Hat Spinning – History, Instruction, and Performers

HatSpinPoster

 In the final years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, hat spinning was a fairly standard and common form of juggling. Today this art form is performed by perhaps as few as two or three jugglers in the entire world. For those who have never seen it, hat spinning can perhaps be best described as a cross between plate spinning and devil stick, with a flimsy, broad-brimmed hat being manipulated by one or two long sticks held in the juggler’s hands.

Juggling superstar Cinquevalli did some brief vertical hat spinning with one hand while juggling two other hats in the other.

One of the best known early hat spinning acts of the early years of the art form was Walter Bellonini. He was born in 1856 in Belper, Derbyshire (UK) and died in 1943. While he did a variety of juggling skills, he was best known for his hat spinning.

 WalterBelloniniColor

Another juggling act that specialized in hat spinning was Charles Francois and his sons. They did many hat spinning variations and dressed as devils.

Album Soury

Album Soury

Other early jugglers who performed hat spinning were Dick Ricton (1882 – 1945)  and Luke and Frank Berrington, who were performing the skill at least as early as 1875. While very few pictures of early hat spinners exist, juggling literature from the period gives evidence of how common of a juggling skill it was.

The oldest known juggling catalog, Otto Maurer’s “Catalogue Of Fine Juggler Goods” from the 1880s, features an illustration of a woman performing hat spinning with one hand while juggling balls with the other, as can be seen below. This is the oldest illustration of hat spinning I’ve been able to locate.

OttoMaurerHatSpinner

In 1901, the booklet “New Juggling Tricks” by Ellis Stanyon included the following description of hat spinning: Hat on Stick. – Here a soft felt sombrero hat about 18 in. in diameter is kept spinning rapidly at the end of a stick as at “A” in Fig. 5. Dexterity only is required to cause the stick to describe a rapid circle round the edge of the hat. The stick is required to be of a flexible nature, therefore a cane is used. The hat may be tossed in the air and caught again, still spinning, on the stick. Walk over the stick, still keeping the hat spinning, throw it over the left shoulder and catch again in front; and other fancy movements will be suggested in practice. Spin two hats, one in each hand. If you cannot manage the left-hand stick on the outside of the hat, let the point be on the inside of the crown; this applies to either hand in practice.” The book also included the following illustration.

StanyonHat

In 1902, William J. Hilliar’s “Modern Magicians’ Hand Book” was published. It contained a very nice chapter on juggling which included a section on hat spinning. Below is an illustration from the book.

ModernMagicians'HandBook

The first full-length book devoted to the art of juggling was “The Art Of Modern Juggling” by Anglo (T. Horton), which was published in 1907, three years after the author’s death (he was executed for murdering his estranged wife). In the book, Anglo devotes a page to hat spinning and concludes his discussion of it saying, “Variations can be performed by passing the stick under the leg or round the back, first throwing up the spinning hat and catching it as it falls in the new position.” Spinning hats were included in an Edward Van Wyck juggling and circus prop catalog from the same time period. Below is an image from that catalog.

VanWyckSpinningHat

The most detailed instructions on hat spinning ever published was written in 1946 by Roger Montandon. It was published in both the August 1946 Juggler’s Bulletin and in the book “Manual Of Juggling”, published in 1947. The entire hat spinning chapter of the book is included below, courtesy of Roger Montandon. If you want to learn this form of juggling, I’d recommend watching the videos in the second half of the article and then carefully reading the chapter below.

HAT SPINNING by Roger Montandon

Several years ago we saw a Mexican juggler in a circus side show “Hat Spinning”, that is, keeping a hat revolving in the air by striking its brim with a stick. We liked the novelty of the routine and its effect on the audience but at the time were too absorbed in trying to get three balls to reverse shower to do anything about it. Last year we again saw the feat performed by Al Conner. Again we liked it but time slipped away and we still did nothing about trying it. A month ago we passed a local sporting goods shop and saw in the window a red cloth hat of suitable size and texture, we thought, for the trick. We bought one and played around with it and surprising enough most of the moves we could think of were rather easy to do. In a month’s time we could (and you can too) do fairly well several rather interesting moves. Checking through all the literature we have on hand revealed only one brief article on Hat Spinning. This we found in William J. Hilliar’s “Modern Magicians’ Hand Book”. Believing that many young aspiring jugglers would welcome Hat Spinning as an act which would get them entirely away from the standard “toss” routines with standard articles such as balls and clubs, we have compiled our findings in this article. We sincerely hope that you will try it out and not be content with just the moves we show. Perhaps, and we hope you do, you will put it in your show and at some future date we’ll see you doing moves that we and hat spinners before us never dreamed possible.

