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Arts & Culture

UniverSoul Circus Puts Hip Hop Under The Big Top

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Boon Vang
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The UniverSoul circus is playing this month at Charlotte's Metrolina Expo Fairgrounds, and the first thing that strikes you after entering the big top is the music. You won’t hear any “March of the Gladiators” playing here. No, this circus plays hip hop, Motown, Caribbean rhythms, African beats, Beyonce, Drake, and many other top ten artists.

During intermission, audience members line up in the concessions tent next to a black Santa figurine to buy popcorn, soft drinks, and funnel cakes. Towards the back, two cast members, Chelsea Ridley and Chrissie Lipscomb, are dressed in street clothes catching a break between the acts.

Ridley and Lipscomb are figure skaters who open the show. They spin circles and make impressive jumps around the center ring before the lights go out and stagehands cover the ice for the next act.

Not many circuses can boast a hip hop - soul soundtrack, and these skaters say that makes the show appealing not just to kids, but also their parents.

"I think it’s more of an adult show show than a kids show," says Lipscomb, "I think the adults have more fun than the kids do."

Ridley agrees. "I mean, I think the kids like the music, but the adults can really appreciate the spectrum we have," she says.

Overseeing the three hour spectacle is 25-year-old Daniel Malatsi, though as circus ringmaster, he goes by Lucky. He’s from Johannesburg, South Africa, and like him, a lot of these acts come from other countries.

"We have acts from Ecuador. We have acts from Brazil. We have acts from New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa; Guinea-Conakry, Africa; Ethiopia, Africa. You name it, we have it under the big top." he says, "And no, I’m not forgetting the United States of America, we also have great acts from here as well."

Malatsi says this circus caters to ethnic groups that aren’t often represented in big, blockbuster circuses.

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Credit Boon Vang
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"We want to make sure that everybody gets to see each and every culture’s different type of soul," he says, "It may be Latin, it may be African. … Everybody has soul and that’s what we do with the UniverSoul circus - make sure that everybody’s bringing out that soul in them."

True, the show’s highlight isn’t the Ethiopian acrobats, or the Asian elephants, or the motorcycle cage of death, it’s the audience members invited onstage for a number of lip sync battles and dance offs. The night I went, circus goers performed the stanky leg, the two step, and not one, but two full splits.

Cedric Walker, the founder and CEO of UniverSoul circus, says that audience interaction comes from the African musical tradition of call-and-response. The call-and-response, “When I say circus you say big top…” is heard several times throughout the show, to increasingly louder screams from the audience. Walker says he wanted this circus to showcase black culture and give ethnic circus performers their own platform.

Some of the performers have been traveling with the circus for over 20 years, but today the show still feels fresh and exciting. This high-energy circus with an African-American spirit can easily entertain the whole family. From the latest pop songs to classic, nostalgic circus acts, every performance is a memorable experience of hip hop under the big top.

The UniverSoul circus plays at the Metrolina Expo Fairgrounds through Sunday. Tickets range from $17 to $85.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.

Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance