Hip-hop big top is a surprise for kids

UniverSoul circus rolls into town with rec center show

June 23, 2006|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

The kids in Mary Haynes' group screamed, yelled, danced and chanted for 45 minutes in a hot, cramped recreation center. Then they rested outside under a tree.

Haynes, assistant director of the Fred B. Leidig summer program, was pleased to see that her "mystery trip" - judging by the number of smiles still worn on the faces of some 40 kids - had ended in satisfaction.

How could it not? Yesterday, the UniverSoul Circus gave a free show for about 150 youngsters from Baltimore's recreation centers. Some, like Haynes' group, had no idea what they were getting into when they got onto buses earlier in the day.

"I told them it was a mystery," Haynes said about her group. "They were really shocked and surprised when we ended up here."

UniverSoul, the nation's only African-American-owned and -operated circus, hosted an abbreviated show at the Ralph Young Rec Center in East Baltimore. The circus, in its 12th year, will run at the Security Square Mall parking lot through Sunday.

The animals were missing at yesterday's performance at the recreation center. But the acrobatics, even without a high wire, impressed the audience.

As the youngsters watched, some performers created a five-person human pyramid and gymnasts flipped on a mat.

"From the time they started, the kids were up here in the atmosphere," Haynes said, as she raised her hand over her head. "It was excellent. It is a good opportunity for kids to get energized."

Yesterday, there were only a few seconds when the joyful sounds of the circus didn't fill the rec center. The site was hot without air-conditioning, but all eyes were on the performers, and no one seemed to care about the heat.

The ringmaster, who went by the name "Tony Tone," kept the crowd's attention.

Sporting a white Kangol cap and accompanied by a 3-foot-tall sidekick named Zeke, Tony Tone ran the show as if it were a rap concert. "When I say big top, you say circus," he told members of the young audience.

"It really has come up," the Rev. Jeannette Sykes-Atkins said of the circus, which has carved out a niche in the black community. Sykes-Atkins, a coordinator for Tench Tilghman Recreation Center, said she has been taking kids to see the show for years.

Sykes-Atkins, along with about 10 other adults, attempted to learn dance moves under the direction of the Caribbean Heat Dancers.

Their hips swiveled and their feet shuffled, and their hearts were in the right place, as they drew laughs from the audience in what served as the afternoon's showstopper.

"I used to dance in the world before I danced for the Lord," Sykes-Atkins said.

Shanatris Stubbs, 11, gave high marks to Sykes-Atkins, her counselor. "I thought it was a great performance," she said.

Many of the youngsters also participated in the show, going on stage for a limbo contest set to R&B music.

UniverSoul's approach taps the pulse of the black community through its music and verse and differentiates it from Ringling Brothers and other traditional shows.

Some of its acts include Onionhead the Clown, the Gabonese Acrobatic Troupe and the Ethiopian Dream Team - Foot and Body Jugglers. Last year UniverSoul gave nearly 500 shows in 26 cities.

The creator of UniverSoul, Cedric Walker, is a Baltimore native.

"It is wonderful that they give back at this level," Haynes said. "Most circuses, they just come in, do performances and leave. You don't get a chance to really see them."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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