Liz Baranowicz recently presented her Bachelor’s thesis at the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association national conference in Chicago. I talked with her about her progression from a part-time circus performer and student of sociology to an American circus scholar.
Liz grew up in Sarasota, Florida, a town steeped in circus culture. The high school she attended, Sarasota High, even had its own youth circus. “The big top was in the parking lot year round,” Liz said. But Liz wasn’t interested in circus as an adolescent. Instead she attended FIT in New York and attained an Associate’s degree in jewelry and small-scale metal design, and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin to continue studying metalworking. After some time she realized her interest in metal was waning: “I was spending a lot of my spare time reading feminist blogs; I wanted to study people,” Liz said. So she switched her major to sociology, a degree that would eventually prove to meld with circus studies.
Liz was already 19 and far from Sarasota when she discovered her love of circus. On a road trip from California to Florida she stopped at a tourist trap full of Wild West paraphernalia. She saw some bullwhips for sale that were terrible quality, but she decided to buy one anyway. Outside she tried to crack it a few times and fell in love with the feeling of it. She took it home and started to practice, realizing she’d like to perform one day, but not sure how to get started. “That world just seemed so foreign to me, “ she said, “How could I, some 19 year old kid in Florida, break into that?”
At the age of 23 Liz and her friend Ballyhoo Betty, who would later become one of her interview subjects, met a man named Bearclaw who taught the girls how to eat and breath fire. These new skills opened up opportunities for performance. Liz’s interest in sideshow history was also emerging at this time. The relationship between performance and its fascinating back-story forged the connection between Liz’s circus and academic lives. She started using every writing opportunity her classes afforded her, to write about circus, eventually deciding to write her bachelor’s thesis on women in sideshow performance.
Her thesis preparation spanned two semesters of research and applications, followed by a month-long road trip to conduct interviews. Liz was interested in the difference between women’s roles in American traditional and contemporary sideshow. One of the biggest differences she noticed was the decline of acts in which women are exhibited only for their appearance and manufactured histories. By way of example, Liz examined the “captivity narrative,” a term she used to describe the work of group of performers called the Circassian Ladies. The exhibition of these women was accompanied by the claim that they had been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, then escaped and became circus performers. “That was the only thing they did,” Liz said, “they just sat there and existed in this idea of escaping sexual slavery.”
By contrast, many of her contemporary interview subjects were skill-based sideshow performers, such as: fire performers, burlesque dancers, acrobats, or aerialists. Liz asked them how they felt being female makes their acts different and whether audiences react to them differently because of their gender.
When her friend and interview subject Ballyhoo Betty sent her the PCA’s call for paper submissions Liz realized her paper was perfect for the circus panel. She anxiously assembled her abstract for the conference and submitted her work. “They e-mailed me back the next day, I was real nervous about it, and they were like yep, you’re in, and I thought, that was easy, why did I get so nervous about writing that abstract?” For her presentation she summarized her paper, discussed her methodology and the different categories in her paper, and held a short Q&A.
Though Liz has presented this paper, she hasn’t submitted it for publication yet. She’d like to conduct more interviews and refine her survey questions. Eventually she hopes a book can come from this work, but she wants to find a way to keep the book from becoming too academic. “It might end up being more pop sociology,” she said, “something I can sell.” For the moment she is keeping up her research skills by volunteering at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. “I thought I would be passing out programs in the museum,” she said, but instead her resume was passed on to the archivist in the library and she was given the project of cataloguing and digitizing the sideshow photos. “It’s incredible to see the volume of stuff,” she said, “rooms full of old photos and records, I think there is an eight legged goat in the basement of the library somewhere.”
As with many circus performers who straddle the space between research and practice, Liz has been more focused on the practice side lately. “Every time I think about applying to grad school, I also have to think about, oh, I have this show coming up in a month,” she said. Her academic pursuits won’t be neglected for long though: she is working on graduate school applications for this fall.
If you’d like to read Liz’s thesis Sideshows and Femininity, or if you’d like to keep up with her research, e-mail Liz at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ariel Schmidtke is the CirCommons General Editor and has been working with Circus Now since January 2014. She has been a member of the Bellingham Circus Guild for several years with brief escapades to other cities for training. After spending a summer on tour with the New Old Time Chautauqua she decided to co-found the circus company Capistrano Circus, a small troupe that focuses on bringing small shows to underserved communities.