The China Soul Flyers, after finishing their trapeze act during a recent UniverSoul Circus performance with a dazzling series of mid-air flips, climbed down from the platform onto the stage.
The troupe's eight young members, costumed in shimmering yellow and red, had big smiles as they waved to the cheering crowds. When the ringmaster announced that this was the acrobats' first visit to the United States, the audience welcomed them to Landover Hills with a standing ovation.
Touted as the No. 1 trapeze act in China, the China Soul Flyers -- also known as the Shanghai Swingers -- won the gold medal in trapeze at China's sixth annual National Acrobatic Championships in the fall. The victory got the attention of UniverSoul's talent scouts, who added the act to the show's roster.
"When you see these kids out there on that trapeze, it's incredible. They're flying blindly and backward," said Rose Ballard, national managing director for UniverSoul, the nation's only black-owned circus.
The team is part of an international cast that includes 55 tightrope-walkers, acrobats, dancers, musicians, a contortionist, elephant and horse trainers and stilt-walkers. Although none of the China Soul Flyers speaks English, they embrace the values of the hip-hop-flavored circus, which hopes to promote tolerance by showcasing performers from diverse backgrounds. The team's members say they feel at home with the circus's other acts, who hail from countries that include Gabon, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Jamaica, Argentina, Colombia, France, Russia and South Africa.
"I like it because everyone is very friendly to us," one of the performers, Sun Meng "Angela" Jiao, 13, said through a translator.Four members of the troupe are "fliers," who perform twists and turns on the trapeze. The remaining four are "catchers," whose job is to keep the fliers moving and prevent them from falling. The team members, who range in age from 9 to 16, adhere to an intense training schedule, even on performance days. They recently cut short a tour of the U.S. Capitol to make a preshow practice session.
The team trained for eight months before joining the UniverSoul tour, said one of its coaches, Zhang Ti, 42, a onetime trapeze artist with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"It's a smaller circus than Ringling, but we find that [with UniverSoul] they are particularly acclaimed by the audience," he said. "The audience appreciates the spectacular combination of different activities in the air. We are glad they are so fond of us."
Neither Ti nor his young charges view the team's airborne acrobatics as risky, because everyone wears safety belts in the air. "It seems very dangerous, but it isn't," he said.
The team's fearless kids were handpicked for the Shanghai Circus School -- a specialized secondary school for acrobats in China that was founded in 1989 -- when they were as young as 5. Not surprisingly, some say they would like to have more time to be children.
"I like the States, but we seldom go out from the site. I would rather be somewhere playing," said Lu "Lucy" Xu, 9. "But all the other kids [in the cast] are very nice and invite us to their birthday parties. It's fun."
The UniverSoul Circus can be seen through June 12 in the parking lot of Capital Plaza Mall, 6200 Annapolis Rd., Landover Hills. Showtimes are 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1, 4 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or through Ticketmaster. Admission is $10 for 10:30 a.m. shows, $15.50-$29 for other performances.