‘Joining the circus at all was just chance.’
“I went on to college — and joined the circus. I grew up in Glen Head, was an honors student in high school, sang in the chorus, studied ballet, performed in the plays. Ordinary, really.
“Other than climbing trees long past childhood, there wasn’t much to suggest I’d have a future working in the air. Joining the circus at all was just chance. My sophomore year at college, an actor friend spotted an audition notice for dancers for Ringling Brothers circus. He jokingly dared me to do it. The morning of the tryouts, I cut my classes — and made the cut.
“I started out just dancing in the big production numbers. Three years later, I was performing high off the ground in a ‘Spanish web’ display and had fallen in love with a Romanian acrobat. Together, we created our own aerial acts, bought a truck and a trailer home, and crisscrossed the country with smaller circuses.
Was I scared? The answer is — no, but I should have been!
“I hung only by my heels from a trapeze, wearing a homemade sequined bikini costume. I learned to spin very fast by my neck in a swivel loop, going faster when I pulled in my arms, just like an ice skater. Later, I did the same spin hanging by my teeth — the ‘iron jaw,’ it’s called. Yes, it hurt.
“I spent a year being the ‘elephant girl’ for the marvelous Woodcock performing elephants, riding them and doing tricks like standing on top of their head. The biggest applause came as I was carried around upside down by my knee wedged into the elephant’s mouth. It was heady and exciting and very poorly paid.
“Was I scared? The answer is — no, but I should have been! That level of risk became my new normal in the circus. And I was young and confident enough that I didn’t have a sense of my own mortality. I’m very lucky I was never seriously injured because — this horrifies me now — all those years I was 20 feet in the air, I didn’t have any health insurance.
“After 10 years of performing, I knew I wanted more security than that life could provide. I got a desk job, married a software developer and raised a family. Ordinary, really. Except that when my husband suggested moving us all to East Africa, guess who thought that sounded like a cool adventure? Well, at least, when I got malaria, we had health insurance!”