Elegance and Respectability of Juggling

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Juggling being a act of respectless younsters as perceived by the populace, as opposed to, say, ballet, figure skating, gymnastics, diving, or other Olympic performance sports, is precisely because jugglers lack class. Almost always, jugglers act like some kind of slackers clowning with their props. I don't mean just the geekers in their informal juggling conventions, but including professional ones, such as the world's top jugglers Anthony Gatto or Thomas Dietz, Dick Franco, etc. Yes, these jugglers can juggle. They are representative the best of the world of juggling. But if you look at their performances on stage or off stage, you see that there's lots of sweat but zero art. Even comedians get a whole lot of respect in their artistic creativity.

For juggling to be developed into a respectable world-class performance sport, it must develop styles or artistic creativity. Although we can't stop the 90% of jugglers being those science geekers or otherwise alternative-life-style vagabonds with their slacking mannerism, but the juggling world must start to have a awareness, that development of style and elegance is a prime need for juggling to become a respectful performance art.

Here i'll give one illustration. In juggling, there's the move of pirouette. Now, pirouette is a very stylish move in dances, where the performer does a full body rotation in-place. If you have watched professional dancers do it, it is done with extreme elegance. The artist can do triple or more such spins in a short time, with a distinct way of twisting their body and head-turn, almost as fast like figure-skate spinning. And, expert ballet dancers can do it even slowly, with characteristic kicking of her leg and tipping of her feet.

Now, jugglers also include pirouette in their act. They throw all balls up and turn their body full round and catch the balls again. However, when the pirouette came to jugglers, it became a buffoon's act. The jugglers throw up the balls, then in a awkward fashion, hurriedly turn their body 360 degrees by all means they could, with their heads cocked and hands hang in their sides ready to catch the balls. It's not that jugglers don't have time. Double pirouettes with 5 balls is not uncommon among professionals. But for the jugglers, the concept of elegance is unknown. What they do have in mind is the ability to turn the body around while balls are in the air. In comparison, as we can see in dance competitions, a slight askew elbow, or even a inappropriate facial expression, will deduct points. The difference in the performance's respectability becomes clear.

There are jugglers who have put thoughts into elegance, but rare. One juggler in history who has style, is the great Francis Brunn. Among today's jugglers, a outstanding juggler who's artistry in performances compares to that of ballet, is Viktor Kee. (on YouTube) Another one who has at least avoided cheap slapstick is Jason Garfield, who in particular has made public outcries against juggling as idiotic clowning. Another juggler who had style, is Andrew Allen (aka Neil Stammer), among others.

Juggling in the Western tradition is heavily tied with idiotic clowning. Juggling balls, clubs, rings is inherently a very elegant, mathematical act. The patterns formed by the objects constitute a mathematical study of combinatorics and network theory. The mastery of getting objects to fly in a regular and complexly varied patterns is a art form by itself without any other added creativity or bodily expressions. (know today as “siteswap juggling”) However, in the Western society, juggling and clowning are almost inseparable. For example, the juggling repertoire seldom include the mastery performance of simple, plain, perfect show-case of ball-path pattern variations. However, it typically include buffoonery acts like bouncing a ball on the head, rolling it on the face, balancing a club on the chin, hula hoop rings on the legs or arms, biting a apple, juggling ugly disparate objects such as chain-saw and bowling ball, or the spitting of Ping-Pong balls. (These kind of acts in the repertoire arose out of “look Ma! I can do this!” attitude towards juggling.)

It is not to say that these acts are inherently worthless. But almost always, their performance are done as a low class slapstick, as if saying: “look i can do!”, than as part of elegant ballet movement whose art and difficulty lies subtly in its outward simplicity.

It is worthwhile to note, that Juggling in Far East, more specifically China, is more a art-form than the Western tradition. This is due to cultural differences. It can be seen in their juggling acts and props. Examples include: vase balancing, diabolo (Chinese yoyo), kicking chair or umbrella, and various specialized acrobatic feats (e.g. pole acrobat, chair-balancing, hoop tumbling). Chinese juggling are almost never mixed with comical elements in the same act.

In modern times arose the Cirque du Soleil, which has taken circus acts into a theatrical entertainment with world-wide acclamation and financial success. On occasion, they will have master jugglers in their show. It is rather difficult to turn the act of objects juggling into a dramatic show, but on occasion the performance is very stylized and graceful. This is a good move for the world of juggling. However, we must also watch out, that the art of juggling is primarily a show of physical skill, and the dance movements or drama acting must not sacrifice or dilute the depth of technicality that is juggling.

How to get a style? One way is for jugglers to study theater performance, study dances, for examples. I see a great future in juggling as a well-respected performance art. (the same level as such can be, such as figure skating or gymnastics) For example, the variation-juggling of 3-balls is great and fascinating. Its variations have a range of difficulties, from trivial to technical difficulties equivalent to 7-balls juggling. For example, as have mentioned before, a routine with a style that watches as if the juggler is completely blind. For another example, doing professional-level break-dancing (or other dance style) while keeping 3-balls up. For another example of a style, a single handed juggling of 3-balls, where the balls forms a file in sequence like a snake, moving from front of body to behind the back and under the leg and behind the waist or suddenly spring from left side of the body to the right side, all with one single hand and in a smooth fluidity. 3-ball tricks juggling anyone can learn in a month, but perfecting a performance as the above with showmanship, perhaps not a single juggler in history has done it or done it well.

Compatriots, get elegance and upgrade the respectability of juggling in the world.

Rhythmic Gymnastics.

PS Rhythmic gymnastics can be inspirational for jugglers to get elegance. See: Rhythmic Gymnastics (videos).

For some juggling performances that are towards elegance, see The Cases of Elegance in Juggling.