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  • The Three-Ringed Life: Recollections of a Ringmaster

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    This series of interviews explores the lives of people in the circus and their experiences on the road. “The Three-Ringed Life” reflects the three social arenas: the personal, the professional, and the space in which the two intersect. When seen together, the three rings create a narrative as vibrant and varied as a three-ring circus.

    A lifelong circus performer, Lucky Malatsi started training as an acrobat at the age of four. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, he had performed in three other countries by the time he was nine years old. He joined UniverSoul Circus at eleven, and now at twenty-seven accompanied the group at the 2017 Folklife Festival as ringmaster.

    In this excerpted interview, Malatsi reflects on a life in the circus. His thoughtful insights into how his experience of traveling has changed as he gets older and what he values most about his time in the circus paint a lively portrait of his life and the influences that shaped him.  

    How did you get involved in the circus?

    I started off as an acrobat and a contortionist, and that came about because my uncle was a street performer. He used to perform with another person who was a family friend. My uncle raised me since I was three years old and started training me at four years old. We used to perform in the streets in South Africa.

    Then when I was six or seven, we made our first international journey to perform. We went to Germany for about six months, and then we had another contract in Taiwan, and then Australia. When we came back to South Africa when I was nine, the owner of UniverSoul found us, and ever since then I’ve been with the UniverSoul Circus.

    How did you balance school with the circus?

    I always had a private tutor. My aunt was a private tutor, and my uncle asked her to start traveling with us when we were in China and Germany, but then when we came to America she couldn’t come with us. So the circus hired another private tutor from South Africa.

    Photo courtesy of UniverSoul Circus

    For all those years, except for the year 2000, up until 2005, I was homeschooled. Then at sixteen, in 2006, I had to stop touring and graduate because the school system in South Africa is different from the American one—for your senior year you have to physically attend school. So in 2006 I didn’t tour with the circus because I had to graduate, and then I came back in 2007.

    Did you ever feel homesick while you were on the road?

    No, not really. My uncle’s always been that father figure to me. I even call him Dad. Whenever we went somewhere, he’d always make sure that I had fun. We would always go out, we’d play in the park. He treated me like a father should, so I never really had that want for anything else. As long as I knew he was with me, then I was fine. I didn’t care about anything else. He’s taught me everything I know, and he’s actually guided me in being the person that I am today.

    What were some of the hardest parts of touring?

    I think one of the hardest parts was actually getting on the road, because with the South African educational system, we had to do school almost every day. Even on weekends we had to wake up earlier to be in class, because we had three shows a day. But now, I think that I’ve gotten used to it, because it’s like second nature to me and I know what to expect.

    Did your thoughts about touring change as you got older?

    As a kid I was just excited to go somewhere else. For me, touring was always about toys. I liked to collect toys and comic books from all across the world. It was a game for me. When I came to New York there was a comic book store that I always went to on our days off to get new comics, as long as I kept my grades up.

    As I got older, it started being different because I started actually going out into the city—touring, looking at all the sights and everything, and actually being a tourist while being there. Now I like finding out more about the history of the city that I go to. That’s what’s different from when I was younger, and that’s what I teach to my kids now. 

    Julia Berley is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a rising junior at Emory College of Emory University, double majoring in history and psychology.

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