This past Saturday, I went to see the UniverSoul Circus for the first time in nearly 15 years. It was its 25th anniversary. It never fails: Before I even get under the big tent, I’m dancing. Fifteen years ago, I was a rising college freshman, just finished from prom and on my way out of high school. That moment was etched into my memory. So was the idea that my childhood love of the circus could meet the contemporary context of hip hop in the 2000s. To develop, one did not have to summarily do away with the past.
To my delight, many of the elements stayed the same. There was rap and soul music played during intermission and between the acts to get the crowds riled up and keep the energies flowing. There was calypso and soca music during high-wire acts; African drummers with stilt walkers and giant puppet mascaraeders; spinning and twirling disco roller-skaters; Chinese tumbling wall-builders and dreadlocked and afro-ed clowns doing the #KiKiChallenge. One thing that was not there, thankfully, was an elephant.
While it is important to be reverent of the past, it is important to acknowledge the benefits of progress. Elephants don’t belong in circuses. Period. That’s a development. They also stopped using tigers in their shows. Wanting to be near the majesty of such beings is understandable; they represent the wisdom of nature in motion. Yet, nature has already programmed a place that can care for them: indigenous habitat. Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Earlier this spring, the NYC Branch of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indians, introduced a new addition: The imagiNATIONS Activity Center. Its aim is to re-present the technologies of First Nations peoples in the Americas and their legacies in our modern engineering. For example, in one of the exhibitions there is a videogame called the Crop-etition Challenge.
Players, in this digital farming simulation, work to respond to weather and vitamin deficiency challenges by craftily selecting the best combination of crops, according to the museum’s website. The structural constraints: “Up to four can play, but there is a surprise: if they compete, the outcome won’t be as good as if they cooperate” .
According to ScienceDirect.com, “It is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America. The foods of the Native Americans are widely consumed and their culinary skills still enrich the diets of nearly all people of the world today” . “New world foods” such as potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, maize, cacao (chocolate), sunflower, and squash revolutionized 15th century European societies and were developed in the Americas . This a bit of the “picked up” tech from indigenous peoples’ tech that was “discovered” during the purported “Age of Exploration.”
It takes scientific know-how to accomplish what First Nations peoples did. We are still benefiting from their technologies today, in the field of chemical engineering, architecture and medicine. Aspirin, is included in that list. They used willow bark—whose extract’s scientific name is salicin, or salicylic acid (note that salix is Latin for willow) and the active ingredient in one of the most common painkillers in the world today .
Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Cooperation is a technological process in itself. This is another advancement we still use today. It’s called democracy, a governmental structure that also originated with First Nations peoples.
This is what the UniverSoul Circus seeks to showcase—the diversity of cultures working together. In a way, they showed their math: Social organization--how to get different people interacting without fighting. Each culture during the show had its time to shine and be celebrated by the present audience. It was a kind of modern assembly of organizational forms under the pretext of a circus.
Let’s take the Chinese wall builders. Just imagine, it’s the Qin or the Han Dynasty (221 B.C.-230 A.D). There is a sudden barging in: An invading army enters the emperor’s hall. The stationed guards have to quickly form a blockade before the attackers reach from the other side of the hallway. A flip is going to get you there faster than walking. Forming human wheels to erect a wall of men three times tall than horses to guard the king gives both advantage in height and aerial sight. Smart.
Today because of advances in modern warfare where people confront their targets at a distance and less directly, human wall-building can seem obsolete. Save if you transform it into a cultural relic and harness the social benefits of fitness and group cohesion.
The marketing expertise of the UniverSoul Circus organizers is that the crowd they attracted more likely than not would view the tumbling display with the cultural reverence that ancient assemblies would. To see less of the spectacle in it and more of the wisdom embedded in its structure—is having the eyes to see its science.
Take, for example, the disco roller-skaters spinning around on a small circle platform with one skater balancing the other on top of his head while continuing rapid revolutions. What is the physics formulation to represent bodies in centripetal acceleration? Mass times speed squared divided by the radius of the circular path . Were these dancers thinking about their TI83 calculators on the circus show floor? Mostly likely not. Yet, their bodies knew the math—meaning that in two people dancing, in the meeting of their hands or bodies or climbing on each other’s heads while in motion they had to calculate the added weight of the skates, their movement, the movement of their partner and how much space they had to skate on. (Their little platform was fairly tiny. Maybe six feet in diameter). They lived the math intuitively—and I am sure with great practice.
It is said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, that means it takes 1,000 words to see a smile. How many formulas does it take to dance with someone? Who knows? Our bodies, for one. And we don’t need to pinpoint the math to the millisecond. In the moment of the dazzling show, all we know is that it’s amazing and so are our bodies.
Ancient technology has given us the food that we eat, math that sent us to the moon and a way of social organization that can calm a hundred armies. The ingenuity of the UniverSoul Circus is using a common medium to assemble the world’s greatest mathematician: Culture.
As a vegetarian and a friend of the wonderful bodies of wisdom we call animals. The horses, dogs, zebras and the one camel I saw at the UniverSoul Circus looked well groomed, well feed, and well treated. Yes, I was still a bit uneasy—and thankful that 15 years later, the circus is still evolving away from the use of animals.
More ticketholders are pushing the company in that direction. (See PETA back class action suit). This, too, is part of the social dance that helps us in more sustainable ways appreciate the bounty of nature and honor our roles as stewards of that wealth. Wealth is more than a simple calculation or an adding up of dollars. It is the way we treat each other, the way we treat the beings we share the planet with and the way we continue on the cultures that formed the scientific wonders of our times.