Written by Niki Moore as an assignment for MeetChangemakers.com*
BRENT VAN RENSBURG
BRINGS HOPE TO YOUNG PEOPLE WITH HIS CIRCUS TRAINING SCHOOL
The lights, the music, the costumes, the tumbling figures, the show – who would think that a circus could be used for social upliftment?
The Zip Zap Circus School is exactly that – a circus training school for disadvantaged children, based in Cape Town – that offers the hope to youngsters that they can break out of their backgrounds and become performers and trainers themselves. Inspirational founder, Brent van Rensburg, believes that the magic of the circus is for everyone, and he and his wife Laurence have taught and inspired thousands of children over the last 29 years.
THE ZIP ZAP CIRCUS – WHERE DREAMS ARE MADE
The lights dim, the crowd grows quiet and expectant. Then a stab of light from high above… and there, in the light,
a glittering figure, twisting and twirling… the music swells and there is a sigh from the audience. The magic has started.
The circus has begun.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
It all started in 1971 with a skinny ten-year-old youngster who used to hang around the Hi-Fli Trapeze Training School at the YMCA in Observatory, Cape Town, making a nuisance of himself. Eventually the owner, Keith Anderson, got tired of chasing him away and allowed him to join the school. No-one would have known it at the time, but this is how history gets made.
Because that ten-year-old drop-out called Brent van Rensburg would go on to become a famous trapeze artist, a world champion, a member of the famous StarLords trapeze troupe, a motivational speaker… and the founder of the Zip Zap Circus and Academy. Someone who would, eventually, bring hope and a future to thousands of young people who had little reason otherwise to celebrate life.
“When we first started our circus school, I did not think it would last for long,” says Brent. “We set up a trapeze in a tree, with a big cardboard box of costumes and props, and we used to go into the townships and collect the kids for the day. We started with some simple training, trapeze, trampoline, floor routines and comedy sketches. The idea took off like wildfire.”
This was in 1992. Brent had been performing in circuses around the world since the age of 16, and had brought his French girlfriend Laurence home to Cape Town. To fill in the time and earn a little money, they had set up a trapeze at the V&A Waterfront where the brave or curious could try out a pay-as-you-go swing. It became so popular that the couple decided to start a circus school.
“It was a strange time in this country,” says Brent. “People were leaving, there was this One Settler One Bullet slogan, people were afraid. Laurence and myself, we had lived in circuses most of our lives and we knew that the circus could create a bridge between people – young and old, rich and poor, black and white. We first called our circus school Dare to Dream – because with our limited money, a rusty car, a training school in someone’s backyard, programmes aimed at disadvantaged kids – dreams were really all we had to start with.”
From its inception, the school was structured as a social outreach. There were no fees: instruction included discipline and team-building; the training in circus skills created a sense of purpose, confidence, trust and commitment.
“The magic of the circus is that there is something for everyone,”Brent continues. “We don’t turn anyone away. There is a place for everyone, all shapes and sizes, all ages and levels. Everyone will find something that they are good at. Once they walk through that door they become part of the family.”
The turning point came in 1994, when the fledgling circus – now called Zip Zap – was packed on a bus and went to perform at the Grahamstown Festival.
It was a triumphant beginning, with its combination of hope, hard work, and the sprinkle of stardust.
From those early performances, Zip Zap has grown into a professional training school with its own premises in Salt River and an intake of more than 1 000 kids a year. Apart from the hands-on circus training, there are a number of outreach programmes that introduce youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to the wonders
Zip Zap has partnered with Doctors Without Borders and SOS Children’s Villages to train HIV-positive youngsters and kids in care, young people with drug problems, and those with social challenges. They also run an Early Childhood Development programme with the Western Cape Department of Education.
“We have had feedback from parents and teachers,” says Brent, “where they tell us that kids who take part in our training or outreaches start to do better at school, they gain confidence, they become more interested in exploring other options in life. We are not here only to turn out professionals, we give them life skills, teach them the value of teamwork and self-confidence.”
Older students have become instructors themselves. Some have turned professional and have joined circuses around the world. The techniques and performance skills have prepared young people for careers in the film industry, along with the less glamorous but still vitally important technical proficiencies such as carpentry, welding, and basic engineering which are necessary for building, repairing and maintaining circus equipment.
Taking children out of hard or challenged backgrounds would not be easy. But Brent looks at it another way.
“I prefer to think that they do not bring their problems from home to the school, they rather take the magic of the circus back home with them,” he says. “We get huge support from their families, especially when they realise that the children are learning skills and putting bread and butter on the table. Parents tell us how they have seen their children change, how their school marks improve, how they gain in confidence. We have had some kids who come here, who won’t speak to anyone. But as soon as they lose themselves in performance, they get some applause, they experience the magic of the circus – we see them change.”
The most moving testimonials for the circus school is when the performers are asked in interviews and on TV what their lives would be like without
“I would probably be in jail,” says Phelelani Ndakrokra matter-of-factly. “I joined the school when I was 11, and I learned how to juggle. What I learned is that performance is everything. Even if you are angry, you have to go on stage, and you can get rid of your anger through your performance. The show must go on.”
“We are really like a family,” says Jacobus Claassen, who joined the school at 10, and does a multi-skilled performance built around clowning. “We argue and fight, just like a family. But when you go on stage, you know you have to trust the other performers. That is what it is all about – trust.”
“There are a lot of sad moments,” says Brent. “With such a wide variety of people and aspirations, we encounter a lot of problems, there are downsides. Sometimes social issues do intrude. But we can offer the magic of the circus, and this gets us through the bad times.”
Brent’s secret of success is an irrepressible enthusiasm, unsquashable optimism and a bright-eyed belief in the good within people. He also has that rare gift: he makes everyone feel important. He has given up his own career as a trapeze artist, to focus on the careers of others.
“I hung up my own tights a long time ago,” he laughs. “But through my teaching I am keeping the art alive, I am keeping the magic of the circus alive. These kids learn discipline and commitment and responsibility along with the circus skills. It is hard work, it takes commitment. I tell them all the time: “This is crazy, but it works’. That has almost become our slogan.”
The performance ends. The clowns run off, the ringmaster introduces the final grand parade, the music swells, the performers bow, curtsey, strut and tumble. It is all over, the show has ended. Time for the kids to put away the spangles, wipe off the make-up and dismantle the gear. Slowly the ring empties, the shouts fade, the lights go out.
But the magic has lingered on….
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