For John Briggs of Berkeley, California, the realization came a few months ago at a downtown nightclub. “I was out at a bar with some friends. The DJ dropped that Justin Timberlake track and boom — we were all immediately out on the dance floor.” The joy was quickly replaced with embarrassment though. “I turned around and suddenly I’m face-to-face with an old friend from the swing dancing scene. It was really awkward at first. I stopped going to those dances, gosh… five years ago or so. And that scene used to be like, my life. These days I don’t even own a decent zoot suit. Frankly, I don’t think I’d have the strength to throw a girl in the air.”
Briggs’ story is increasingly familiar nowadays, as 1990s hipsters who revived old styles from the dustbin of history are now giving them up in record numbers. The reversal of this trend is leaving the remaining stalwarts in the awkward position of being, well… forgotten.
“I thought it so cool that circuses were coming back,” says Emma Wheeler, on the phone from her cubicle in a Chicago call center. “Fire eaters, aerialists, all that stuff. It was so weird and old and totally ours.” These days her remaining friends in Cirque du Sinister, where she spent most of her 20s swallowing swords, are battling not only financial problems but popular irrelevance. “These days it all seems, I dunno… just weird and old.”
“I’m pretty sure our freakshow isn’t exploitative,” says Corneilius The Mystyrious, nee Justin Fox, whose Austin-based touring company Freaks! Unlimited has recently fallen on hard times. “But it’s getting harder to convince people with rare medical conditions they should quit their jobs, get in a van with us and go on tour. It’s damn near impossible these days to find a midget — ” Fox hesitated for a moment, “sorry: little person — who’s not gonna report us to some kinda advocacy group.” However, Fox does find his situation somewhat bittersweet. “It has put us in the position of being, y’know… legitimately obscure. Which is pretty ironic, come to think of it… which I guess makes it cool?” he says, looking uncertain. “Mostly though, it just sucks.”