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A circus with SOUL

Yunji de Nies, Special to the Planet
Saturday October 20, 2001



OAKLAND — A new circus is in town, bringing a twist under the big top by giving entertainment soul. 

The UniverSoul Circus, the only African-American owned and operated circus in the world, is in its second week of the “UnExpected Soul 2001” tour at Oakport St. in Oakland. From the outside, the circus looks like any other: A large blue- and white-striped tent, concession stands, and performers’ trailers littered across the parking lot. Inside, the show is anything but ordinary. 

It begins with lights, brightly-colored costumed figures dancing, flipping and twirling, to music. It is the music that carries the show, kicking off with a colorful African dance to fast-paced drum beats, then switching to the music of the Jazz Age in Harlem, with swing and tap, then moving to hip-hop, gospel and R&B. Much of the music is contemporary, and all of it is African-American. 

But the show is not geared simply toward an African-American audience, rather Ringmaster “Casual Cal,” Calvin Dupree, says it is for all families, to bring out soul.  

“Soul is not a color, it’s an experience,” he says. “Soul is in all of us, and once you feel it, get it, see it you become a better person behind it." 

It is this notion of soul that motivates much of the performance.  

Dupree introduces the acts by integrating comedy and positive messages to the audience.  

For the group high wire act, he stresses teamwork. When talking about the female performers, he emphasizes respect.  

And when Lunga, an 11-year-old contortionist from South Africa twists her body into extraordinary positions in one of the most astounding parts of the show, Dupree reminds the audience of the importance of encouraging and praising children. 

The performance never feels canned. The audience is constantly participating — there is even a throw back to SoulTrain, where people get into the ring and strut. Adults seem to be having as much fun as kids, and the show is flat out funny.  

Dupree, who co-founded the Atlanta-based group eight years ago, says he loves his job, partly because of the positive influence his work can have on the African-American community.  

“Most of all,” he says what makes him happy is, “seeing kids and families’ eyes, full of pride and ownership, and doing something different.”