The act of juggling pre-dates any recorded history so the exact origins will never be known. The earliest known record of juggling, from the 15th Beni Hassan tomb of an unknown prince, shows female dancers and acrobats throwing balls. Juggling has also been recorded in most other early civilizations including China, India, Greece, Aztec (Mexico) and Polynesia.
In Europe, juggling was an acceptable diversion until the decline of the Roman Empire, after which it fell into disgrace. Throughout the Middle Ages most histories were written by religious clerics who frowned upon the type of performers who juggled, called ‘Gleemen’, accusing them of base morals or even practicing witchcraft. Jugglers in this era would only perform in market places, streets, fairs or drinking houses. They would perform short, humorous and bawdy acts and pass a hat or bag among the audience for tips. Some king’s and noblemen’s bards, fools, or jesters would have been to juggle or perform acrobatics, though their main skills would have been oral (poetry, music, comedy and story telling).
In 1768 Philip Astley opened the first modern circus. A few years later he employed jugglers to perform acts along with the horse and clown acts. From then until the modern day, jugglers have found work with and have commonly been associated with circuses.
In the 19th century Variety and Music Hall theatres became more popular, and jugglers were in demand to fill time between music acts, performing in front of the curtain while sets are changed. Performers started specializing in juggling, separating it from other kinds of performance such as sword swallowing and magic. The Gentleman Juggler style was established by German jugglers such as Salerno and Kara. Rubber processing developed and jugglers started using rubber balls. Previously juggling balls were made from balls of twine, stuffed leather bags, wooden spheres or various metals. Solid or inflatable rubber balls meant that bounce juggling was possible. Inflated rubber balls made ball spinning easier and more reaily accessible. Soon, in North America, Vaudeville theatres employed many jugglers, often hiring European performers.
In the early to mid 20th century, variety and vaudeville shows started to decline in popularity due to competition from motion picture theatres, radio and television. The International Jugglers’ Association was formed in 1947 to support professional jugglers. Their annual conventions became a focus for not only professional but amateur jugglers. Since the 1950’s there has been a huge increase in the numbers of amateur jugglers compared to performing professionals leading to a very distinct juggling culture.
The growth of juggling as a hobby, 1947 – present
As more amateurs around the world began to juggle as a hobby sport or pastime, they started meeting together regularly to practice and socialise in local groups. These groups formed into juggling clubs, and currently there are clubs for jugglers in almost every city and large town in the western world.
When juggling was practiced by professionals only, jugglers were secretive and possesive of their tricks and skills. Over the years the attitude has changed, and juggling has now become a major social activity for hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of people all over the world who are more than happy to share their skills and encourage others to join in. This more open approach, and the fact that basic juggling is not that difficult to learn, has made juggling into an activity that almost anyone can participate in. There are many reasons why someone may learn to juggle. These include:
- It is fun to learn and fun to teach
- It looks impressive even if you aren’t very good at it… great for showing off!
- It can help relieve stress
- While it is initially easy to pick up, juggling is challenging and no matter how good you get there is always more to learn
- It can help improve reflexes and hand-eye coordination
- It has been “proven” to increase the size of your brain
- Some jugglers claim it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex
- It can be used to keep fit (often combined with jogging,which is called joggling)
- It can be a great icebreaker at parties
The majority of hobby jugglers can be split into one of two groups. The first are those who learned to juggle at university or college juggling clubs. These people are often mathematicians, scientists and computer programmers. They like juggling because it can be very structured and it can be analysed and modeled easily by maths and physics. Juggling has established itself as a very useful model for researchers studying motor skills and learning techniques. The second group are from the counter culture or alternative culture scene. They enjoy juggling because, while it can be very structured, it can also be as free as you want it to be, with a virtually infinite scope for individual personal expression. Fire juggling is a common appeal.
Since the 1970s, “Juggling For the Complete Klutz”, a book by John Cassidy that is sold with a set of three beanbags attached, has probably introduced juggling to more people than any other single source. Another reason for the increase of people who can juggle is that many businesses and schools have employed professional workshop leaders to teach various circus skills.
Modern Juggling Culture
Since the late 1980s a large juggling subculture has developed, almost completely unknown and unrecognised by the general public. The scene revolves around local clubs and organisations, special events, shows, magazines, websites, internet forums and, possibly most importantly, juggling conventions. In recent years there has also been a growing focus on juggling competitions.
Populating the scene are many “juggling celebrities”. These people are notable (or notorious) for being good or creative jugglers, entertaining performers, convention organisers, experts in their field or just for having a curiously interesting personality or character. Of course, outside of the juggling world they are completely unknown.
- Local clubs/societies/workshops – most cities and large towns have juggling clubs where anyone is welcome to learn and share skills. Many universities and colleges have juggling or circus skills societies. There are also many community circus groups that usually aim to teach young people and put on shows. The Internet Juggling Database maintains a searchable database of most juggling clubs.
- Organisations – The first organisation that promoted juggling and helped jugglers was the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA), based almost entirely in North America. The European Juggling Association facilitates the annual European Juggling Convention and promotes juggling in Europe. Various countries have national associations, including Italy, Spain and Switzerland. There is also the Christian Jugglers Association.
- Magazines – Kaskade is the European juggling magazine, published in both English and German. JUGGLE is the official publication of the IJA and focuses on the North American scene. Juggling Magazine is published in Italy. Newton Las Pelotas is published in Argentina for the Latin American readership.
- World Juggling Day – is the second or third Saturday in June. There are events organized world wide to teach people how to juggle, to promote juggling or for jugglers to get together, and celebrate.
- Conventions/festivals – Many countries, cities or juggling clubs hold their own annual juggling convention. These are the backbone of the juggling scene, the events that regularly bring jugglers from a wide area together to socialize. The attendance of a convention can be anything from a few dozen to a few thousand people. The principal focus of most juggling conventions is the main hall, a large space for open juggling. There will also be more formal “workshops” in which expert jugglers will work with small groups on specific skills and techniques. Most juggling conventions will also include a big show (open to the general public), competitions and juggling games. The Internet Juggling Database maintains a searchable database of all conventions in the past and future.