On Keeping Things Up in the Air

The art of juggling has challenged amateurs and professionals since ancient times

by Marcello Truzzi

From Natural History Vol. 88 No. 10, December 1979

Juggling, the continuous tossing and catching of objects in the air, is an excellent example of man's extraordinary capacity for play. Some other animals, such as the seal, have been trained to balance objects, but true juggling seems beyond the abilities of even the other higher primates (despite occasional circus posters that falsely picture chimpanzees juggling). That juggling is unique to man should not be surprising since it involves not only remarkable use of the hands but also complex spatial perception and cognitive skills.

The art of juggling has been widely reported among the world's cultures, and some ethnographic descriptions suggest considerable proficiency. John B. Stair, in his 1897 work Old Samoa; or, Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean, related: "O Fuanga consisted in throwing up a number of oranges into the air, six, seven, or eight, and the object was to keep the whole number in motion at once, as the Chinese jugglers do their balls." And in a 1901 study, Burma, Max and Bertha Ferrars wrote:

A good player [of chinon, a game] will sent the ball into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder. Thence he lets it roll down the back of the arm and jerks it off at the elbow to catch it on the knee, and changing his feet like a flash, strikes the ball high from the back, with the opposite sole, for another player to vary the performance in as original a way as he can.

Women, rather than men, are frequently the juggling experts described. Prince Maximilian Wied-Neuwied, in his 1843 Travels in the Interior of North America, found that among the Mandan Indians "the women are expert at playing with a large leather ball, which they let fall alternately on their feet and knee, again throwing it up and catching it, and thus keeping it in motion for a length of time without letting it fall to the ground." From Isabel T. Kelly's 1934 Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute, we learn that "three marblelike stones were juggled by women. One woman would bet another; she juggled until she missed, whereupon the other took her turn." And more recently, Charles Hillinger, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported in 1978 that Nuku'alofa on the South Sea island of Tonga may have more jugglers per square mile than any other place on earth. The women of Tonga have a centuries-old tradition of juggling, and all over the island - on streets and school grounds, at the seashore, and in tiny villages - young girls can be seen juggling at all times of day and night. Many of them are remarkably skilled, and Hillinger reports that some can juggle as many as seven limes or green tui tui nuts. At a contest held at the Queen Salote School, some of the girls, sitting on palm mats, were able to juggle for several hours without dropping a lime or tui tui.

The Tongan tradition of juggling appears to be indigenous, for it was first noted in 1774 by Georg Forster, a scientist on Captain Cook's second Pacific voyage. Forster wrote of a young woman,

This girl, lively and easy in all her actions, played with five gourds, of the size of small apples, perfectly globular. She threw them up into the air one after another continually, and never failed to catch them all with great dexterity, at least for a quarter of an hour.

Similar accounts are available from others on Cook's voyages who saw children juggle as many as six balls. The report of William Mariner's adventures in Tonga is particularly important, for his description of juggling reveals that it was accomplished by a method modern jugglers call showering, a relatively inefficient system in which all objects are thrown in a circular path from one hand while caught and passed back with the other hand. This makes remarkable the reports of natives woman juggling six objects; and a photograph in Adm. H. T. B. Somerville's narrative Will Mariner that shows a woman showering eight round objects, if authentic, documents a world record for the number of objects ever juggled by this method.

[juggling hieroglyphics]Evidence of the art of juggling can be found for the ancient civilizations of Egypt (especially in the paintings in the Beni-Hassan tombs), India, China, Japan, Iran, and even for the Aztecs and American Indians. Many of these dexterous practices were associated with religious rituals, and the presence of juggling skills among shamans in many of today's preliterate societies suggests a religious origin for them.

Among early Greeks and Romans, juggling was usually integrated with other skills such as acrobatics and sleight of hand. Despite the derivation of the term, juggling was not the central activity of the joculatores, the wondering entertainers of the Middle Ages, of the French jongleurs, who were primarily singers and minstrels. We know relatively little about the early British and European performers (and even less about the history of juggling in the rest of the world), but juggling apparently remained associated with legerdemain, or sleight of hand, for a long period. Thus, a classic work such as Reginald Scot's 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft fails to differentiate juggling from legerdemain. Both involve unusual manipulative dexterity, but in juggling the dexterity itself is publicly displayed (and applauded), whereas in legerdemain the performer's skill normally remains hidden from the audience and is the secret of the "miracle" seemingly effected.

