Sometime between twirls and splits on the giant ring hanging from the ceiling, the acrobat's hearing aid kept falling out.

Otherwise, Elizabeth "Bunny" Herring's two practice performances Friday at the City Museum's circus - before her performance at her private birthday party tonight - showed off the 80-year-old's graceful moves, straight body lines and amazing strength and flexibility.

The audience watched in awe - some slightly cringing when Herring swung herself in circles by her ankle.

"I don't think my grandma could have even pulled herself up, " said Retha Bisso, 16, of Ballwin.

At an age when many of her peers might be looking forward to canasta and bingo, Herring is doing pirouettes on a ring 10 feet off the ground.

"It's great fun, " Herring said, and that captures her attitude toward much of her life.

When Herring recited lines from Shakespeare before starting her routine, she might have sounded like a grandma with her wobbly, low voice. And, given the expected age spots and lines, she may have looked like grandma - except for the way she carried herself in a skin-tight red leotard with black sequined swirls and red and black fishnet stockings.

Herring made headlines in the Post-Dispatch in 1948 when she, a young debutante from a prominent St. Louis family, left the American School of Ballet in New York to join Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Her father, Ira Edward Wight, a partner in an investment firm and a prominent Republican statewide, was horrified when he got the news. The family's lineage runs to Pierre Chouteau.

Herring went to Mary Institute here and graduated from an Eastern boarding school before auditioning for the circus.

"They picked us because we were wholesome farm girls, " Herring said of herself and a friend. (Her family owned two farms in Pike County, Mo.)

Herring had to promise her family that she would leave the circus after a few months. That summer, on a family vacation in Wyoming, she met her future husband, a cowboy at a ranch.

"My parents didn't know which was worse, the cowboy or the circus, " she said. They agreed to let her return to the circus.

In the nearly three years she traveled with the circus, Herring rode horses bareback, performed on top of elephants and stuck her head into the jaws of tigers. Then she ran away from the circus and decided to marry the cowboy. More than 50 years of marriage ended when Skyler Herring died last year.

For years, they had stayed in the West, where he competed in rodeos, and worked as a cowboy and lumberjack. "I thought it was such an adventure, " she said.

Her parents, meanwhile, begged them to move back home and run the family farms. In 1955, they agreed, and the young couple, now with four children, settled in Eolia, Mo.

When the children became old enough to attend boarding school, Herring decided it was time to go to nursing school. She graduated when she was about 50 years old and worked as a registered nurse while selling historic homes on the side.

Herring has gone riding every morning since living on the farm. Last year, she was thrown from a horse and broke her ankle.

Earlier that year, she had gotten a tattoo around that same ankle. It's the Latin motto from her boarding school: Esse Quam Videre ("To be, rather than to seem"). Her surgeon thought it was very cool, she said, and was careful not to cut into it when piecing her ankle together with metal pins and rods.

Herring decided that her second debut, this one tonight in front of 100 family and friends, would be a benefit for two of her favorite charities. Instead of birthday gifts, guests are asked to donate to either the Circus Day Foundation or Prison Performing Arts.

She has been training since September to get herself back in shape. She is a size 8, but she has a commanding presence on stage. The first time she tried the two-minute routine choreographed by Jessica Hentoff, artistic director of the Circus Day Foundation, the spins made her so dizzy, she almost threw up.

Now, she effortlessly twirls in the air, dipping her entire body up and down. She raises her knee close to her nose, straightening her leg in a steady line, perfectly pointed toes at the end. Tonight, she decided she won't wear her hearing aid.