For many octogenarians, looking good in a stoplight-red acrobat leotard and fishnet stockings would be cause for celebration.
For Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, that’s the easy part.
Flying through the air more than 10 feet above a concrete floor while hanging onto a trapeze by the strength of a single frail ankle -- now that’s a bit trickier.
A former debutante whose family tree traces back to St. Louis’ founding fathers, Herring shocked her parents in 1946 when she ran away from her ballet training in New York to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
For nearly three years, she rode horses bareback under the big top, lay still on the ground as elephants placed their feet on her face, and slipped into glitzy costumes to dance between acts as a “ballet broad.”
“Even after I left in 1949 to get married and raise a family, I always missed the life,” said Herring, a widow and grandmother of five. “I’ve always wanted to go back.”
On Saturday night, Herring will get her wish.
She will celebrate her 80th birthday at the St. Louis City Museum, which houses a reproduction of a circus tent. There, above the crowd, she will climb into a lyra trapeze-- a large aerial hoop -- and spin and twirl through the air to Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
Without a safety net.
A couple hundred people, including friends and family, will be there to watch her and, she hopes, donate money to her favorite circus and thespian nonprofits. In reentering the circus ring, Herring figured: Who wouldn’t pay to see an octogenarian swing through the air?
And she would have a chance to relive her youth.
At first, Herring’s friends and three children thought she was joking.
“Dear God, are you serious?” wondered her friend Marion Hunt, 65, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Three months ago, Herring began working with trainers at Circus Day Foundation, a nonprofit where Herring has volunteered. It teaches children and adults to juggle, walk tightropes and balance on bars no thicker than a closet rod.
“In the ring, you are what you make of yourself,” said Jessica Hentoff, the foundation’s artistic/executive director. “In the ring, Bunny isn’t an old woman. She’s an amazing performer.”
On a recent weekday, Herring walks up two flights of stairs at the City Museum, greets acrobat trainer Donald Hughes and enters the circus space.
Pink twinkle lights crisscross the ceiling, bathing the room in a soft, rosy glow. Purple curtains sparkle at one end of the performance ring, hiding buckets overflowing with juggling pins and balancing balls. Aerial bars hang at different heights.
Herring doesn’t look like a thrill-seeker. Her 5-foot-4, 125-pound frame is birdlike. She is hard of hearing, so she reads lips to help fill in what her hearing aid can’t catch.
She’s also remarkably flexible. As Herring stands beneath the lyra, she pulls her right knee up until it touches her chest. Then she straightens her leg -- stretching her toes skyward.
Warmed up and ready to fly, she gets a boost to the bar from Hughes.
Vivaldi’s opera fills the room as Herring’s body quickly flows from one contortion to the next. She arches backward, then hangs parallel to the floor, balancing precariously on the thin bar. She hooks her ankle into a loop of rope and leans backward.
But her ankle slips loose and she falls. Hughes catches her before she hits the ground.
“I’ve never fallen before,” Herring says, her eyes wide and startled.
“Slow down,” Hughes says. “You’re trying to do everything too fast.”
Slow, however, is not the Bunny way.
Drawn to the circus
After graduating from a conservative all-girls boarding school outside Baltimore, Herring headed to New York in 1946 to study ballet, with dreams of becoming a dancer.
But when a recruiter from Ringling Bros. stopped by the studio, looking for dancers to promenade between acts beneath the big top, the petite brunet signed up.
“It seemed so glamorous, to travel the country and perform in these beautiful costumes,” Herring said. “It was shocking too, because it wasn’t something that good girls were supposed to do.”
Her father, a prominent financier, sent a stilted Western Union telegram, telling his wayward daughter to come home: “Your contract not binding. Strongly urge follow our advice. Dad.”
She ignored that advice until 1949, when she married Skyler, a cowboy she met while touring Wyoming. Herring put aside her circus dreams in order to raise a family, earn a college degree and become a nurse -- and work on the farm in Eolia, Mo., an hour northwest of St. Louis, where she lives today.
But she held onto her memories and mementoes of her circus life.
Sitting on an overstuffed couch in her living room, Herring carefully opened a worn leather-bound scrapbook. Her weathered fingers brushed past pay stubs creased with age and browning snapshots of an elephant carrying her inside its mouth.
She even kept the telegram, now yellowing, that her father sent.
“I have been a socialite and a daughter, a mother and a wife, a farmer and a nurse,” Herring said. “I’ve lived a life of adventure. Why not have one more?”
For people like Herring, the threat of being placed in traction can’t dissuade them from taking risks.
‘Don’t just sit around’
Former President George H.W. Bush, who went skydiving to mark his 80th birthday, told reporters after he landed: “Don’t just sit around watching TV, talking to it. Get out there, and realize at 80 years old you’ve still got a life, and that is what this is about.”
Taking a deep breath after her fall, Herring looked up at the lyra. She rolled her shoulders, trying to relax, and reached again for the ring.
The music soared. And for two minutes and 11 seconds, so did Herring. Each toe-point, each arch of her body, was perfect.
Herring dismounted and bowed to a small crowd. With the sound of their applause filling her ears, she walked out of the ring and flung aside the curtains with a victorious flourish.