Essays: Ragatz on Juggling
[ Another piece by Steven Ragatz -- this
is the original "ragatz-on-juggling" post from November of 1991, a
collection of largely semi-related essays on juggling... -mpg]
Fellow circus arts students (jugglers),
I have managed to check the spelling and take a quick look-see over
three papers that I wrote a couple of years back. They were quite
enlightening to me when I reread them. Some of the stuff may seem
abstract without all of the accompanying information. I will try to
fill in the gaps later. A warning!!... read this stuff with a
sceptical eye. It is easy to suffer from "over analysis paralysis".
If it is important to you that juggling remain "fun", then JUST DO IT!
Don't give a damn about who or how many or how long or how...
The reason that I have written this and other stuff is for my own
benefit. Formulating your ideas on paper is a wonderful way to
clarify and reinforce them on yourself. It is a good reminder. I
also have approached juggling from many different disciplines.
Theatre, gymnastics, circus, mime, music and dance
classes/workshops/jobs have all contributed to my style. Warning --
This is my style and is not intended to be everyone's style. Gleam
from it what you like and throw out the rest. If I have learned
something in the last ten years of juggling, it is MODERATION. If you
approach something from only one side with only one perspective, you
will only corrupt that which you are trying not to corrupt. I have
yet to meet someone who has all the answers.
P.S. I often refer to students, athletes and jugglers with the same
meaning in mind. I also tend to refer to them as male. This is not due
to any sexist attitude but to my somewhat limited writing style. You
may replace him... with person if you wish.
Balance and the awareness of oneself in space are skills that each
individual spends his or her entire life developing. Whether the
individual is aware or not, daily activities require that the human
body move in space, dealing with forces that exist within each
individual's environment. The most universal of these forces is
gravity. From birth, the child begins to oppose gravitational forces
by reaching and probing within the child's world. Development
eventually takes the body to an upright, erect standing position.
This is not something that is taught to the infant, but rather, it is
through stages of physical and mental growth that the child eventually
is able to stand and walk.
Most never explore beyond this initial "education" in standing,
walking and posture. Apart from athletics, our society typically
leaves the mechanics of the human body to medical personnel. But,
apart from doctors and athletes, there is someone who does have vested
interests in the study of body movement - the performer. The ability
to mimic life, both + physically and mentally, is the performer's
domain. Before the performer can use his body as a tool for the
performance, the performer must have a complete understanding of that
tool and recognize all potentials and limitations. This recognition
comes from "ground zero" - a neutral slate on which the performer can
At the center of this neutrality lies the performer's power supply.
For the body to be a truly effective tool, this power supply must be
tapped directly and efficiently. Quite simply, this power-house of
the body is called "the center".
Apart from being the physical center of the body (the pelvis area),
the center is also the spiritual center. With this image in mind, the
performer is able to focus action by accessing the center directly.
Whether dance, mime, acting or general movement, action that has focus
has greater depth and believability. This dynamic source gives the
performer control over the full range of physical movement. In the
same way that an actor has an internal dialogue to motivate and drive
the spoken word, the actor also has the center to motivate and drive
the physical action. Without this drive, the body's movements become
merely a reflection of the actor's environment rather than a reaction.
Uncentered action tends to look superficial, often "telling" the
action rather than "being" the action.
How Does This Apply to Juggling
Often the beginning student will approach juggling in a naive way.
When balls are flying above the head, the inclination is for the
juggler to focus the "minds eye" at the apex of the pattern. In
actuality, the focus of concentration should be on the body, that tool
which is in control of the props. Although watching the objects gives
the juggler vital information about the trick, the control comes from
the body. When connected with the center, this control becomes
focused and strengthened.
An exercise to try is to juggle for five minutes. Any trick which you
feel comfortable will do. At the end of the time, label parts of your
body with colors. Red - very aware, pink - moderately aware, light
blue - not very aware and dark blue - completely unaware. With
juggling, often the head and the hands/forearms are red and all else
is a shade of blue. (When I first tried this my hands were red, my
eyes and mouth were pink and my feet and legs light blue.) The goal
is to develop an awareness of the center and how it is connected to
the arms and hands.
With an altered focus toward centered movement, one should strive to
realize power from the center. The arms are connected to the center
through the upper chest and shoulders. Through this connection, the
center supports the arms and hands. Without this connection, the arms
fatigue quickly because of excess muscle tension required to support
the arms using only the shoulders. This concept of centredness comes
+ quickly for some and slowly for others. However, once it is tapped,
the student will realize a new dimension to juggling.
And so, as a performer and as a juggler, continue to explore and
search for the key to this power source - a supply that can give color
to characters, dimension to stage presence and strength to movement.
This paper will introduce my methods of toss juggling analysis for the
professional or the professional to be. The serious juggler must see
beyond throws and catches to the underlying technique and subtleties.
