In 1949, LIFE magazine sent famed photographer Nina Leen to document the daily life of a sassy troupe of young women who had run off and joined the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Fla. What developed was a portrait of a sisterhood formed over acrobatics that mixed high-flying wire acts with fashionable high-waisted shorts.

Sarasota was once considered “the home of the American circus.” Leen’s stunning photos reflect an apparently carefree lifestyle of independent single women flourishing during a time in American history when most women were expected to marry instead of having careers. Leen went behind the scenes just seven years before the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows announced it would no longer be performing inside tents. A circus tent fire in Connecticut in 1944 had killed more than 165 people.

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