Woman finds calling in world of flamboyant talkers, freaks, and fire breathers
Cris Siqueira, a 36-years-old woman with a steady professional life nearing a doctorate in history, is not the most likely candidate to run away with the circus.
But a lifelong fascination with the big top has drawn Siqueira away from academia and into the colorful world of the flamboyant talkers, freaks, and fire breathers of the midway.
"There is no educational value in the fair. Everyone who goes is either using their time to spin around in the air on a ride that was put together by a high school drop out or just watching a show to be amazed. I love that people are in that space," said Siqueira.
Siqueira, who grew up in Brazil, had a life long fascination with the circus. Her interest grew after meeting some of the country's circus legends while shooting a documentary on the "Globe of Death"--a carnival stunt where multiple motorcyclists ride inside a mesh metal sphere-- and when she stumbled upon "Shocked and Amazed!" a journal that chronicles circus and carnival sideshows.
"I was very involved with the circus in Brazil but it was very different. We don't have the freaks. We don't have the sword swallowers. It's very athletic. You have to be born in the family and it's kind of like gymnastics. You have to do it all your life," Siqueira said.
Siqueira began corresponding with sideshow performers she'd read about in "Shocked and Amazed!" and visited the annual sideshow gathering in Pennsylvania in 2004-- the same year she moved to Milwaukee-- not knowing that six years later she'd be ready to dedicate her life to the sideshow.
"I started to know them, which is really bizarre because I went by myself. It was a very tight knit community and it wasn't fashionable yet. Now you have all the young people who do it, but it was kind of like the beginning of that," said Siqueira, "I just infiltrated myself."
In 2008 Siqueira was invited by Ward Hall and Chris Christ to join them and their "World of Wonders" sideshow at the Minnesota State Fair.
"They really accepted me quickly because I know a lot of the old timers in Brazil," said Siqueira, "I went but I said 'I don't know how to do anything,' They said, 'Can you stick your head in a box? Then you've got talent'."
That first year she helped in an illusion where she would stand inside a cage and transform into a gorilla as the cage filled with smoke.
She's joined "World of Wonders" every year since, visiting state fairs and small town carnivals around the U.S. She's sat on top of the guy laying on a bed of nails, put her head into a box and been the girl with a spider's body, handled snakes, sold tickets, and woke up on a cot to find a fire breathing midget staring at her. Her face lights up as she recounts the friends she's made and the thing's she's seen.
"My thing with the sideshow is I want to do anything I can to help them. If you want me in the ticket box I am in the ticket box. If you want me in the bally (stage), I'm in the bally (stage). If you want me to charm snakes I'll do it," Siqueira said.
The "World of Wonders" is one of the oldest operating sideshows in the country. It represents a time when freak shows and sideshow talkers ruled the midway. While alternative cabaret acts like Jim Rose Circus have experienced a boom in popularity recently, traditional sideshows have all but disappeared.
"They aren't interested in the tradition, in the old jokes, the old-timers, the circus and they want to do one show a night in the club," said Siqueira, "I don't want to be performing for hipsters. The hipsters are super entertained. They are over entertained. I want to go to Hutchinson, Kansas where people are poor and give people some live entertainment which is something that they don't see, and they are amazed by it."
After spending a few years essentially volunteering with the sideshow, Siqueira--who does freelance video editing and market research--said she wants to make it her living. She keeps a blog dedicated to Monga, the Brazilian version of the girl-to-gorilla illusion, and hopes to one day run her own Monga illusion.
"I was always like 'I'm going to be someone who documents it and that's good enough for me', You know?," said Siqueira, "Now I am going to go into this hopefully...I want to be in the circus. Turn it into something creative. Work on projects related to the circus. I want to specialize."
Siqueira is currently working on a book of pictures by Diane Falk, a sword swallower with more than 20 years of experience, and helping out with James Taylor's "Shocked and Amazed", the magazine that got her into the American sideshow in the first place.
And while life in the sideshow is filled with long days of hard work, constant travel and nights spent sleeping on cots cockroach infested trailers, Siqueira said she can't think of any place she'd rather be.
"Nothing can bum me out if I am at the fair," she said with a smile.
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