By William “Skip” Deegans
Performing at the 1937 West Virginia State Fair was Winifred “Winnie” Colleano who was, at the time, one of the world’s most accomplished aerial artists. She pioneered the heel and toe catch on the trapeze as described by Mark St. Leon: “swinging on her trapeze as much as 70 feet aloft, she would suddenly let go in a free fall, catch the trapeze bar with her heels, and then swing back and forth by her heels.” She was also known for her dramatic dismount, called the leap of life, when she would throw her body off the swing, do a somersault, and catch a rope and slide to the ground.
Colleano was born into a circus family in Australia in 1897. She was of aboriginal descent at a time of discrimination by white Australians. Her family took the Spanish pseudonym Colleano that allowed them to travel and perform in the Australian outback when Winnie developed her act. She and her brother, Con Colleano, a tight wire performer, came to the United States, and in the 1920s, they were star attractions of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus. She died in Miami in 1973 and was elected to the Circus Hall of Fame in 1976.
Photo: Courtesy of the West Virginia Daily News.
Sources: The West Virginia News, The Wizard of The Wire by Mark St. Leon, Feminine Free Fall: A Fantasy of Freedom by Peta Tait, Female Aerialists in the 1920s and early 1930s: Femininity, Celebrity and Glamour by Kate Holmes.