The Art and Science of Juggling

Prop circus communities intertwine at ninth UCSC Juggling Convention

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Illustration by Lizzy Choi
Illustration by Lizzy Choi

A juggler unicycled and tossed clubs to a partner, while a circle of people balanced balls on their heads. An artist rolled a staff over the top of his hand as he built momentum to allow the staff to travel down his arms and shoulders.

At least 100 prop circus artists traveled from various parts of Northern California to the ninth annual UC Santa Cruz Juggling Convention April 7-9 at the East Field Gym. The convention included a gala, held at Porter Dining Hall, that showcased a variety of prop circus crafts, including toss juggling, hooping and other object manipulation.

Object manipulation refers to the dexterity behind prop circus performances and includes popular props such as hoops, poi, clubs, balls and fire. It can encompass tossing several objects or contact performance, which uses physical contact to manipulate objects across a performer’s body.

“What we are actually learning are these sublime principles of motion that exist in the cosmos, like rolling something on your body, balancing something, or throwing something and catching it,” said festival coordinator and fourth-year UCSC student Richard Hartnell. “That’s the fundamental lesson of the circus, it’s the practice of turning the impossible into the possible.”

Hartnell, who is currently considered one of the best contact jugglers in North America, said there are rewards to the meticulous hours of practicing outside of the juggling world, including in his academic career.

“You know what a long list of unpleasant drills is that gives you the ability to do anything? It’s a damn syllabus,” Hartnell said. “If you want to, just do it and if you don’t want to don’t pretend like you can’t.” 

The challenges of practice, self-discipline and methodology are common attractions among the juggling community. While juggling is an art form, there are scientific aspects to it, including applied mathematics, that jugglers take into consideration.

UCSC alumnus Paul Klimek developed the mathematics behind toss juggling,
the algorithmic relationships between the physical and spatial boundaries of the craft. Klimek has juggled for nearly 40 years and learned to juggle during his time as an undergraduate. This led him to develop what he calls quantum juggling, better known as siteswap.

“Juggling is exactly the same as quantum physics and chemistry,” Klimek said, as he juggled multiple balls. “Chemistry is passing, this is like one atom and this is like another atom.”

As an undergraduate, Klimek went to the McHenry library one day, intending to draw a cartoon of a juggler. Juggling multiple balls reminded him of the spatial pattern of movement atoms travel in, called orbitals. Based on Albert Einstein’s principle, E=mc2, he developed the mathematics behind the energy required to mimic orbitals of atoms.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi
Illustration by Lizzy Choi

The applied mathematics of juggling has patterns, which can help with cognitive healing, as they did for juggler and UCSC alumnus John Asunción. Asunción learned how to juggle during his time as a student. But after graduating, Asunción gave up juggling for 25 years. When a car accident left him hospitalized for five months, he said, learning and revisiting juggling became a method of physical and mental therapy for him.

“I was trying out these different healing modalities […] to help synthesize between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and improve your healing energy,” Asunción said. “I started juggling on the beach and realized it was exactly the same thing, and now I just do it for my own sanity.”

The diverse skill levels and backgrounds of participants the convention attracted provided a great opportunity for juggling community members to learn from each other, share techniques, learn a new prop, or meet new people in their field.

“It’s nice to be around people who challenge you just by being able to do stuff that you can’t do,” said fourth-year UCSC student, contact juggler and Juggling Club member Pierre Baudin. “I like watching people are better than me because I can draw inspiration from what they are doing,”

As a transfer student, a juggling community was important to Baudin when deciding where to finish his degree. Santa Cruz has several prop circus jams, including fire spinning on Sunday nights and monthly hooping at the lighthouse on West Cliff. The Bay Area is also a major hub for a constellation of prop circus meetups, partially due to a major housing facility in East Oakland that is equipped for prop circus training.

Baudin believes the UCSC Juggling Convention is unique to the Santa Cruz community in that it is the best opportunity to observe new methodology and to engage in the social aspect of juggling, including passing of objects to other people, forming patterns or crossing objects through the air.

“There is something to be said about everybody kind of doing their own thing but sharing space while they are doing it,” Baudin said. “There are connections that form out of that.”