Freaks No More: Rehistoricizing Disabled Circus Artists

Katrina Carter


Disability and circus are often linked through discussion of freak shows, where individuals with diverse impairments were exhibited as “oddities” and “monsters” before being medicalized, institutionalized, and removed from public view. I argue this has left little room for circus historians to consider disabled performers as equal to their non-disabled counterparts, placing today’s disabled circus artists within an unnecessary vacuum rather than connecting them to a forgotten history, rightfully theirs. Here, I reintroduce two disabled artists, Stuart Dare and Jules Keller, who appear to have made significant contributions to the development of hand-balancing—if, despite his own protestations, an established, highly skilled, non-disabled acrobat is to be believed.

The forgetting of such artists arguably refuels an “ableist culture” (Leonard J. Davis, 1995, 6), which suggests disabled performers, and indeed people, are secondary in importance to those who are non-disabled. It potentially strengthens the binary positioning of disabled participants as receivers of culture, rather than instigators and contributors to it. Freak shows continue to offer rich historical information about circus and disability, but the disabled circus artists explored here offer an opportunity to re-evaluate that information. Today’s disabled performers are not new to the art form, but are reclaiming that to which they have been part of for centuries.

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Copyright (c) 2018 Katrina Carter

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