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Gravity-defying moves entertain IUN crowd

Chants of “jambo” — Swahili for “hello” — filled the auditorium at Indiana University Northwest as a performance by the ZUZU African Acrobats kicked off Black History Month for the university.

Matigao Koba, the troupe’s artistic director, began by striking out the music by hand on an African drum, encouraging the audience to sing along and clap to the rhythmic sounds.

Act after act performers dazzled with their feats of acrobatic strength, coordination, agility and gravity-defying balance.

One performer on a unicycle entertained the crowd with a juggling routine that ultimately left his body contorted as he sat on a small perch, raised his legs above his head and juggled the balls by bouncing them off the floor as he balanced there.

Another performer stacked chairs, then balanced himself in a handstand 15 feet above the precariously perched seats.

Midway through the act, after performers started a limbo-style dance, Koba called up volunteers to participate.

“Let’s do it together and have a good time,” Koba said.

More than a dozen audience members, including a group of students from Merrillville High School, took the stage, dancing to the rhythmic beat as they awaited their turn to try and shimmy under the bar. The performers were on hand to encourage and guide the volunteers as they tossed their heads back and tried to clear the bar.

The crowd cheered and laughed as the volunteers each took their turn, some more successfully than others.

Tanice Foltz, professor of sociology and director of women’s and gender studies at IUN, was among those who jumped in to participate. Foltz joyfully danced and clapped to the beat on stage as she waited her turn.

“I loved it,” Foltz said after the performance. As part of her discipline, Foltz said she studied drums and drum circles. She brought her sociology class to the performance for the cultural experience.

“I’m a music person. I love drums. It was fun,” Foltz said.

Vickie Barnes-Stansil of Gary came with her neighbor Shirley Williams to enjoy the performance. She said her children were in the performing arts, and she tries to support events like the acrobats for theater performances at West Side Leadership Academy.

“It was totally entertaining and amazing,” Stansil said. “These are the things I am grateful for and am thankful there are in my hometown.”

As Sansil watched the act, she said she could picture in her mind the performer riding the unicycle free cycling through the streets of Tanzania. She said she could imagine them performing their dances and tricks on the corners of their villages.

“It was just amazing. A lot of things were inspiring,” she said.

Williams brought her grandson Jackson Pierce, 3. Pierce takes tumbling classes and watched and danced along to the show from his seat.

“When we first came in, he was banging the drums on his legs and really got into the rhythm,” Williams said.

After the show, Jackson went so far as to show the performers his ability to do a round-up as they gathered for photos with the audience. He could only bashfully nod that he enjoyed the show when asked, but Williams said he was enthralled by the acrobatics. The performance was right up his alley.

“He loves to flip on everything at home,” she said.

The ZUZU African Acrobats are a Tanzanian troupe who base their performances on 2,000 years of history, bringing modern art, culture, and passion on tour. Each one of the 14-member cast has received special instructions from elders in the Bagamoyo Arts and Cultural Institute to perform these ancient traditions.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com