11:17, 44), gave sight to those who were born blind (John 9:1–7), and cured incurable diseases (Luke 5:12–13).
Low-grade levitations are almost always grounded in clever body angles. Magicians who seem to levitate a few inches from the pavement might do so by lifting themselves on one toe, while the observers stand at an angle where they can’t see the illusionist’s far foot. Suggestion, anticipation, clever acting, and misdirection then help the viewers interpret what they see as the magician floating in the air.
In other cases, magicians use wires or beams for levitation tricks. Support systems can be hidden under clothes or boards and molded in an S-shape to make them less visible. Wires are a common aid in levitating smaller objects such as cards or cigarettes. A thin wire with a bright light behind it is nearly invisible to the human eye. Even at very close distances, hair-thin wires are virtually invisible. Combining the use of wires with visual distractions, it’s not hard to create the optical illusion of floating or flying.
There are also times when the levitation event is simply staged. Viewers with a clear, unobstructed view of what is happening are, almost always, part of the deception. This technique is used in live stage shows where an employee pretending to be an audience member has a role to play in the trick. It is also heavily used in filmed tricks; the shocked reactions of the plant are simply an act.