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Danise Payne
Elbows in My Ears: My Life with Little People, Tigers, and Wardrobe Trunks

The Bay Area, California, at the twilight of 1977. A pachyderm fills the doorway at the Oakland Coliseum, a massive edifice surrounded by a sea of concrete. A tiger’s roar cuts the silence, and an older man eyeballs his fellows. They place an oversized banana, an enormous rubber gun, and a giant baseball bat on the sidelines. It’s another day at the office. Meanwhile, an introverted daughter of an original Tuskegee Airman of World War II, DANISE WILSON, arrives with hopes to find courage and a new life because she is torn between freedom and the strict protocol of a military upbringing. Captivated by a white chair that dangles from above and the large metal stands that lean against the walls, she takes a seat around a ring with thirty others. They’re to audition for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

The elder gentleman makes a ludicrous scene. With his face in greasepaint, he describes the topsy-turvy world of the circus with the wisdom of a prophet. The hopefuls are eager and improvise skits with the large props. At the end of the day, Danise clutches an application to mail to the office of this new domain of absurdity. Much to her delight, she’s accepted and departs for the school in Florida.

Her spirit leaps. Thanks to her inherited, never-say-die mentality, she can conquer the onslaught of lessons: explosives, unicycle, juggling, acrobatics, logic and lore, for example. She is hooked. At twenty-five years of age, Danise believes she might have found the perfect career, which begins when the owner of the show welcomes her aboard, “Welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth!”

Danise Wilson takes her place on the tigers’ stand. She raises her arms in the spotlight, and a new corner of the sky opens. It is symbolic. She has always dreamed of things that are one step from the norm. Purpose awaits.

The circus train speeds her into a Technicolor realm, but the bottom drops out when her contract is withheld at the end of two years. Never mind. The L.A. Circus opens its doors and a bid comes from Gerry Cottles Circus in England. On the day she steps feet onto British soil, Danise becomes the first African American woman clown in a circus in Europe. Payback.

Afterward, she returns home. One day when the phone rings, Danise learns of a black-owned and performed show called Universal Big Top Circus. She’s excited that black Americans will see themselves in a new light and calls the owner who hires her. Danise sings a new song because her time in the business has toughened her guts and planted her feet.

Each encounter with opposition through all the years builds her faith. Her resolve is firm. And so as 2004 comes to a close, a once-shy military brat’s desire for self-assuredness is fulfilled, and Danise Wilson survives a conqueror.


Danise Payne is a circus clown with twenty-five years’ experience and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French. She graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1978 and toured with the Red and Blue Units of The Greatest Show on Earth. She has performed with five circuses and became the first black woman clown in a circus in Europe. Ms. Payne was featured in Ebony magazine, on Entertainment Tonight, and NBC’s Today show. She is a member of The Circus Fans Association of America, the Circus Historical Society, and the Screen Actors Guild.

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