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‘Inside the tent, it’s one big party.’ Meet the UniverSoul Circus performers who’ve been wowing Chicago for generations

It’s a quiet fall weeknight in Hyde Park, complete with changing leaves and joggers on the paths of Washington Park. But in one corner of the sprawling green space, a temporary village has sprung up, tethered to its spot by a bright yellow and red tent, rising to a peak above the trees. And inside the tent, all is pandemonium.

A pair of strongmen teeter delicately in a series of unbelievable poses; dancers shimmy under fiery limbo bars, inches from the ground; motorcycles vault through the tent, momentarily suspended in midair; and a cadre of hip-hop clowns and a trio of polished ringmasters stitch the whole thing into a show that has the crowd dancing, singing, laughing and screaming together.

“Inside the tent,” says performer Jorge Pompeyo, “it’s one big party.”

The performers of the Universoul Circus drop stakes in our city every year, drawing families who have been coming to see the show for generations. That seems fitting, since, in spite of modern touches, the circus itself retains a sense of a show business lineage that stretches back to the 1800s.

Motorcycles may not have been a part of the golden age of American circuses, but acts such as the balancing strongmen, contortionists and high wire acts are direct descendants of acts you could have seen under P.T. Barnum’s tent. “The circus goes way, way back,” says Zanda “Zeke” Charles, UniverSoul’s official ringmaster’s sidekick and a 26-year veteran of the show. “And some of the acts are reincarnated from those early days. When you see something that you know you can’t do yourself, it’s amazing, and it’s timeless. That’s what makes it the circus.”

Yet UniverSoul is different. Founded by former music promoter Cedric Walker, it was conceived as a showcase for diverse talent, including black performers who might not have found a place under the big tents of the past.

Ringmaster sidekick Zanda "Zeke" Charles helps himself to an audience member's popcorn during the UniverSoul Circus at Washington Park on Oct. 23, 2019.

Ringmaster sidekick Zanda "Zeke" Charles helps himself to an audience member's popcorn during the UniverSoul Circus at Washington Park on Oct. 23, 2019. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

That message of inclusiveness also reached audiences, and a tradition — one that has now outlived the iconic Ringling Bros. circus — was born. “Soul is not color, it’s an experience,” says Charles. “It’s music, lights, participation. It has sustained me for so long. I see the same people every year, some of them more than I see my own family. I’m a people person; that’s my job.”

Though the cast is a proudly diverse group, with performers from Mongolia, Brazil, South Africa, the Caribbean among other countries, they are a community founded on their shared history with — and love for — the circus.

Aerialist Webert Alves Cavalcante is a third generation circus performer who first entered the ring at age 8 and performed in Brazilian and European circuses before joining UniverSoul. Cavalcante is writing his own circus history with a series of tattoos on his arm: “It’s my story, my life,” he says. “It’s everything that represents the circus, and it still isn’t finished.” 

Ringmaster Daniel “Lucky” Malatsi was a 9-year-old street performer in South Africa when he was discovered by UniverSoul owner Walker. “He was impressed with the way we knew how to draw a crowd,” Malatsi says. Malatsi has been a contortionist and acrobat, and performed on the teeterboard and as a DJ, among other jobs on his way to the ringmaster’s mic. “In the circus,” he says, “you have to wear many hats.” Ringmaster fits, for one simple reason: his ability to interact with the audience. “I can read people,” Malatsi says. “That’s my superpower.”

Derek Burlew and JJ Romans have skills that extend beyond the circus and into another world: competitive freestyle motocross. Burlew, who has been riding motorcycles since age 5, was one of the first riders in the sport, which is based on jumps and tricks that can include aerial flips and handstands on the back of a motorcycle vaulting through the air. “People get killed doing it,” Burlew shrugs. “But you could get killed just as easily getting hit by a car.” Maybe that’s why traveling with the circus qualifies as the quiet life for them. “It’s steady work, and it’s a family atmosphere,” says Burlew. Plus, says Romans, “it’s a good show. This is the only place you still get to see this kind of show. It’s a mixture of everything.”

Ira Smith, the leader of Fresh the Clowns, UniverSoul’s clown troupe, didn’t start out with a circus pedigree. He was a health care worker in Detroit when a friend asked him to “dress up as a clown” for a child’s birthday party. “I wasn’t so sure about that,” he says, but he added his own style and some dance moves, and discovered his performance was such a hit, he was getting bookings. Fresh the Clowns, “a swag clown, a different kind of clown” was born. In 2014, he urged Detroit fans to message UniverSoul on social media and ask for Fresh the Clowns to perform the circus pre-show. By 2015, they were asked to join the tour. Today, Smith employs 18 clowns, has viral dance videos and songs that every kid in the UniverSoul audience knows by heart. “I never would have believed it would get this big,” he says. ”It makes me feel so good, the way the kids love it. The big top has really helped expand my world.”

Cheyenne Ross Dailey, the circus’ first female ringmaster, began her circus career as a dancer after auditioning in her home country, Trinidad and Tobago, for the UniverSoul Caribbean dance troupe. Stepping into the ringmaster role means that everyone in the audience is focused on her, she says, but especially girls. “It’s such an honor to be someone that they want to see. I can be that one to shine a light on people, and that’s living the dream, really.” And she is determined not to let that audience down. “I may be tired, I may be sick, I may be hungry or sad behind that door,” she says, gesturing off stage. “But when I step out on stage, all that vanishes.”

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