'Hip-hop under the big top'

Ringling Bros. may have hired its first African-American ringmaster in 1999, but the UniverSoul Circus was diversifying the ethnic landscape of the traditional family-friendly circus well before the bigger big top's milestone.

Atlanta-based concert and event promoter Cedric Walker, who worked with the Jackson 5 and the Commodores before moving into promoting gospel plays and hip-hop tours in the '80s, created the dynamic UniverSoul Circus in 1994 as a way to bridge the generation gap in entertainment.

"At his gospel plays, he would see the parents and grandparents. At his rap concerts, he'd see the kids. So he asked, 'How can we bring these families together?' " explains spokesman Hank Ernest. A proposed variety show blossomed into a circus once tigers and elephants were added to the mix. "We thought there was a need to create a circus for a wider range of people in an urban setting."

The UniverSoul Circus continues its six-day Charlotte run today.

Walker mixed the edginess of a hip-hop show through dancing and music (from Michael Jackson to the Sugar Hill Gang) with elements of a more traditional circus. He took a year to research the history of African-Americans in the circus and eventually recruited his cousin, an exotic animal lover, to train to be a lion tamer.

The show has grown from its start in Atlanta to a 36-city tour, and the diversity of its acts has grown as well. "Where it was primarily black performers from around the world (in the beginning), now we feature performers from all kinds of backgrounds," Ernest says.

The two-hour show includes an Ethiopian contortionist, a Chinese female bicycle troupe, a Russian swing act, stilt walkers and dancers from Trinidad and Tobago, a French aerialist, Colombian motorcyclists, tigers and dog acts from South America, and more.

"It's like hip-hop under the big top," Ernest says, adding that UniverSoul has made the circus cool for teenagers who may think they have outgrown it. "When you think about teenagers going to a circus, they're like, 'Oh my gosh, this is a circus?' They're hearing songs they listen to on their iPods. (Walker) knew he had to entice the youth in some way."