The hat described in the Hilliar book and the one used by the Mexican juggler was made of felt, but the hat used by Conner and the one we found was of the soft cloth variety that has been popular for summer wear the past few years Some of these cloth hats are heavily starched so that they will hold their shape better. This is not the kind for hat spinning. Get the softest one you can find this fortunately is also usually the cheapest cloth hat on the market. After a little beating with the stick such a hat is just as limp as an old rag, and except when it is being spun it looks a good deal like a rag. Under the spinning action, however, it billows out and again resembles a hat. The hat we found was red (a rather bright red which we liked better than the more common brown and gray ones) measured about 12 inches across the brim and with a crown about 5 inches high when fully billowed out. We mention these dimensions, not because they are important for the successful carrying out of the spinning routine, but more as a guide to finding a suitable hat at your local store. The stick we use is a 3/8 inch diameter dowel rod cut to a length of 24 inches and with a pointed end. This pointed end does not influence the spinning part of the routine but is an aid in performing a couple of moves that will be explained later. Also the length of the rod will vary with the individual, some desiring a shorter stick- we doubt whether a longer one would have any advantage.

THE BASIC STICK SPIN: Hold the hat with the forefinger and thumb of the left hand by the brim, crown of hat toward the audience, brim of hat hanging from fingers vertically. The hat is held about waist high. The stick, held firmly in the right hand is placed just a trifle to the left of the center of the lower edge of brim. As the hat is released from left hand, the stick is raised sharply almost straight up, but with a slight semicircular motion. This will cause the hat to spin.

HatSpin1Try this a few times without trying to keep the hat spinning. You will find that if the stick is too close to the center of the hat brim, the hat will collapse and drape around the stick instead of spinning. If the stick is too far from the center the hat will spin but instead of also being kept up in the air it will fall to the floor before you would have time to strike it again with the stick. In other words, the stick must cause the hat to spin and also act with an upward force to keep the hat in the air. With a little practice you will be able to keep the hat spinning at about waist height or a little above at least f or short periods of time. With continued practice you will find it easy to control. You will find that by hitting it closer to center you will slow the spinning rate down as well as cause the hat to be thrown higher in the air. By hitting it further from the center you increase the rate of spin but you will have to hit it faster to keep it in the air. The rate of spin is appreciably increased by causing the stick to follow a semi-circular path about the rim of hat rather than just a sharp upward motion. FIG. 2. This, then is the basic move of hat spinning. Practice it until you have considerable control on the hat, for all other moves are simply variations or additions to the basic one.

HatSpin2

When you master control of the spinning hat you will find it easy to change the tempo of the stick striking the hat brim. Thus you will hit the hat rapidly for awhile, then by striking closer to the center cause the hat to fly high above head still spinning, wait for it to descend and again increase speed of spinning by rapid striking further from the center. This change of tempo gives variation to just straight spinning, and we might add, looks much more difficult to the audience. We will assume that you have mastered the basics and are now ready to see what further moves and refinements we have found possible.

STICK PICK-UP: With the hat on the floor crown down, or toward the audience, the point of stick is poked inside the hat. The stick with the hat on it is brought sharply up and to the left with a sweeping motion. The movement is stopped abruptly with a circular move of the stick which causes the hat to spin. FIG. 3. Almost at the same instant the stick is removed from the inside of the hat and strikes the brim of the hat to keep it spinning and thus continue the basic spin. This little move is excellent for the recovery of a dropped hat. The point on the stick helps in this pick-up. If the hat falls with crown up it is only necessary to give it a sharp blow and turn it over in order to start the pick-up.

HatSpin3

FOOT PICK-UP This is one of the most startling methods of starting the hat spin. The hat is thrown on toe of shoe (you have to balance on one foot while doing this) or if the hat is on the floor the toe of shoe can be inserted in the hat. The foot and leg raises just like in the move where you cause a top hat to turn over once in getting from foot to head but instead of giving enough upward impetus to the hat to reach the head, the hat is caused to turn over at about waist height at which point it is in the proper position to strike with the stick and cause to spin.

HatSpin4

FIG 4. The main trouble to overcome in this move is to gain enough control so that the hat is not in the proper position too close to the body to get the stick into action.

