Not just for clowns: Macalester's Object Manipulators

By Will Kennedy

For anyone looking to get into juggling, Macalester Object Manipulators (MOM)-Mac’s juggling club-provides a relatively safe space. The same can’t be said for the world outside.Currently a war of words and ideas seethes between two diametrically opposed juggling camps. MOM’s vice president Nick Carpenter ’09 explained. “There are a couple of different archetypes,” he said. “There is the clown, and people who take juggling very seriously.” Clowns will typically interact with the audience, do simpler tricks, dress in costume, and jazz up routines by playing music or doing something like eating an apple while juggling. The more “serious” type will view juggling as a sport, often have a set routine and perform tricks with high levels of technical difficulty. Neither group cares much for the other and accusations of ‘fake,’ ‘hack’ and ‘jerk’ fly across the fault lines.

I spent some time with the jugglers of MOM last week to find out what this conflict is all about and to practice some juggling myself.

Before heading over to the campus center for juggling club last Tuesday, however, I needed a crash course in juggling history which I got from Carpenter and my good friend Wikipedia. The session gave some valuable insight into the juggling community’s present dispute and revealed that this activity had some trials in its past.

Appearing in ancient societies world-wide from the Aztecs to the Polynesians-the earliest record of juggling dates back about 4000 years to an inscribed Egyptian tomb-juggling was big in Europe until the Roman Empire disintegrated. An increasingly powerful church branded juggling at best immoral and at worst witchcraft. The church didn’t mess around with heresy in those days, so there was an understandable dip in juggling related activities.

In the late 1700s, circuses revived juggling as entertainment, creating in the process the stereotype that all jugglers are clowns. Flash forward to the 20th century and juggling becomes a popular hobby in the 1950s followed shortly thereafter, as Carpenter told me, by the cause of juggling’s present conflict. “In the 1990s,” he said, “people started trying to turn [juggling] into a sport,” Carpenter said.

The juggling as Entertainment or Sport debate came to a head in 2000 when juggling’s formerly united governing body split in two: the original free-spirited International Juggling Association remained, but now it had to vie for membership with the technique driven, sports conscious World Juggling Federation. The choice appeared to be this: a group led by Jason Garfield, a hairless super buff guy who punches people who laugh at juggling and expels members accused of clownery, or a bunch of clowns. I honestly don’t know which sounds more frightening.

This was the world I was entering and I was initially unsure whether I should bring my oversized red shoes or my juggling A-game to the meeting. Carpenter helped make my decision, saying that the club focuses more on the serious stuff, but the members take different approaches to juggling and tend to be tolerant-some members are reputedly more tolerant than others.

I was going to the club to improve, but also to show off my juggling skills and I was pretty confident I was going to impress some people. After all, Carpenter is my roommate and when he leaves his juggling balls out, I practice kind of a lot.

The week before, I visited the club to take some pictures and I had seen some of the club’s men and women passing clubs back and forth. Visually impressive, the act didn’t look easy, but really did it look that hard? I thought no.

Juggling is the act of keeping more than one object-often but not limited to balls, clubs or rings-cycling through the air in some kind of pattern, and when you put it that way it seems simple enough. The objects pose varying degrees of difficulty, but I could already juggle three balls-the simplest implements-and everyone made clubs look so effortless that I convinced myself I was ready to move onto something more challenging.

I took three in my hand and then realized what every jerk who has ever seen anything and then said to himself ‘I could do that,’ finds out when he actually gets ready to try: I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start. I was so confused that I couldn’t even toss one of the clubs, so I just stood there.

When they stopped chuckling at my ineptitude, veteran jugglers Erin Lowery ’10 and Sara Gottlieb ’10 offered some useful pointers, and I soon abandoned my earlier bravado and started practicing throwing a single club, controlling the rotation, and catching it in my hand.

In between practicing this humbling and respective, but ultimately engaging maneuver, I had a chance to find out something about the people in MOM. The club members found their inspiration to juggle from various sources, ranging from the influences of friends, to camps, to having it assigned for school. I also got some first hand accounts that they don’t all view juggling the same way.

Virtually a one woman show, Jen Agans ’09 began her career as a reluctant middle schooler forced to participate in a school-wide circus program.

“Basically I started because it was homework,” she said. “I hated it, but then I got good.”

Agans performed with the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus and coached at circus-themed camps, and while she’s never dressed up as a clown, keeping an audience happy is her focus. “Technique is a part of it,” she said. “But there are style points too. I see it as an art more than a sport because it’s for people’s enjoyment.”

I have a chance to think about this as I advance to two club tossing and struggle. It’s been about an hour and a half and I say to Carpenter what was already obvious to everyone in the room.

“This is harder than I thought.”

“Yep,” he replies, “most people don’t learn in a night.”

I draw a few more smiles by hitting myself with clubs and throwing them dangerously close to people and then it’s time to call it a day, so we pack up the clubs. It’s been fun and I realize that as a novice, I’ve gotten a good sample of all sides of the juggling world.

When you start out juggling, you’re an athlete and an entertainer because you’re desperately trying to improve your technique and exhausting yourself with screw-ups and meanwhile people are laughing at you in the process. At this point I’m OK being on the fence between juggling as a sport and juggling as entertainment and maybe if I stick with this I’ll declare my allegiance later. For now it’s just nice to have a place to do it where you don’t have to worry about clowns or some burly guy punching you in the face if you laugh.