Africa

Roll up! Inside the school where you learn to defy all laws of gravity

By Marc Hoeferlin and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN

Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT) May 20, 2015
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Draped in animal print loincloths, the burly acrobats deftly show off their skills on the laborious vertical pole. A mesmerizing feat of human agility, the troupe emphatically scale the beam all the while staying in perfect unison as the audience remain enraptured.

Watch: The circus looking for talent
Courtesy Winston Ruddle
The warrior-like performers known as the Hakuna Matata Acrobats flip, spin and fly through the air. Once back on stage they dance to the strong drum beat, chanting as they move.
While this company many not have the traditional big top tent, they have become one of Africa's most popular traveling circuses.

Watch: The Hakuna Matata school of acrobatics
Courtesy Winston Ruddle
The ringmaster takes the stage -- Winston Ruddle (aka Papa Africa) is the man behind the circus troupe. A former acrobat himself, he joined his first circus at the age of 16.
After two decades in the business, he decided to hang up his hat and move into management.
Courtesy Winston Ruddle
"To be an acrobat it takes a lot of courage. Takes a lot of determination. It takes a lot of practice. Most important, you have to love it," says Ruddle. Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
And it's clear Ruddle has an eye for talent. Lazarus Gitu is a 32-year-old contortionist who the circus manager spotted performing on the streets of Mombasa, Kenya. Over a decade later and under Ruddle's guidance, Gitu -- better known by his stage name the "Snake Man" -- has become one of Africa's top acrobats. Courtesy Winston Ruddle
Here the "Snake Man," (top) who says he first discovered his talent for folding himself into tight positions at the age of just three, performs in a duo for jubilant crowds overseas.

Ruddle says: "I consider him to be one of the world's most flexible men in the world because I've never seen anyone as unique as him. His flexibility surpasses any contortionist. Many contortionists are women from China, from Mongolia, but he as a man, you'll never meet a man as flexible as him."
Courtesy Winston Ruddle
"This is where we first started our rehearsals. It wasn't like this as far as I can remember," recalls Ruddle. "It's actually quite nice now. In 2003 this was dust." Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
Just a year after founding his group, the new circus manager teamed up with esteemed European promoter Matthias Hoffmann (who had previously worked with Luciano Pavarotti and Michael Jackson) to help bring his team to stages in Germany. Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
But the partnership was short-lived and a year later Ruddle and Hoffman parted company. Ruddle then decided to use the skills he'd learned to build his own shows from start to finish.

"I said alright, 'I'm going to build my own show' -- which was 'Mother Africa'. [It] still exists, and since then, I've managed to build nine different productions, using acrobats from the school."

Pictured here, two footjugglers showcase their talents as singers in dazzling color dance behind them.
Courtesy Winston Ruddle
Acrobatics is a strenuous profession, which requires intense dedication. Here a performer lifts weights at the school as others practice in the background at the training facility set up in Dar es Salaam by Ruddle.

To date more that 600 students have stepped through the doors of Ruddle's school.
Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
Ruddle says: "The way the school works at the moment is I have a lot of kids that come and train. We have the very young ones, then we have the intermediate, and then the ones who are a little bit better, and then the professional ones. But the dream is for everyone to become professional." Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
The "Ramadhani Brothers" -- a two-piece act who aren't actually related -- practice their set at the training facility. Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
"As with all shows, we have to color the show. One of the main and very important parts of the show is the costumes. I want the show to look really authentic, African authentic. At the same time I want it to be modern," explains Ruddle. Courtesy Winston Ruddle
The troupe are currently in training for Ruddle's first fully-produced show in Australia. Explaining the ambitious enterprise, the ringmaster says: "In the past I've always made productions and sold it to a promoter. So this is the first time that I'm really taking a risk on my own." Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
Ruddle not only wants to design and produce an entire show but also showcase original music written specifically for his acrobats. "We've been working on composing original music for each act. And we're getting there. It's an exciting process." Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
Not content with setting up a circus school that has spawned numerous talented acrobats, Ruddle has turned his attention to his next big project -- one that will take him to the other side of the globe...

Watch: African acrobats tour down under
Marc Hoeferlin/CNN
And while Ruddle obviously wants the show to be a success in Australia, it's only so he can funnel the profits back into the school he loves so dearly.

He adds: "I'd like to really revamp up my school in Tanzania... A lot of the acrobats that I have, they can't sign a contract -- they can't even read a contract. So what I want them to do is have the school to have an academic side. That must go hand-in-hand with the acrobatics."
Courtesy Winston Ruddle