When one works on a given trick, the technique can be broken down into
five distinctly different levels:
1. Body Awareness
These levels are the fundamental tools necessary in the analysis of
toss juggling. The implementation of this process will be discussed
in the conclusion.
Posture -- The correct posture for juggling is a deceptively simple
yet most crucial building block for even basic three ball juggling.
The body position is fundamentally the same whether juggling balls,
rings, clubs or manipulating any of the other variety objects. Even
before the student picks up any balls, the preliminary lesson is to
establish the correct stance. The juggler stands with the feet
shoulder width apart, and the knees slightly bent. The arms hang
relaxed and then the hands are raised, shoulder width apart, so that a
90 degree angle is formed at the elbow. The elbows should not point
away from the body or be pressed against the sides, but should hand
loosely, straight beneath the shoulders. Above all, this posture
should be relaxed.
Most beginning jugglers will concentrate so intently on the objects
they are throwing that they will unconsciously tense and distort the
body. This extra tension only compounds their problem. The juggling
posture is a very relaxed and natural stance that should provide
optimal movement without the expenditure of excess energy.
1. Body Awareness
The point of concentration is the most difficult aspect of juggling to
master. A naive approach to the thinking process of juggling might
suggest that the juggler's entire concentration is on the apex of the
juggling pattern. Although the top of the pattern is where the
juggler watches, the focus of attention should be on the body. When
thrown, the ball travels on a parabolic arc to the other hand. Every
aspect of the ball's trajectory is determined by the hand that threw
it. From the instant that the ball leaves the hand, the juggler no
longer has any control over the ball's path. The point of control
comes while the ball still rests in the hand. This "dwell time" is
where the juggler must focus his concentration if he wishes to achieve
any control over the destination of the throw. The ability to watch
and gather pertinent information about the juggling pattern while
concentrating on the throws themselves is the primary skill to be
mastered by the juggler.
Each different juggling pattern has its own characteristic rhythm.
Most rhythms are even, but a few asymmetric patterns require
syncopated beats. Whether straight or syncopated, the important
requirement is that the rhythm be steady. A perfect rhythm is
necessary for a smooth and controlled pattern. The rhythm is
established with the initial cycle and it is at this point that a
steady beat is most crucial. The balls should be released from the
hands at a steady rate. Depending on the difficulty of the trick,
sometimes it is helpful to release the balls at a slightly faster pace
than that of the actual pattern. Either when the flash is in time
with the pattern rate or when the flash is faster than the pattern
rate, the rhythm is steady.
Pace is probably the most illusive of the five levels of analysis.
Many beginning jugglers get pace and speed crossed and find learning
tricks with larger numbers more difficult than need be. With three,
four or even five balls, a fast pace is not crucial, but it is very
desirable. With six or more balls, a fast pace is a necessity. Pace
is determined by how long the prop stays in the hand. Thus, the
juggler wants to minimize the time that the ball rests in the hand and
maximize the time that the hand remains empty.
Placement is simply the point(s) where the balls are intended to reach
the apex. When working on placement, one is actually working on the
body position since it is the body which influences the arc of the
ball. At this point in the hierarchy, subtle variances in the overall
pattern position should be analyzed.
Varying the speed of a trick without changing the pace, simply
dictates that the height of each throw be either raised or lowered.
The most comfortable speed for a given trick should be determined by
the individual juggler. Any deviation from the optimal speed should
be strictly for visual and artistic effect.
This analysis of technical juggling is one that can be used by the
juggler as well as the coach or trainer. The hierarchial checklist
provides a clear progression for the juggler to follow. This
progression should be approached in its correct order. Each level
builds on the assumption that the previous level has been developed
and any bugs in the juggler's technique concerning the previous level
have been worked out. This does not mean that once the juggler
demonstrates satisfactorily on a given level that this level is
checked off permanently.
On the contrary, technical juggling requires constant maintenance.
The juggler might be working on developing pace for a certain trick,
yet at the beginning of each practice session he might have to
backtrack and rework posture and rhythm. Keeping this method of
analysis in mind, the juggler can efficiently and quickly attain
higher and more complex juggling skills.
The Birth of a Sport
For centuries juggling has entertained audiences all over the world.
As an art form, and as a performance medium, juggling has withstood
the test of time. There are records of jugglers working for the
crowds in many different cultures dating as far back as ancient Egypt.
One cannot even begin to imagine how many people have watched and
wondered in amazement at what seemed to be an impossible feat --
Until recently, the juggling skills were exclusively passed down from
generation to generation. This skill, to the performer who makes a
living at it, was a very well kept secret. Outsiders were not
instructed or encouraged to develop juggling skills on their own.
Jugglers were private and exclusive about their work.
