Listening to Tyra Misty Nielsen talk about her life and how she grew up in the circus is like listening to a fairytale…

“My mom was in art college in Port Elizabeth when, at the age of 19, she saw an ad on TV calling for girls to join the flying trapeze act of the Boswell-Wilkie Circus.

“She auditioned and was accepted, but her parents refused to allow her to join the circus, so she ran away and joined anyway, and that’s where she met my dad. He was from Denmark and he did a horse comedy act in the circus. They fell in love, got married…”

Tyra’s story continues and I am spellbound as she proceeds to tell me how she and her brother, Nicholas, grew up in the circus and are now also professional circus performers.

All that needed to be added was: “and they lived happily ever after”.

But flipping back to the pages of reality, Tyra’s story is a true one which today sees her established as one of our best circus professionals and skills exports in the country.

Tyra first caught my eye at the opening night for Buccaneers: The Sequel at the Upper Deck Restaurant at uShaka Marine World as she dangled from strips of silk during a daring trapeze act.

In the show, Tyra plays Russian captive Olga Rub-Yer-Schnoz-In-It. During the show, as the pirates parade their captive, Tyra gets to do a bit of showing off herself as she performs the most amazing acts, including climbing up a ladder of swords (blade-side-up), walking on glass; and her silk and hoop aerial acts.

As she glides effortlessly through these dangerous acts, I sit on the edge of my chair hoping that there is an ambulance on standby.

But by the end of the performance I am flooded with a mixture of emotions; partly awestruck, sometimes cringing and mostly wondering if my eyes are deceiving me.

“The act is all real,” she laughs.

“It is a mixture of technique and mind over matter. For example, there is a very specific technique used for walking over glass or swords; it is all about placement.

“The other aspect is mind over matter and a great deal of concentration. A lot of people think it is a trick or magic, but I find a place where I clear my thoughts and focus,” she explains.

Tyra says growing up in the circus and watching her mother perform was what made her yearn to become a circus performer.

“My brother and I grew up in the Brian Boswell Circus until we were of school-going age.

“Eventually my dad, Hans, joined the Joburg Metro Police as a horse trainer and my mom, Anthea, worked as a freelance artist. But my mom taught me everything I know. I started at five years old when I’d imitate what she did.

“Eventually I convinced her to let me join,” she laughs.

“She taught me how to eat fire, walk on broken glass, and walk up the ladder of swords, but my all-time favourites are trapeze, swinging trapeze, aerial hoops and silks,” she says.

Tyra says she also picked up a lot from other professionals.

“In South Africa we don’t have a lot of options for technical training, or degrees in circus performance like they do in Russia, China, England and parts of the US. But because I’ve been in the industry so long, I have a lot of experience.

“Everything I know I learnt first-hand from my parents and colleagues in the circus,” she explained.

At the age of 25, after joining the circus full-time at the age of 17, Tyra’s skills and talents have seen her travel the world, both performing and teaching. She has toured Switzerland, Ireland, Russia and Germany.

“When I finished matric, I asked my mom to give me five years off to find myself.

“I travelled and I did find myself. Showbiz is my life,” she smiles.

The Neilsen siblings have picked up where their parents left off and continue to spread good cheer and thrill in their performances wherever they travel.

“Nicholas (two years younger than his sister) is a professional juggler, and he also does stilt walking, the unicycle and diabolo – which is a very popular Chinese circus act.

“This year he also started aerial work,” his sister says proudly.

Tyra says while she and Nicholas are second-generation circus performers, it is something she will pass on to her children one day.

“I would not force it on them, because that’s not how we grew to love the circus. But it is also a good form of exercise, it improves your co-ordination, and there are so many all-round benefits to circus performance.

“If nothing else, I’d like to pass trapeze onto my children. I would do trapeze up to the age of 70 if I could,” she laughs.

lBuccaneers: The Sequel runs at the Upper Deck Restaurant until May 8, Thursday to Saturday at 6.30pm, at a cost of R179, which includes a buffet dinner. There is also Sunday matinée at 2pm (R150). To book, contact Computicket on 031 328 8108. For more information contact Tyra at [email protected]