An article I wrote about an inspirational woman from Cape Town...
“Flying backwards, forwards, with twisters and tricks. It was the most unbelievable sensation, I was hooked.”
Ann Wolley is talking about her time in the circus, as a trapeze artist.
“Each of us would fly across to the catcher, throwing a somersault, doing a variety of tricks to the catcher who would hopefully return us to the fly bar and we'd swing back to the pedestal. That at least was the theory.”
Sitting here now you see a strong, golden haired woman who has had a peak into a life that many of us observe from the outside, but rarely see what is going on behind the scenes.
Growing up in South Africa the circus was not the natural path that Ann’s life was supposed to take. “My parents were horrified. I did pacify them, sort of. Before leaving I finished my nursing and midwifery training. The plan was to travel for a couple of years then come home. It didn’t happen like that. I think we got the travelling bug.”
She began training with her husband Peter on the flying trapeze in Cape Town, where they both grew up. She smiled: “I used to watch the boys and girls train on the trapeze by the beach, never thinking one day I would actually do it. A friend of mine had started to train and I pestered him to let me have a swing. It felt wonderful.”
Meeting in a coffee shop in the sleepy town of Leek, Stoke-on-Trent where Ann is now based, she speaks of her past fondly. Gripping onto her Cappuccino as if it is the fly bar from years previous, she stares across the tables of people deep in conversation, reminiscing, sometimes getting ahead of herself and losing track of what she is saying, as if there is just too many memories to portray in the short time.
She arrives dressed in light washed jeans and a plain t-shirt, tapping away on her phone about her grandsons birthday arrangements. (She adopted her grandson, aged 4, in 2015) “maybe I'm a bit slower, but there's never enough hours in the day,” she grumbles good-humouredly. With her hair tied back in a ponytail and not a scrap of make-up, she looks much younger than her 63 years as she flashes a warming smile.
Forming her own act ‘The Flying Saldhanas’ in 1976 with her husband, they left Cape Town. Travelling across most of Europe; Spain, France, Sardinia, Italy, UK, and Ireland. “The furthest North was of course Norway, north of Trondheim, just inside the Arctic circle.” She said: “We really were like gypsies. Living in caravans, home was South Africa and we would travel from one show to the next for months on end. Day after day it was grueling but good fun.”
Training took up a lot of Ann’s time. Every day for 3-4 hours she would work to achieve even the simplest of tricks. “Flying trapeze is something where there are so many variables to get it right, which makes it such a difficult act. Not only were there the measurements of the rigging, the length of the cables, the height of both the catchers, and the flyers swing. Then you had to check whether it was stable or not, the lift that was achieved from the bar and of course the inevitable timing. We always had to concentrate mentally and physically 110%.”
“Make no mistake, this was dangerous stuff. Life was not what other people would see as normal. We thought it was all pretty average but everything is relative, it wasn't easy.”
She speaks of how important it was to have her team mates around her for moral support, whilst sipping the dregs of her coffee. “In those days we had to rely on each other to explain what we were doing wrong. It was all very much trial and error. Nowadays when anyone trains; gymnastics, trampoline or other sports, they can video themselves to see what they are doing.”
By the time Ann and her husband left South Africa, a training school was put in place for young children where they could learn any circus discipline. Having started in one of the poorer neighbourhoods, the children came in off the streets to learn, most of them going on to travel around the world and often excelling and having successful careers in the film industry. She remembered: “The man who started this all off was one of the strictest disciplinarians I have known, an artistic genius, and he loved the circus, it had been his dream for many years.”
Not limiting herself to just the flying trapeze, Ann also partook in various other aerial acts. A ‘cradle’ act (like a ballet between two people in the top of the tent); a ‘corde lis’ (similar to the silks, which is an aerial ballet on a rope, you're hung about thirty feet up with lots of spins and revolving).
“I finished in 1981 and went to work with stunt horses.” she says with a bright smile across her face, as if remembering these times are bringing back happy memories of doing what she loved.
Leaving the circus was something that Ann knew was coming, after a lot of injuries to her neck and both of her shoulders, the end was inevitable. Like many acrobatic disciplines one's life span in the job is quite short. Luckily, her interests were with horses and she had the opportunity to follow that through working with stunt horses, 70 of them in fact.
After declining an offer to tour with the Ringling Brothers in America, Ann and her husband decided to settle in the UK to raise their three children. “The offer was a huge honor, as its probably the best show in the world, but we decided to base ourselves in the UK for the children's schooling.”
Nowadays, Ann spends her time nursing full time and she doesn't seem the type to slow down anytime soon. She no longer looks after 70 horses, just three; no team mates, just the grandson and her youngest son, plus dogs, cats and a hawk. “I should have retired, but not just yet, and one day I will write a book about those funny stories we experienced.”