What does a dancer and former debutante born in 1926 have in common with teenagers at St. Louis’ juvenile detention center?
A lot, as it turns out, according to Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring.
Herring, 89, sees striking similarities between herself and the young women in the ballet classes she teaches inside the locked facility, as part of the Prison Performing Arts (PPA) program.
“Because I was already rebellious," Herring said. "And I know that if I grew up like they are, in the streets and what they see, I would have probably been here at an early age."
Herring rebelled by joining the circus after graduating from high school at Mary Institute. Now she wants to the girls in detention to know they can change their own story.
“The main way I try to help by showing them so many other possibilities in their lives and other worlds they could go see,” Herring said.
In stark contrast to the girls she teaches, Herring wanted to escape a life of luxury in Ladue. “Having lunch by the pool, being driven to the movies by a chauffeur and having maids and a chef, a gardener and anything I wanted to buy, any kind of clothing,” Herring explained.
Herring yearned for adventure. After high school at Mary Institute, she left for New York to study ballet. One day, Ringling Brothers came to class looking for circus dancers.
“My friend from Ohio and I were just so excited,” Herring remembered.
Less excited were her father, Ira Edward Wight Jr., an investor and descendant of St. Louis co-founder Pierre Chouteau, and her glamorous hat-and-glove-wearing mother, Elizabeth Forrest Wight.
“And of course my family, when I told them I was going to do that, that I’d actually written a contract, were absolutely horrified,” Herring said. “My mother came immediately to New York to bring me home.”
But her parents gave in, with two restrictions: One was no aerial acts. The other took her out of the ring and back into prominent social circles.
“I had to promise to come home and make my debut,” Herring laughed. “It was pretty boring after the circus, let me tell you.”
But the deal didn’t involve staying away from elephants. Herring’s act included an elephant carrying her in its mouth and then standing directly over her.
“The elephant would walk over and put her foot on my face. And after she takes her foot off and you walk away, everyone claps a lot,” Herring said.
Herring enjoyed circus life for three years, then married a Wyoming rancher, raised four kids, became a nurse and sold real estate. She and her husband finished raising their children on a family farm in Pike County, Mo. She eventually moved back to the St. Louis area.
At 80, she learned a trapeze act for a benefit party at the City Museum for Prison Performing Arts and Circus Harmony.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” Herring said. “Everybody clapped, probably because I was so old, and they all wore costumes.”
She wrote a book about the experience and her life leading up to it. “Still Swinging in Wonderland” also delves into her work with PPA. She tutors kids at the detention center in academic subjects one day a week as well as teaching ballet to groups of girls.
Herring says many of the girls have been abused, often sexually. Just as she took control of her life through the rigors of the circus, she wants to help them to reclaim their physical selves through dance: “Teaching them that they are in control of their bodies, their bodies are beautiful and they belong to them no matter what’s happened.”
The girls are underage so their names are confidential. One teenager with flowing braids and green highlights says ballet is a nice break from school courses and card games.
“I learned … the steps and twists, and [to] angle my feet right and point my toes, move my body around and experience new things,” she said.
Prison Performing Arts education director Rachel Tibbetts said Herring inspires the girls with her life story and continued perseverance.
“I think it’s a beautiful way for young women here to look at (the fact that) they’ve got a long journey in front of them and that you can keep doing what you love every moment of that journey,” Tibbets said.
That doesn’t mean you’ll love every moment. Herring’s no stranger to adversity.
When she was younger, her brother died in an airplane crash, and she later lost her son Timothy who was then 21, in a car accident. Her husband died 10 years ago. Through it all, Herring tries to follow a motto tattooed on her ankle: “Esse Quam Videre,” Latin words for “To be rather than to seem.”
“It means being true to yourself,” she said.
For Herring, being true means looking back on a life she chose, practicing trapeze and continuing to teach ballet to girls in detention.
“My daughter said, ‘Mother you’re too old to put up with this anymore. I don’t like to think of you sitting next to murderers. Just concentrate more on senior theater,’” Herring said. “And I said, ‘No, I can’t do that, I want to keep working here as long as I can.’”
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL