Zip Zap Circus School in Cape Town

A Knight at the Circus - an alternative education success story

In a nondescript patch of veld behind the Artscape Theatre Centre in downtown Cape Town lies the world’s most unconventional school. Class is held in a large tented dome with clowns and acrobats performing the teaching roles, while a daring former aerial performer and a real-live French Knight run the show. Welcome to Zip Zap Circus School!

This is the school that teaches maths through juggling, that explains the laws of physics from within a cyr wheel and that brings to life the effects of Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation on the trampoline and the trapeze. Along the way the children learn teamwork, trust, self-confidence, discipline, honesty and are given the chance to unlock their true potential.

Brent van Rensburg and Laurence Estève are the brains, hands and hearts behind this circus school that is a Trust, a registered NPO and a Public Benefit Organisation (PBO). Zip Zap was born from the couple’s desire to provide opportunities for children from all walks of life and to affect social change, one youngster at a time. Having started by hanging a trapeze in a tree in a township schoolyard, Zip Zap Circus School celebrates 20 successful years in 2012. In honour of their work, both Brent and Laurence have received recognition from their respective countries – Brent received the Cape Town Mayor's Medal for Youth Affairs, while French-born Laurence was recently knighted on behalf of the President of France, making her a Chevalier (Knight) of the Ordre National du Merit.

All children between 7 and 12 years old are welcome to join the social circus school’s beginner class, while older children (13 – 16 years) can move up into the core performance group. After that, there is the Young Adult Development Course and the Cirque du Soleil ‘Training of Trainers’ Programme. It doesn’t matter whether kids are chauffeured to the tent by parents from the Atlantic Seaboard, or arrive on public transport from the townships (paid for by Zip Zap) – if a child has the will, Zip Zap is the way.

This NPO believes that actions speak louder than words, a mentality evidenced by the range of social outreach programmes Brent and Laurence run, both at the circus tent and in communities; they even offer subsidised accommodation to students in need of safe housing, as well as school fees, clothing and medical cover.

One of the numerous outreach programmes is Ibhongolethu, a twice-weekly workshop for children living with HIV/AIDS, who receive ground-based circus training (juggling, tumbling, mini-trampoline) in a clinic in Khayelitsha during the many hours they spend awaiting medical tests and ARV treatment. What Zip Zap Circus offers to these little souls is invaluable: while the kids build up their physical strength and their confidence, they also become part of a supportive family and learn that they too have something positive to offer. Every year on World Aids Day (1 December), these HIV-positive children perform their circus show at the Oliver Tambo Community Hall to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and to foster an attitude of acceptance from the community.

Another initiative spearheaded by the couple is A Second Chance, a twice-weekly programme that aims to rehabilitate street children and reintegrate them into society. These forgotten children have the opportunity to study circus arts in the Zip Zap tent, where the exposure to positive role models and the welcome they receive into the circus family helps these at-risk youths develop socially and emotionally. In addition, they are invited to join the core performance group.

Progression from the beginner’s class to the core performance group is not based on talent, but on how regularly a child attends and how badly they ‘want’ it. “A kid with zero talent and lots of want will automatically move up,” Brent van Rensburg says. “I never paid to learn circus and you pay with your want, not with your cash.”

It is the hope of the school’s co-founders that alternative education will become a real part of the SA schooling system in the not-too-distant future. The physical, social and emotional benefits that the young participants of Zip Zap’s courses reap are plain to see. Not to mention, behind the scenes, the young adult programmes offer hands-on skills training beyond the circus arts, in the form of First Aid certifications, driving licences, classes in rigging, sewing, financial management, sound and video editing, and much more. During Brent’s TEDxCapeTown talk on education, he asks why children who are not achieving academically are deemed failures. “Your failures are our superstars,” he affirms, a point that is really driven home when one watches the core performance group rehearsing or the HIV-positive children in performance.

But how does Zip Zap pay for itself? In the past, a third of the income was generated by performances, a third came from government grants and a third from donations. However, in the current economic climate donations and government funding have been greatly reduced, so performances at corporate functions now generate 50% of the school’s income. To make up for the lost income in grants and donations and to offset the school’s running costs, business-minded Laurence has been performing the hardest juggling act of them all – balancing the books in a declining economy and keeping all of Zip Zap’s balls in the air. When the money from donors and government began to dwindle, the circus school’s Knight sourced donations of services or goods in lieu of money (i.e. pro-bono accounting services, office supplies donations, the loaning of equipment etc.).Whilst Laurence is keeping Zip Zap afloat with her clever money management, donations are always welcome and necessary for the school's continued survival.

By Heike Brunner

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Le Cabaret De Curiostiés brings cabaret, circus (and burlesque) to Cape Town this month.

Gravity-defying trapeze, acrobatics + comedy at the new Zip Zap Circus show.

Interested in becoming more involved in the city's many social initiatives? Read more about volunteering in Cape Town.

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