Step Right Up to Learn Sideshow Tricks From Coney Island’s Finest


Hammering a roofing nail into your nose. Sliding a sharp blade down your gullet. Exhaling a ball of fire. These are the sorts of stunts you can see at the sideshow at Coney Island USA — and without proper training and a ton of practice, they’re just as dangerous as they seem.

In other words, don’t try this at home.

Luckily, you don’t need to. You can learn each safely at Sideshow School, run by Adam RealMan, who teaches these skills along with walking on glass, lying on a bed of nails, using a blade box, and others in an intensive, three-day course. The cost is $1,000 — which isn’t exactly tuition to Columbia, but more than a lot of people can easily afford to part with.

That’s where Anja Keister comes in. Keister, a burlesque performer and producer of monthly nerdlesque events with D20 Burlesque, is raising money to fund the the Coney Sideshow Scholarship, which will pay for a young Coney Island resident to go to Sideshow School. The first benefit fundraiser for the scholarship will take place on Thursday at Coney Island USA.

“This is something that I actually imagined doing five or six years ago, before D20 even existed,” says Keister. Back then she was working for a nonprofit that helped teens who had mental-health and behavior issues, and Coney Island West was her beat.

“I was working with youths down there, helping them stay out of trouble,” she says. “I would be down at that area, where there was some gang activity, and I would walk back to the subway station at the end of my work shift. And it would be Luna Park, it would be cotton candy, it’d be the sideshows.”

Keister saw a disconnect between the day-to-day lives of the kids of Coney and its most celebrated entertainment, and wanted to find a way to bridge the gap. “Sideshow performing and the world of circus is something that appeals to a lot of youth,” she says. “Kids like death-defying things.”

Spitting in death’s eye is part of the appeal, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. “The idea of self-teaching can be very, very dangerous, especially when it comes to things like fire or sword-swallowing,” says Keister. “So you specifically get a mentor or take a class, and then you practice those skills over and over again until you acquire them enough to perform them.”

RealMan is one such mentor: a credible teacher who knows the stunts inside and out, and knows the safe ways to get astonishing effects. “We focus on learning the skills in the safest ways possible,” he says. The business elements of sideshow performing are also discussed, but he says “the real focus is on learning the feats.”

The school not only teaches squirm-inducing skills like how to safely snap a mousetrap onto your tongue, but also represents an entrée into a community of people with similar sensibilities. “A lot of times people are in sideshow because they don’t feel like they fit in to the mainstream,” says Keister.

“This is a great way to help out kids who don’t know that the stuff exists to find it, and keep themselves safe while harnessing their skills,” says Keister. “They can go off and mentor someone else eventually, or maybe they start a performance group.”

“We offer what we like to call ‘lifetime support,’ ” says RealMan of the Sideshow School. “I’m always available for questions and advice.” RealMan has referred former students for gigs over the years, and has worked with a number of them. One is now a host at the Coney Island Sideshow.

Thursday’s benefit will kick off the scholarship fund with the help of a bevy of variety acts. Keister will co-host with RealMan and Kita St. Cyr, who’ll be doing a fiery burlesque act. The show will include sideshow acts from RealMan, Zoey Ziegfeld, and Trick the Bastard, magic from Nelson Lugo, music by Afterbirth Monkey, and burlesque performances by Beelzebabe, Plucky Charms, Nyx Nocturne, Raina Bow, TigerBay, Lefty Lucy, and Keister herself. A raffle will raise more money, with prizes including gifts from local businesses, tickets to burlesque shows, and even a handmade hat fashioned by burlesque performer It’s a Little Stormy.

“I normally do the nerdlesque, geeky stuff, but this isn’t that,” says Keister. “This is more straight-up. I’m really excited, too, because I don’t get to produce a lot of sideshow. So I’m really enthused to have all the sideshow stuff going on here.”

If you’re a student who’ll be over eighteen when you graduate high school next year and are interested in the Coney Sideshow Scholarship, email to receive notifications on when and how to apply.

The Coney Sideshow Scholarship Benefit Show takes place on Thursday, September 3 at 9 p.m. at Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, $12 online; $15 at the door.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2015

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