Ball Spinning: History, Performers, and Tips – Part 1

As a professional juggler, juggling historian, and juggling coach, I get asked a wide variety of juggling related questions on a daily basis. One of the areas I get asked the most about is the topic of ball spinning. I’ve had to type the same basic information about ball spinning over and over again, so I thought I could help myself out and help the juggling community out by writing an article about this area of juggling. Let’s start by taking a look at the history of ball spinning and some of the greatest ball spinning jugglers of the past.

History

I’m surprised time and time again when jugglers indicate to me that they believe that the first juggler to do ball spinning was Enrico Rastelli. Many people associate Rastelli with ball spinning, but the truth is that Rastelli did almost no ball spinning at all in performance. While photos, such as the ones below, seem to show Enrico spinning a ball on his finger, examination of video of him reveals that he usually balanced a stationary ball on his finger. While this is much harder than spinning one, apparently Rastelli’s balancing skills were extraordinary enough that he didn’t bother with the easier method. You can see video of this static balance on his fingertip by clicking here.

The only actual ball spinning that Enrico Rastelli performed that I’m aware of is the brief rugby ball spin on a mouth stick that you can see by clicking here. There are some photos of Rastelli that do indeed show him spinning a ball on his finger, but this appears to be the exception rather than the norm.

Ball spinning actually predates Rastelli quite a bit. The earliest known juggler to perform the skill was D’Alvini, who was born William Peppercorn in England in 1847. The following illustration, which was published in 1891, shows D’Alvini doing what appears to be a double ball stack spin in the center image and also doing a single ball spin while lying down in the upper left illustration.

I should note that not all juggling historians agree with my evaluation of the D’Alvini illustrations, instead feeling that the balances shown were static and / or gimmicked.

The next juggling ball spinning reference is found in the juggling chapter of the 1902 book The Modern Magicians’ Handbook by William J. Hilliar. You can see the ball spinning section below.

While ball spinning was popular enough among jugglers to be included in the chapter, this instruction and the D’Alvini illustration are the only examples of ball spinning that I can find prior to Rastelli’s brief rugby ball spin on the mouth stick and a few photos of him spinning a ball on his finger. However, Rastelli popularized the use of inflated balls by jugglers, and most of those who followed Rastelli in their use did include ball spinning in their acts. One early ball spinner was Rastelli’s contemporary and friend Serge Flash. Click here to see Serge do some brief ball spinning in the early 1940s. A famed ball spinning juggler who began right after Rastelli’s death was Trixie. You can see her do ball spinning at the beginning of the following video, which features a scene from the film Broadway Melody of 1940.

Other early jugglers who did ball spinning include Angelo Picinelli  and Ursula Hill, both which you can see below.

Angelo Picinelli

Ursula Hill

It can be argued that two jugglers are mainly responsible for popularizing ball spinning among jugglers. The first of these to begin his performing career was Mexican superstar Rudy Cardenas, who began performing as a child in the late 1920s. He was a great ball spinner, as you can see in the following video.

Rudy Cardenas in the late 1930s

Rudy Cardenas

The juggler who truly brought ball spinning to the forefront of the juggling world was Francis Brunn (1922-2004). Francis was inspired by Picinelli and took ball spinning to a new level. While there are many photos and videos of Francis Brunn that I could include here, I’ll just showcase what I believe to be the best video of his act as well as a newly acquired photo of him from my collection. The most famous ball spinning trick of Francis Brunn is what is now known as the Impossible Trick. This is where a ball is dropped from a neck catch, kicked blindly with the heel of one foot, and lands spinning on a ball that was already spinning on one finger. Be sure to watch for it in the following video.

Franics’ sister Lottie and half-brother Ernest Montego were also some of the best ball spinning jugglers of all time, as you can see from the following videos.

An active IJA member in the 1950s and 1960s who specialized in ball spinning was Adrian Sullivan, who sometimes performed under the stage name of Adriano. He supposedly was the first juggler to perform an arm curl with a two ball spinning stack.

From the 1940s on, ball spinning has been a common part of a juggler’s repetoire. In part two of this series, we’ll examine modern masters of ball spinning and we will discuss how to learn the basic spin, how to find or make a good spinning ball, how to do a double  spin stack, and how to do an arm curl.

 

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of sixteen books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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