By the early nineteenth century, juggling was becoming a specialized entertainment. An advertisement in the Salem Gazette of October 5, 1819, describes the "East Indian" Ramo Samee as having performed "for some time past in the metropolis of England, and before all the crowned heads of Europe, who have unanimously pronounced him to be the first master of the art in their dominions." Among his many feats, he included "a Series of Evolutions, with four hollow brass Balls, about the size of Oranges"; "Stringing Beads with his Mouth, and at the same time, as he balances, turning Rings with his Fingers and Toes"; and a "manly activity in throwing a ball, the size of an eighteen-pound shot, to different parts of his body with the greatest of ease."

Samee closed his act with a demonstration of sword swallowing so did not juggle exclusively, but he may be our earliest recorded "modern" juggler, antedating the Chinese juggler Lau Laura, who performed at London's Drury Lane in 1832 and who has usually been considered to be the first.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the art of juggling became conceptually separated from legerdemain and other types of entertainment (although many performers combined it with other displays). As sociologists have observed of many human practices, juggling eventually became a specialized activity of certain individuals. As the role of juggler became institutionalized within the entertainment world, new subspeciality roles emerged. These included such diverse forms as the Kraft-Jongleur, or jongleur de force, who manipulated heavy objects such as cannon balls; the salon juggler, who juggled objects associated with the drawing room (top hats, canes, bouquets of flowers, billiard balls); the equestrian juggler, who performed while on horseback; the "antipodist," who juggled with his feet; and group jugglers, consisting of two or more persons tossing the same objects back and forth among them.

Many of the specialized jugglers were remarkable. The Kraft-Jongleur Paul Spadoni came into the circus ring dressed as a Roman and driving a chariot. After dismissing the horses, he proceeded to balance the heavy chariot on his head. The equestrian juggler Briatori juggled seven balls while standing on a moving horse. Many jugglers combined the new forms, and Paul Cinquevalli, possibly the greatest of the late-nineteenth-century jugglers, combined acrobatic and balancing feats with his masterly manipulation of objects.

Non-Western jugglers who performed in Europe were very influential in the diffusion of juggling skills, and the English writer William Hazlitt discussed one such group in his well known 1821 essay, "The Indian Juggler." Many European jugglers were impressed by Oriental performers who manipulated large balls of twine and yarn. After seeing the Japanese juggler Takashima, Enrico Rastelli began to manipulate soccer and other large rubber balls, a tradition still very much alive.

RastelliRastelli (1896-1931), generally considered to have been the greatest juggler who ever lived, elevated juggling to a high art. Rastelli is to juggling what Caruso is to tenors. His many feats included such incredible separate tricks as juggling ten balls, eight "sticks" (small clubs), or eight plates, and he was able to continuously bounce three medium-sized balls on his head. Many Americans saw Rastelli at the Hippodrome in New York in 1923. The world has since seen many great jugglers, some of whom have matched Rastelli's individual accomplishments. Massimiliano Truzzi and Francis Brunn duplicated many of Rastelli's tricks, but no one has yet matched the quality and breadth of Rastelli's achievements.

FieldsThese truly great jugglers are known mainly only to professionals and to circus and juggling historians and fans, but many people are aware of the great comedian W. C. Fields's early career as a tramp clown and excellent salon juggler. Another outstanding comedian, Fred Allen, began his career similarly, but billed himself as "The World's Worst Juggler" after comparing himself with Cinquevalli and Rastelli.

Although juggling has its aficionados, most laymen do not appreciate the complexity of the art. There are several different systematic means by which objects can be rotated in the air. The most common approach is called showering and consists of throwing objects up with one hand while catching and rapidly passing them back with the other. This relatively inefficient system is used by most inexperienced persons who try to juggle and is probably the method used by most preliterate peoples. Since one hand does all of the throwing, great speed is required to get the last ball into the air before the first one has come down to be caught.

The more professional way of juggling is called cascading, crisscrossing objects alternately by throwing them up and catching them using both hands in symmetrical fashion. While we have good records of people showering six balls, several people have now managed to cascade nine (Truzzi at one time did it regularly in his act).

Another form of juggling, for which there is no standard term, might be called pairing. Here half the objects are juggled separately by each hand, in an alternating rhythm that creates the illusion that the objects interweave. Because of the natural rhythms of the two patterns, pairing is normally used for juggling an even number of objects, while cascading is used for an odd number. Many jugglers use one system exclusively. Thus, a pairing juggler who can juggle six objects would increase the number by going directly to eight. Rastelli was such a "pair" juggler, and few people know that although he managed to juggle ten balls, he was, in fact, never able to cascade nine.

