Dessi España

Record-breaking circus performer

A fifth-generation circus artiste and a star of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dessi España was one of the circus world's most talented and versatile young performers. During a matinée performance in St Paul, Minnesota, at the end of May, she was critically injured in a fall from an aerial silks apparatus and died later in hospital.



Despina Kehaiova, circus performer: born 1972; married 1992 Ivan España (two children); died St Paul, Minnesota 22 May 2004.



A fifth-generation circus artiste and a star of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dessi España was one of the circus world's most talented and versatile young performers. During a matinée performance in St Paul, Minnesota, at the end of May, she was critically injured in a fall from an aerial silks apparatus and died later in hospital.

She had worked in her family's springboard acrobatic act as a youngster, then formed her own record-breaking hula-hoop speciality, worked in aerial numbers, and appeared in a thrilling Globe of Death motorcycle act with her husband Ivan and his brother.

Born Despana Kehaiova in Bulgaria in 1972, she was trained at the Circus School in Sofia. In 1973, the Kehaovi Troupe made their début in Britain with Chipperfield's Circus. They were back in 1986, working at the Blackpool Tower Circus for Peter Jay, the Bulgarian State Circus act being 12-strong and including Dessi as the 14-year-old topmounter in the troupe's six-person high column routine. At Blackpool, they also presented a perch-pole act as the Georgius, and Dessi made her début there with her own hula-hoop act.

In January 1987, she appeared with the Kehaovi Troupe at the 12th International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo before Prince Rainier, at which Peter Jay was a member of the jury. They won the coveted Silver Clown award there. Jay recalls:

They were a sensation at Blackpool and I desperately wanted them for the Hippodrome for 1987. Sitting on the jury in Monte Carlo I knew they would win and it would mean even more offers from other European Circus directors for their act.

Despite stiff opposition from other directors, he secured them to a contract for the Hippodrome Circus, Great Yarmouth, presenting them in the summer of 1987 in what was probably his finest summer programme.

In February 1987, Dessi Kehaiova's hula-hoop act was a feature of the Festival du Cirque de Demain for young performers in Paris, where she displayed her prowess in keeping 35 hoops circling her body. At the age of 13, she had earned her own place in the Guinness Book of Records, swirling 75 silver hoops around her body, then later breaking her own record twice, first with 88 hoops, then 97. The last feat was broadcast on American television and her record stood until the late 1990s. The Kehaovi Troupe also earned two places in the Guinness Book of Records, and a decoration from the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture.

Much of Dessi España's life was spent in America with "The Greatest Show on Earth", the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the world's biggest travelling circus. She had first appeared with Ringling in America at the tender age of three, and at seven was a member of the springboard act. After working in England at Blackpool and Yarmouth, the family returned to America and it was in 1988, while performing at "The Greatest Show on Earth", that she met Ivan España, a member of a Hispanic circus family noted for its flying trapeze and thrill-act exploits.

The Españas, fourth-generation performers in the circus, later branched out with daring Wheel of Death and Globe of Death acts, in the latter of which both Dessi and her younger sister Geri worked. Ivan and Dessi married in July 1992 during a performance of the Ringling show in Houston, Texas.

Dessi, Ivan and his family continued to work with Ringling Bros Circus during most of the 1990s and then worked with other major American circuses before rejoining the company in January this year, as a major part of the new "Hometown" edition of the big show.

In the 1996 show, Dessi España appeared in a Roman rings aerial act, in the style of the legendary Lillian Leitzel, who fell to her death at the Valencia Music Hall in Copenhagen on 13 February 1931.

D. Nevil

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