Making the best of a balls up

This time last week I was in Nottingham, feeling incredibly relaxed, happy and at one with the world. I was at the annual British Juggling Convention for the first time in 16 years.  Back in the 1990s not just me, but our family, had discovered the joy of juggling. Between 1995 in Norwich and 2001 in Cardiff we only missed one national convention, and took in quite a few local conventions along the way. We packed the car full of juggling equipment and usually came back with more. It is addictive. I thought I could handle the addiction, but came back this time as well with new equipment.

So what does a juggling convention look like? Hundreds, sometimes more than a 1,000 jugglers of all ages and sizes sharing a 24/7 practice hall, usually in a purpose-built sports centre; people practicing and practicing by themselves, or with a partner or small group with all kinds of equipment not just balls: hula hoops, diabolos, rings of all sizes, silk scarves, flower sticks and devil sticks (look them up!); smaller groups gathering for workshops in studio spaces or squash courts – in Nottingham’s case – or in small circus tents at some previous conventions.

IMG_1755People generously offer workshops to freely share their skills with learners. Late in the evening the “Renegade Show” offers anyone attending the chance to do a little turn in front of an always friendly and supportive audience. There is also one professional show put on at a proper theatre in the town where the convention is happening. The skills on show are breathtaking, but there is also something very pleasing when you suddenly see on stage that person who has just been practicing very quietly and seriously near you in the 24/7 hall space.

Also there are the “juggling games” when we take over a place in the town. In Nottingham’s case it was a large green within the grounds of Nottingham Castle. At previous conventions it has been a pedestrianised city centre. All manner of strange collective games and endurance tests follow, mainly using juggling balls, clubs, diabolos, and human balancing skills. Sometimes there is a carnival style procession to the games venue.

IMG_1776.jpgAlthough I was completely fascinated with circus since I was a child, my story as a juggler started in the early 1990’s (shortly before I trained as a primary school teacher). With three bean bags and a small instruction sheet – a present just before a family holiday in Cornwall – I practiced for half an hour a day, until I got the hang of it. When we came back I progressed to balls, and then in subsequent months and years to rings, clubs, knives, and I’ve since dabbled a bit with fire clubs too.

People ask me whether juggling is meditative. I don’t think so, but what does happen is that all inhibitions and anxieties temporarily drop out of your head and disappear. That is a state that those of us who are political activists really need to build into our lives to maintain our sanity in these very fraught times. I guess other people do it by playing music, going jogging or climbing a mountain.

Juggling turned out to be a very useful skill in my 22-year career as a primary teacher in inner-London. I resorted to it at moments when I really needed to calm situations down in the class, and I also regularly visited each classes’ annual Christmas party to do a brief entertainment slot. For around 10 years from the mid-1990s, I ran a weekly  after-school Juggling Club for 7-11 year olds  which gave me insights on the question of “natural” talent and also on the negative cultural changes our children have lived through and are still living through.

My first five or six years of running the club were the most creative and enjoyable. The club was populated by children who fully bought in to the non-competitive spirit I tried to establish. They appreciated each other’s efforts and supported each other. Juggling came more easily to some children than others, but those who were willing to persevere with something they found hard, and who could cope with others around them progressing at a faster pace would succeed too. I usually had up to 12 children in the class. We would play some games then I would demonstrate some techniques and leave them to practice. While they practiced, I went from child to child giving individual help. We closed the sessions with children volunteering to show the others what they had improved on that week.

IMG_1767I had one child, P, who started in the club when he was nine. Despite the fact that in other spheres he was well coordinated – he played guitar with considerable proficiency – he had terrible coordination problems with juggling. The first exercise I gave him was to hold a ball in his favoured hand (his right) and throw it in a loop reaching just over head height to catch it as it fell into his left. I told him to hold his hands low palm upwards and placed a ball in his right hand. As he tried to throw it, it just stayed there. the first limb that moved was actually his left arm; then his left leg; then his right leg, then finally his right arm. And the ball didn’t really land anywhere near his left hand.

Some children got the hang of it quickly as I progressed them through the basic exercises for the “cascade” – the most basic 3-ball pattern. Within two or three weeks most of them could keep the balls in the air in that pattern for 5-10 throws. P showed fantastic perseverance – aided by the support of others in the club. By the time he was 11 – he could finally keep a three ball cascade going for at least 10 throws.  He proved to me that it didn’t matter how uncoordinated you were, you could get there. I hope he is still juggling.

But the last few years of the club were more challenging. This was a period when two simultaneous processes were happening. Children were getting sucked more and more into the passive culture of electronic games which provided instant gratification with very little physical skill/agility involved; and a competitive spirit was being insinuated by Blair’s New Labour into almost every aspect of the education system, setting borough against borough, school against school and ultimately child against child. Children imbibed it unconsciously. They were harsher not only towards other children but also towards themselves.

With children leaving for secondaries at 11 there was a natural turnover in the club each year, but many of the new recruits simply gave up if they couldn’t succeed at it really quickly, especially if they saw others proving more adept. I tried to maintain the collaborative, mutually supportive atmosphere, and to see themselves only in competition with themselves and their previous achievements but I couldn’t compete strongly enough against the other cultural pressures they had internalised.

I know that some of my early recruits to the club eventually became much more proficient, fluent and skilled than myself. I even bumped into some at juggling conventions. I hope that juggling is still a part of their lives. I’ve come back from Nottingham determined to build on what I can already do with my juggling equipment and determined to make the space in my life for the serenity and pure pleasure it brings. And for those of you who haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too early or too late to learn to juggle.


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