OFF-THE-HEAD START: This is another very effective start for the basic spin. The hat is placed on head in wearing position, but loosely. Or when you practice a little you will find it quite easy to do a turn- over from toe to head. This move is a little more difficult than when done with a stiff hat such as a top hat but is nevertheless easily attainable with a little practice. The stick is now placed under the brim of the hat slightly to the left of the rear of the head, point of stick pointing slightly up and forward. Head is bowed slightly forward. A steady rapid upward. motion (not a sudden jerk) with the stick will cause the hat to roll forward off the head, turn over and be in proper position for the basic spin at about waist height. This one will require a few hours of diligent practice but the effect is well worth the effort.

You can now get a picture of the excellent routines possible. For example- throw the hat on the toe of right foot. Right foot tosses hat with one turn to be caught on left foot (this simply requires a quick change of balance from one foot to another). Left foot again tosses hat up with one turn to be caught again in its original position on right foot. From there it is tossed with one turn to head. Off the-head start is then accomplished and hat is spun with varying tempo and heights briefly. The spinning hat can then be allowed to drop still spinning toward the floor where the right foot with a quick forward jab again enters the hat. The Foot-Pick-Up is then executed, and the spin continues with stick going under leg to strike the hat, behind the back, etc. for variations of the basic spin.

The striking of the hat under the leg and behind the back the most difficult moves so far described. But besides practice about the only hints we can offer are to slow the spinning of the hat down, and just before moving the stick to the under leg position or around the back, give the hat an upward thrust in order to give you time to move the stick into position.

Some other spinning ideas: Place the point of the stick on the brim of hat toward the edge. Crown of hat up. Stick held vertically. Now impart a circular motion to the stick. The hat will assume and spin in a horizontal plane. By moving the stick upward slightly and then rapidly removing the stick the hat will sail down and can be caught on head. Another departure from the basic stick spin is to kick the spinning hat with foot in the same position that the stick would strike it. This slows down the hat spin and so immediately after the kick recover speed again with stick. Instead of a kick with foot, a sharp blow with arm or left hand are effective deviations from the basic stick spin.

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The last two books to include hat spinning directions were both published in 1962. The first was “Want To Be A Juggler” by George DeMott. DeMott was a talented hat spinner and included a short chapter on the subject in his book. Below are four illustrations from this chapter.

DeMottHattSpinning (1024x929)

The other 1962 publication was the Russian juggling textbook, “The Art Of Juggling” by Nikolai Ernestowitsch Bauman. Below is the only illustration of hat spinning from the book, showing a hat used in a standard plate spinning maneuver.

RussianHatSpinning

Some basic hat spinning instruction by Todd Strong was included in the Spring 2010 Juggle Magazine.

Modern Performers

During the 1940s and 1950s, Argentinian jugglers the Piero Brothers were the premier jugglers performing hat spinning. During the 1960s and 1970s, the best known hat spinning jugglers were Palermo and Phillips. They performed leap frogs, run arounds, pass backs, sharing, and many other two person tricks while spinning hats. Below is a video of the hat spinning portion of their act.

Today there are only a few jugglers still performing hat spinning. The best known to eJuggle readers is probably Gena Shvartsman Cristiani.

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Here’s what Gena had to say about her hat spinning background. “My father, Eugene Shvartsman, is a juggler and a coach of mine. I feel fortunate that he either invented or picked out new and unique tricks for me to learn. One of the routines that is always a crowd-pleaser is my hat spinning. Lots of people tell me they’ve never seen it before but it’s a super old trick! I first started hat spinning at age 7 and in my opinion my toughest trick is spinning a hat in each hand and doing a 360 back to spinning.”

Here’s a video of Gena’s act, beginning with her hat spinning routine.

 
The other primary hat spinning juggler today is Sergey Zabolotniy. He was trained by Gena Shvartsman Crisitiani’s father, Eugene Shvartsman. Zabolotniy (sometimes spelled Zabolotny or Sabolotny) does an entire act of hat spinning, including one hat manipulated like a devil stick, one and two hats spun in the traditional manner, three hats cascaded on the two sticks, and a giant hat spun with large hat.
 
Sergei Sabalotny, 3 hats with sticks (2)
 
 
Sergei Sabalotny, 1 hat with stick (2)
Click here and here to see videos of Sergey Zabolotniy’s amazing hat spinning act.
 
If you’re looking for a new challenge and want to add something a bit different to your act, why not try hat spinning. You might find that this old form of juggling still has many possibilities yet to be explored.
 

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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