By Kyle Petersen

When most people think of the variety arts, they think of music, acrobatics, manipulation (juggling, for example), clown, mime, dance, animal acts, illusions and other traditional routines found in circuses around the world. There is, however, a seedier side of the variety arts. Acts that feature the crude, obscene, frightening and supernatural fall under the category of sideshow.

“Sideshow is like magic’s sleazier older brother”, says Jared Rydelek, a sideshow performer and contortionist who started his career as an illusionist. According to Jared, “the difference between magic and sideshow is that in magic, the performer is deceiving the audience, whereas in sideshow, the performer is doing something that seems like an illusion, but is actually real.”

Sideshow acts can be broken down into several categories. Freak acts (which include both born freaks and created freaks), working acts (acts that involve a performer demonstrating an acquired skill), and oddities shows, which would include unusual stuffed animals and bizarre historical memorabilia.

One of the most recognizable sideshow routines is the Human Blockhead, an act in which the performer sticks a long and pointy object (usually a long nail) up his or her nose. Keith Nelson’s “Kendama Blockhead” routine is a variation of this act. Other traditional sideshow acts include knife throwing, straight jacket escape, glass walking and eating, juggling dangerous objects (knives, fire, etc).

Though sideshow has declined in popularity since its peak in the days of vaudeville, it is experiencing a modern resurgence. The famed Coney Island Sideshow is still going strong, featuring colorful performers like Donny Vomit, Serpentina, Scott Baker and Heather Holliday. Take a look at the Coney Island Sideshow in action below.

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