Those daring young women…

Women’s place under the big top is being celebrated in this year’s Circus 250 programme the launch tomorrow, March 8, of the film Women in Circus, helping to mark International Women’s Day  

Too often the achievements of female performers have been passed over by history, but there have been notable lady acrobats. Patty, the wife Philip Astley who founded the modern circus 250 years ago, was talented horsewoman who performed alongside her husband, and shoes speciality was to ride in a ring smothered by a swarm of bees.

The beautiful Maria Spelterina was the first woman to cross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope on 8 July 1876 when she was just 23. Born in 1884 in Viennna, Katharina Brumbach was six feet tall and in New York defeated the great strongman Eugene Sandow when she lifted 300lbs above her head with one hand, when Sandow cold only lift as high as his chest – and for the rest of her long career she was known as “Katie Sandwina, Woman of Steel”. And in 1877 at the Royal London Aquarium the petite Rose “Zazel” Richter became the first human cannonball at the age of 16 when she was fired 70 feet above the audience – more than 30 people have died in performing the feat since then, and Zazel retired when she broke her neck in missing the safety net.

Today, women are even more at the centre of circus entertainment – and although they make up the majority of circus performers now, there are still very few female clowns.  Charlotte Alexis, the white-face clown from Zippo’s Circus (main picture) is one of the few. But the strong woman has made a comeback since the days of Sandrina, with Heavy Duty Dame Aoife Raleigh and Strong Woman Charmaine Childs.   

Sister Sarah, April and Polly followed in their father Gerry’s footsteps on setting up the touring Cottle Sisters Circus, and also following a famous circus forebear, Billy Smart, Yasmine Smart became the UK’s first female ringmaster (above).  

The film features modern female circus talent and is available online all day tomorrow, It will then tour venues beginning with Cartwright Hall, Bradford, at 2pm on Saturday where the showing will be accompanied by a talk from Professor Vanessa Toumin, head of cultural engagement at the National Fairground Archive and professor of popular entertainment at the University of Sheffield

Follow hashtags #WomeninCircus, #Circus250 and #IWD2018.

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