Bouncing girls cherish Winter Carnival high-flying tradition

Retiring team member
Bouncing Girls, like veteran Ali Lukin, can reach heights of 20 to 35 feet. Lukin is retiring from the team, but she showed off the skills she's honed during her bouncing tenure at this year's team tryouts at the Landmark Center in St Paul, Minn., on February 4, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Leatha Wold's claim to fame is being named the St. Paul bouncing girl, a title she's carried with pride for decades.

"I got lucky," said Wold, 63, a petite former gymnast who tried out for the St. Paul bouncing team on a bet. "Blanket tossing really captivates an audience. The shock value when a girl goes flying into the air is unlike anything else."

The blanket toss, one of the oldest winter sporting events in history, has been loosely affiliated with the St. Paul Winter Carnival since 1886.

The St. Paul team has 14 "pullers" who hold onto straps attached to a canvas blanket. The bouncing girl sits cross-legged on it. Then it's, "One, two, up she goes!"

Bouncing girl tryouts
The St. Paul Bouncing Team is one of the most popular entries in the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival Torchlight Parade. Tryouts for the 2011 team were held at the Landmark Center in St. Paul, Minn., on February 4, 2011. Cassie Lukin was the first competitor of the night.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The bouncing girl is thrust into the air, reaching heights of more than 35 feet. As she hits her peak height, she has some trick options -- a common straddle, flip or spin.

She earns her title during the Winter Carnival in a bouncing girl tryout, the only competitive aspect of the team. Her role, Wold said, is to carry enthusiasm and excitement to the crowd.

While in the air, she's encouraged to wave to her audience before landing back on the blanket within seconds.

Wold said she perfected the art of waving in time for a St. Paul performance when President Richard Nixon was in town.

"I was comfortable enough with the blanket to wave at Nixon, who just happened to be walking through the skyway," she said.

The bouncing team began making annual carnival appearances in 1937, when Lucille Leopold became the first bouncing girl. Hundreds of women have since competed for the title, some auditioning year after year for a shot at the position.

They are judged on poise, height of the flight, control and enthusiasm. There is no weight restriction for the blanket, but most women who try out are between 100 and 120 pounds.

Bouncing queen
Kate Franssen, the 2010 Bouncing Queen, takes a turn during the 2011 St. Paul Bouncing Team competition at the Landmark Center in St. Paul, Minn., on February 4, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"The lighter she is, the higher she flies," said team president Greg Sax.

Bouncing girls must also be 21 years old, because Sax said the team usually meets at St. Paul bars.

Wold said there is a sense of fear and excitement that keeps bringing back thrill-seekers each year.

"The initial rush of it all is what gets most of the girls to tryouts. Being hoisted up into the air, weightless -- it's not for the timid. In those moments of suspension I knew I was hooked," she said.

Sax, who joined the team for the first time a few years ago, said nearly 50 women tried out each year for the bouncing girl slot during the team's heyday in the 1960s. About 15-20 women have tried out each year over the past decade.

The team was first sponsored by the St. Paul Athletic Club, and was restructured into a nonprofit organization in 1993 after the club folded. It performs at about 12 events in Minnesota each year and is kept largely funded by external sponsors.

New Bouncing Queen
Christine Pearson, right, in pink, is named the 2011 Bouncing Queen at the Landmark Center in St. Paul, Minn., on February 4, 2011. As winner of the evening's competition, she will have a 3-year-long position on the St. Paul Bouncing Team and will perform with the group in everything from West St. Paul's Cinco de Mayo festival to the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Sax said a few holdovers from the transition played roles in the team's revamping, working to ensure the team remained unique to St. Paul.

"Those first few years were a time where the team stepped back and said that it was important to keep this thing going. It's a St. Paul tradition," he said.

St. Paul native Roger Anderson said he joined the team as a favor to his sister, but the "adrenaline rush" of it kept him an active participant for more than 20 years. The team is in a more stable and successful position today than in the past 25 years, he said.

Anderson's sister, Karen Vento, said being a part of the team helped her learn important life lessons.

"It taught me to have control and focus," said Vento, who was bouncing girl from 1988 until 1991. "If you got a group of old and new bouncing girls together you'd be surrounded by remarkably strong women -- both physically and figuratively."

Vento also said the rush of being tossed can become addicting. Endorphins and laughter are what shape the performances, she said.

"You're trusting of these guys to catch you, but there's always that fear. No one's been dropped yet. They know what they're doing," she said.

Anderson recently converted old 8-mm family films to DVDs, noticing a section where he and his brothers tossed their sister's doll from a blanket.

"That has to say something about our family's ties to the [the team] over the years. We've been blanket tossing for decades," he said.