A trailblazing circus career makes more than just a good story to tell further down the line: it also provides a crucial model for those who follow next to learn from. In this review, Circus Historical Society President Bruce Hawley spotlights for us the recent memoir of Danise Payne, one of America’s first Black female clowns.
Elbows in My Ears: My Life with Little People, Tigers, and Wardrobe Trunks
By Danise Payne
Authority Publishing (2022)
The daughter of a World War II Tuskegee Airman, Danise Wilson Payne recounts her fascinating career, from growing up on US Air Force bases to life on the Greatest Show on Earth, where she was one of its first Black female clowns. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in French and a strong, get-up-and-go work ethic instilled by loving parents Alma and Bob Wilson, Danise enters the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College and falls in love with the circus. Along the way, she also falls in love with her husband Bill Payne, who played saxophone in the circus band.
Danise’s memoir follows her and Bill as they travel on the Ringling circus train (the Silver Slug) throughout the US and Mexico. Readers can watch how they interact with other “show people” and “townies,” and learn what “contract day” means to circus performers.
This well-written book also takes us to the United Nations, where Danise was a bilingual tour guide, and to England, where she was the lead clown of the Gerry Cottle Circus. We also learn about her role in the first African-American circus: UniverSoul Big Top Circus.
Elbows in My Ears is a book about courage and perseverance. Danise tells what it was like to be one of the first Black female clowns in a world dominated by white male ones. She also discusses the difficulties of life on the road with various types of circuses. She offers some great insights into the logistics and lingo of this fascinating lifestyle.
I highly recommend this book to circus artists who are at the beginning of their careers. A working knowledge of circus history and the people who preceded them in the circus arts will help them navigate their own circus careers.
Although Danise and Bill are retired now, their love of circus and each other shines through in this wonderful book.
Do you have a story to share? Submit your news story, article or press release.