Bringing the circus to life

Circus instructor and wardrobe designer, Portia Kewana.

One of the best parts of wardrobe designer Portia Kewana’s job is seeing the end result on stage at the Zip Zap Circus tent in the city centre.

Zip Zap Circus is a not for profit social school working with children from all backgrounds.

“I love seeing the costumes come alive on stage. I clap and I am relieved, and I think ‘I did it’,” she said.

Portia grew up in Khayelitsha and got involved with Zip Zap Circus when she was in primary school.

“My mother was a housekeeper for the co-owner of Zip Zap and she introduced me to the circus school.”

When she first started at the Zip Zap Academy in Salt River, she knew nothing about the circus.

“I played around and tried different activities, but I fell in love with aerial and trapeze. I’ve been performing in shows at the circus from a young age.”

She received a contract through Zip Zap to perform at a circus in Germany called Mama Africa.

“We were performing and travelling all around Germany. I learnt a lot in that time, but mostly, I learnt how to be independent. While you are abroad, you have to take care of yourself and be independent and most importantly, show up for work.”

During her second trip to Germany in four months, Portia found out she was pregnant with her first baby, but as they say, the show must go on.

She performed in the next show and then returned to South Africa.

“After I had my baby girl, I went back to Zip Zap to train and strengthen myself as I was determined to get back to performing in the shows.”

She then did a short stint in the USA at the Universal Circus, and returned to Zip Zap to become a circus instructor, teaching aerial and trapeze to the children who join the Zip Zap Academy, which provides children with the resources to develop skills through circus arts.

“Performing is fulfilling, but so is teaching. It feels like you are part of the performance even though you are not performing. You get to help the children and watch them grow, and then you see them on stage, looking beautiful. The excitement is so rewarding.”

Portia said her inspiration for studying fashion design came from playing with a sewing machine. “My friend’s dad had a sewing machine and we would always play with it. I decided I wanted to learn to sew, so my friend and I studied fashion design at Northlink college.”

She then started making costumes for the circus shows. “I sew them myself. I have an assistant that comes to help me with patterns, then I make the garments.”

She said she sits down with the performers and asks them what they want, then she will recommend colours, and guide them with what will work better for the costumes.

“I make so many costumes, I don’t have a favourite,” she said.

And although Portia is pregnant with her second baby, she still teaches and sometimes demonstrates to her class on the equipment too.

“I don’t do things which are too strenuous. Right now its just me standing on the ground directing them. But sometimes I get up and demonstrate and tell the children ‘if I can do it with a baby in my stomach, so can you’.”

Portia is currently working on costumes for the production Journey Beyond, a performance by Zip Zap and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

Portia said she has not seen the rehearsals of the production yet.

“I don’t want to see the rehearsals. I am waiting for show night to see the full package – the show, the costumes and the children – that’s what excites me most,” she said.

Zip Zap Circus is celebrating Women’s Month with a show called Journey Beyond from Friday August 17 to Sunday August 19 at the Artscape Theatre.

Journey Beyond will highlight the talent of their girl performers.

Tickets cost from R220 to R330. Book through Computicket or Artscape Dial-a-seat on 021 421 7695.

For an exclusive VIP experience contact Zip Zap on 063 513 6203 or