From bathing belles to hoola hoop extraordinaires and cowgirls riding toy hobby horses, Circus WOW has become a fixture in the arts scene as well as an organisation to empower women. DESIREE SAVAGE reports.
Imagine hitting middle age and deciding you want to become a stilt walker or an acrobat, despite having no previous experience.
Some may scoff at the thought, some may be deem it largely unachievable. But as the saying goes, anything is possible and there's a group of ordinary women doing extraordinary things that prove it can be done.
Circus WOW all began with a simple printed flyer, calling for like-minded women who wanted to try something new to meet at the Fireworks cafe and see what fun could brew.
Now 20 years later, the Women of Wollongong have become an integral part of the Illawarra performing arts community as well as offering opportunities to empower women at every turn.
It was late 2000 and founding member Ella Hogan was nearly 40 at the time. She remembers turning up to that cafe with about a dozen others, none of them having any circus experience but all thinking it sounded fun.
"Penny Lowther had come up from Melbourne and she'd done a workshop down there with an older women's circus, so when she moved up this way she was keen to see if there was any interest in starting something like that," Ms Hogan said.
"I just thought it sounded fabulous. That whole idea of circus and flying through the air, it's a bit that dream as a child you have and all of a sudden that's possible.
"And the fact it was a women's circus made me feel like there was a space for me in there."
Ms Hogan and the other eager women began learning circus craft the following year by utilising the skills within the group at first, such as poise which was later developed into a fire act.
They then increased their knowledge by collaborating with Circus Monoxide by getting their crew to train them in between national touring commitments.
"These days I'm a non-traditional clown, so no red noses, but I started out ... with stilts and object manipulation," Ms Hogan said.
"I was really keen on the acrobalance, but my body is not really up for it these days."
In the early years the group's performances were more "traditional" with bathing Belles and trapeze, though has slowly developed to also encompass more self expression - whether that be political, environmental or social.
"Personally, I really enjoy to make a statement with what you're doing, and it doesn't have to be a political statement," Ms Hogan said.
"One year at Viva La Gong we dressed up in full riding outfits but going around on hobby horses.
"People just loved it and they laughed and laughed, that sort of giving someone a genuine surprise and fun is just what makes it worthwhile for me."
Libby Bloxham joined the group about 12 years ago after being confronted by magical "stilt mummas" in a parade while she was walking down the street.
They towered over civilians in their colourful costumes and equally tall prams, also on stilts, but looked amazing.
"I was just gobsmacked and thought, 'wow, I want to do that'," she said.
The professional artist had stilt walked briefly as a child (her mum made a pair out of blocks of wood) but she never imagined it would be a hobby she took up at the age of 47.
"It was really unexpected to come across this in my life and be part of this, it's not something I ever imagined would happen," Mrs Bloxham said, noting joining the circus increased her circle of friends and pushed her to do physical feats she thought no longer possible.
"It's welcoming to everyone and doesn't matter who you are, what race, what size, what physical level of ability ... it's open to any woman who wants to come along and you don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
Mrs Bloxham has walked on various height stilts but usually sticks with a pair which add an extra metre to her frame. She said she took the art up with ease, though not everyone has such luck.
After teaching a workshop on the practice the stilt walker discovered there were some who also picked it up quickly and others who stood frozen, clinging to the wall for dear life.
But that's OK, because Circus WOW works with everyone to enhance their natural abilities and what they might be good at.
"There are flyers and bases in circus, and even though we encourage people to have a turn of both some people are suited to being a base," she said.
"They're the strong women who hold anyone up, and there are flyers, they're the aerialists."
For Ellen Curtis, joining WOW more than a decade ago has been incredibly important to getting to know the region and making her home here.
"I moved here after travel and my mum was going to hoop classes and I tagged along with her and just got the circus buzz really, then pretty soon I enrolled in every class that was on offer," Ms Curtis said.
"Being a women's organisation and having that safety and the non-competitive nature of our group, it just gives that opportunity for women to find creative as well as physical expression.
"We are all very average ordinary people, that's why our logo - ordinary women being extraordinary - is really what it's about.
"You don't have to conform to a certain ideal to be part of WOW and to express yourself in fun and different and strange ways."
From March 5 the Wollongong Art Gallery will celebrate 20 years of Circus WOW with a multimedia exhibition plus special events and circus workshops.
Opening night will feature a delectable array of characters and performers wearing stunning costumes from throughout their history.
"WOW has provided an important platform for Women of Wollongong to form friendships, develop a range of skills, create and present original artistic work and engage with our regional community," gallery director John Monteleone said.
"The arts encompass a diverse range of disciplines circus by its nature embraces performance, movement, music/sound, costume, storytelling, makeup and audience participation and interaction - and many of the Circus WOW performers are also visual artists, writers and musicians.
"Circus embraces a range of artistic disciplines and its direct interaction with audience create a very different experience than what people generally expect in a gallery setting."
Mrs Bloxham is curator of the exhibition which will run until June and feels the "joyous" nature of the show will really bring some light to the recent dark and difficult times during the pandemic.
"We just want to share the journey we've all been on and the idea women can get together and achieve amazing things," she said.
"They can have a voice to talk about the things that are important to them, because ... a lot of our acts are about stuff that really matters to us."