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Her whole life has been a circus

Catherine Hanneford is having rehearsal jitters. It isn't about working with the herd of elephants she handles or presenting her Polish Arabian stallions in elaborate drills. It's about singing in the 129th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"I am so nervous, I am petrified," she confesses.

"The only singing I've ever really done was at Christmas," she says while waiting to go on. "But the only other singing I've done (in public) was in 1996 we while we were performing in Baribou, Wis., at the Circus Museum.

"That's the home of the five Ringling brothers," she adds. "The boys in the circus band also played in a local pizza parlor and when we had a cast party they asked me to come up and sing. I had never sung on a mike before."

When the show's director approached her about singing in this year's show, she agreed.

For a few minutes, she's having second thoughts.

But Hanneford is a seventh-generation circus performer with one of the most illustrious circus lineages ever, and whether she's singing or putting the animals through their routines, her performances all promise to be show stoppers.

After all, Hanneford can trace her circus family to 1621, when Michael Hanneford, a young Irishman, toured rural England with his menagerie. Each day, according to the family lore, the athletic Michael put on a display of horsemanship that included dancing and leaping on the bare back of a galloping horse.

Word spread about him, and soon he was invited to attend a contest before King George III to determine the greatest juggler in England. He won. Over the centuries, the Hanneford family established their own circus. They toured England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales before World War I.

Moved from town to town in horse-drawn wagons, the Hannefords would perform under a tent. In the early part of this century, in the winter, they would shut down their circus but perform in the big indoor winter circuses in London and on the Continent. In 1916, John Ringling caught the act in Madrid. He invited the Hannefords to come to the United States to perform with his circus. When they said they owned a circus of their own, which was stored in Ireland, Ringling bought their show. Members of the Hanneford troupe were among the most celebrated riders of their day.

From 1960 to 1964, Catherine Hanneford's parents, George and Victoria, performed an equestrian act with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Catherine was 5 when she started performing as a ballerina on horseback with her parents. Soon, she was "Cinderella," riding in a coach and handling the six white ponies her father had bought for her.

When Catherine graduated from Sarasota's Cardinal Mooney High School, her parents gave her six Polish Arabian horses. Instead of going to college, she joined her parents in their circus.

"I am an animal lover. I have had baby birds, baby rabbits, you name it and we have had them," she says. Catherine and her younger brother, George III, were virtually raised with three elephants. "Carol, Liz and Patty were 3 months old when we got them . . . my mother bottle fed them and for three years she slept in the barn with them," she said with a laugh. "They are so spoiled."

Today, the Hanneford family lives with their animals on an 80-acre farm in Myaaka City. Seventeen years ago, Preston Henn, who owns the 100-acre Swap Shop Flea Market in Broward County, invited the Hannefords to perform at his facility. It was to have been a 17-day run, but the show proved so popular that it has continued for almost 20 years.

Catherine's husband, Akos Feher, 28, is part of the act. The Hungarian was in a tumbling act in the Bahamas when Merv Griffin, who ran the show venue, decided to change the act. Catherine's father flew to the Bahamas and brought Feher and a tiger back to his Fort Lauderdale circus. That's how Catherine and Feher met. Though her husband is performing with her, this is Catherine's first time away from her parents. "My mother and I talk at least three times a day," she says as her cell phone starts to ring. "It's my mother," she says as she answers.

Her parents have bought a motor home and will follow the circus when they are not performing in Fort Lauderdale.

The elephants are ready and Catherine is prepared to sing. "I've adopted the attitude of the elephants," she says. "They perform to please you."