One of the major changes in this attitude can be seen in 1947 when the
International Juggler's Association was founded. The IJA's intent was
to teach the art of juggling to any one who had the inclination and
the motivation to learn. This organization produced a new kind of
juggler, not one who needed to work at throwing and catching for his
livelihood, but one who juggled for recreation. As the organization
grew, annual conventions were held, separate chapters began to
organize and competitions became popular. In the 1970's, the IJA held
the first U.S. Nationals competition and juggling was showing a new
life, that of a sport. This new label has inspired a different
approach in terms of learning for the juggler. A professional juggler
now must not just be a manipulator, but must also be an athlete with a
carefully planned training program.
THE TRAINING PROGRAM
The circus arts student must initially realize a training program in
order to maximize practice efficiency. The training program shall be
used as a guide keeping both long term and short term goals in focus.
Without a master plan, the drive of the student can become undirected
and listless. The training program is by no means steadfast, on the
contrary, it can be constantly modified and adjusted to meet the
The structure of the training program shall be introduced in two
levels. The first level is the annual calendar. This schedule takes
the form of pre-season, main-season and post-season. This level will
be discussed later. The second level looks at the program in more
detail, concentrating on the specific issues which need to be assessed
by the student. The training program must prepare the student for the
tasks ahead. The most frequent element of this preparation is
practice. The focus of practice is to rehearse and build skills. In
addition to practice, the student must develop the body. Physical
training must be constantly expanded to enable the student to be able
to learn new skills. Often these issues are not clearly seen by the
student and outside assistance is needed.
Athletes in many other sports, such as basketball, soccer, golf, etc.
typically work with a trainer or coach. A point of view outside the
athlete's is an invaluable tool for the athlete. The responsibility
of developing and maintaining the training program is lifted from the
athlete when a coach or trainer is available. This leaves the athlete
more able to focus on himself. The athlete should only need to
concentrate on the tasks at hand and not concern himself with the
overall training program.
Most students of the circus arts are not in the position to have a
second person present to guide the training program. It is in this
situation that self-analysis has to be a substitute for the coach or
trainer. When training alone, the aspiring juggler must don the hat
of trainer, coach, athlete and performer. This feat can often be a
greater juggling act than that with the actual props.
The different roles that must be filled, whether by the juggler
himself or by some other person, will be discussed individually.
Those considered include the trainer and the coach. Each of these
"people" play a crucial role in the development of the juggler's
skills. One should note that in addition to these, there are other
roles that are involved in the performance process. Other hats that
may need to be worn by the circus arts student involve the jobs of the
writer, director, actor, scenic designer, set builder, prop builder,
lighting designer and performer. These do not pertain directly to the
juggling skills and will not be covered within this text.
THE ROLE OF TRAINER
The body is the juggler's ultimate tool. It is through physical
contact with the environment that the juggler manipulates objects and
develops his craft. With the image of the body/tool, it is clear that
within the training program, there must be an emphasis in the
development of the body. Strength, agility and coordination are all
facets of the body/tool that must be worked with by the trainer.
The Role of Coach
The role of the coach is one of a benevolent dictator. The coach must
be able to listen to suggestions and consider them, but ultimately
have the final decision about procedure. It is through a strong
ruling hand that the coach earns respect and confidence from the
athlete. This is the bond that enables quality work to be
The coach provides the outside perspective, or "third eye". An
objective opinion is required to keep the training program in
perspective and on track. Often the student will be so focused on the
specifics of the work (which he is supposed to be), that the student
loses sight of the bigger picture. It is the coaches responsibility
to keep the big picture of the training program in mind and monitor
the student. The coach must be on the look out for potential
injuries, burn-out and inefficient use of time and energy. Often the
coach is able to prevent these problems by keeping the student from
pushing too hard. On the other hand, the coach must be prepared to
motivate and drive the student to the limit of the student's abilities
when the student's desires falter.
Self analysis is vital for the technical juggler. Juggling is a
complex skill that requires concentration on many different levels.
Technique analysis provides a method for the juggler to efficiently
divide a large and involved task into smaller and more manageable
ones. This "divide and conquer" philosophy is a common approach to
problem solving in fields other than juggling. The technique
checklist provides a step by step problem solving method for the
self-coached juggler. It helps the juggler identify the problem and
take corrective action.
By recognizing the different roles that must be filled, the student
may be more prepared to change perspective when analyzing himself. At
one moment, the student might have to realize the role of the coach
and correct his posture, or realize the role of the trainer and note
that he needs to work on flexibility to complete a certain move. If
the roles of coach, trainer and athlete are clearly defined within the
single mind of the student, he will be more equipped to accurately
self analyze and develop proper corrective measures.
Essays: Ragatz on Juggling /
Juggling Information Service /
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.