8 clubsIn addition to the various juggling systems, different types of objects require special efforts. Hoops are generally considered the easiest objects to juggle in large numbers because it is relatively easy to stop the action by thrusting ones hands and arms through the hoops, whereas ending by catching five balls in each hand is in itself difficult. Sticks and clubs need to be handled by the proper ends, thus requiring a set number of rotations in the air, and clubs are so wide that special care is necessary to avoid midair collisions. Plates generally are pair juggled because their rims make them easier to catch with the bowl side of the plate consistently towards the inside so the fingers can properly grasp the rims. These differences are important in limiting the maximum number of objects it is possible to juggle. Thus, the current world records are: eleven hoops, ten balls, eight sticks, or eight plates. Matters become even more complicated when a juggler mixes different objects (in both shape and weight) or does such things as use knives or flaming torches. Given the speed of objects falling through gravity and the height limits to which humans can throw objects into the air with adequate control, it may be impossible for anyone ever to juggle more than a dozen objects.

Despite the decline in circuses, vaudeville, variety shows, and other forms of entertainment with which juggling has been associated, the quantity and quality of juggling are today at a record level. Russia's extraordinary Sergei Ignatov, a star with the Moscow Circus, achieved the world record for hoop juggling - he cascaded an incredible eleven - and in the United States the remarkable eighteen-year-old Albert Lucas (Moreia) recently matched the earlier world record, set by the German Francis Brunn, by juggling ten hoops in a full rotation, as opposed to merely flashing (tossing and catching them only once).

The number of people interested in juggling in the United States has increased greatly over the last ten years, and we may be experiencing a veritable juggling renaissance. Juggling has become popular among students on many college campuses, and the publication and brisk sales of several new books on how to juggle suggest that tens of thousands of Americans now practice the art, at least minimally. The International Jugglers Association ( mainly a U.S. organization, started in 1947) today has about 800 members, many of whom are highly skilled, and most of whom are amateurs.

Why do people juggle? One important consideration is that the juggler, unlike the magician, can act as his own audience. The dexterity of the juggler is largely a self-testing behavior in which the achievement may be its own reward. And the criteria for excellence are largely objective: either one can or cannot juggle seven balls. Most other performers can manage to cover up an error, but dropped objects speak for themselves.

A juggler can practice a trick over and over without error only to fail when performing for an audience. Practice never really makes perfect, and a great deal of frustration invariably accompanies juggling. Some psychologists believe that perseveration, or persistence, can be a major organizing principle of psychology. Whether this is true or not, the accomplished juggler must be persistent. Serious jugglers such as Rastelli have been known to practice up to ten hours a day for many years.

John M. Roberts, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has developed a theory of "conflict enculturation" that may offer some insight into the motivation of amateur and preliterate jugglers. He believes there are certain tensions induced by child training and subsequent learning that people deal with through involvement in games and other expressive models. In his extensive research on cross-cultural differences in games and play, he has been able to show that numerous expressive self-testing practices - ranging from games of physical skill to self-testing by automobile drivers on our highways - are associated with the societies whose patterns of socialization tend to produce conflicts over achievement and self-reliance. Although the ethnographic data on juggling practices are too sparse to demonstrate the accuracy of Roberts's hypothesis in this area, the available evidence appears to fall in line with his other observations.

Juggling sometimes involves competition with others, both directly and indirectly, in games and sports (the presence of juggling skills in soccer and basketball are good examples of their indirect use). There was, for a time, an annual International Festival of Jugglers in which the contestants vied for the Rastelli Trophy, but juggling as a competitive sport still has a long way to go before it reaches the Olympics. For most jugglers the competition is mainly with their own past performances. And one should keep in mind that group juggling is an extremely cooperative activity.

Jugglers usually learn the details of their art form other jugglers. There are notable exceptions, but most great jugglers have modeled themselves after some other great juggler under whom they studied at least informally. Thus advanced juggling techniques found in different societies are most likely the result of diffusion rather than independent invention. While association with other jugglers will not turn someone into a juggler, the teaching of the skills and the social support given a novice are probably important factors in accounting for both how and why many people learn to juggle.

The continuing juggling traditions around the world and the large number of people who practice juggling provide a wide base from which excellence can spring. In addition, modern technology now allows the production of highly uniform and carefully balanced juggling equipment, which most great jugglers of the past did not have. All of this strongly suggests that new juggling records will soon be set. Rastelli may yet be surpassed.

Copyright © 1979 Marcello Truzzi