If you’ve gone to a juggling convention and Sky King was there, best believe, you noticed! Sky is a larger-than-life presence at many juggling conventions spanning nearly three decades including multiple IJA festivals, countless regional fests throughout the eastern seaboard, but also plenty nationwide, and a few abroad. She is one of the strongest, most consistent African American presences at mostly White juggling festivals, and a leader in New York City’s juggling community. We’ve seen her moderate “Sky Says,” a juggling elimination game based on the famous kids game Simon Says, except contestants have to keep their juggling patterns going while doing what Sky says. You might have seen her flex her DJing skills on the convention floor while bobbing your head to the up-tempo beats she plays as a professional DJ.
I also happen to be an African American juggler, who is also from Harlem, so many people have mistakenly assumed she was my mother. Wrong! But more on that later. Many recognize her for being an outgoing presence, welcoming jugglers of all nationalities, cultures, and genders with kind words, witty humor, and her fearless but genuinely personable aura. It’s natural to feel like you know her, within a few minutes of talking with her. But who is Sky King?
Gail Sky King was born in Queens, New York, but spent nearly all of her adult years living in Harlem. She is the ultimate multi-hyphenate as a mother, competitive roller skater, guitarist, award-winning music composer, songwriter, DJ, and teacher. All of those attributes may sound unrelated to each other, but as the late Apple, Inc. founder Steve Jobs said at a commencement speech, “the dots connect in hindsight.” For starters, Sky has written countless songs for Sesame Street throughout her 12-year tenure as a staff composer for the iconic TV show, including a song that featured The Fugees. Sky’s long journey is rife with stories that connect one to the other, often including fearlessness, everlasting curiosity, and bringing to light the dire need for diversity.
Sky has seen herself as a diversifying figure often. She learned how to play guitar at a sleepaway camp in Vermont when she was 12. “I had never met so many White people who had never seen a Black person in the flesh,” Sky recalls. She was the only girl in her band that toured throughout New York City’s many parks every summer through the Parks Department. While living in Cambridge with her father as he studied at Harvard University en route to pursuing the first of his two PhD’s, she saw that he was the only Black person in his doctoral program. With juggling in the United States being a mostly White activity, Sky once again saw herself in a familiar zone when she went to her first IJA convention in Burlington, Vermont in 1994.
“When I walked in, I’m just walking and I’m looking around and of course I was immediately conscious of the fact that everybody was White. It didn’t surprise me [but] I was hoping for a little bit more diversity but it was what it was,” she says.
Sky had just learned how to juggle just a few weeks earlier from the Juggling for the Complete Klutz book with subsequent input from a work colleague who was a five ball juggler. She heard about the IJA convention after visiting the Dubé Juggling Equipment store, which then had a jaw-dropping storefront in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
Sky believes there must have been 1,000 jugglers at the Burlington IJA convention, and it didn’t take long before she met another Black juggler.
“While I’m standing there at the entrance just looking around, I suddenly see this one Black guy who was way on the other side of the room, who now is running towards me. He’s going in between people’s passing patterns and jumping over prop bags,” she explains, likening it to the popular Hertz commercials from the 1970s starring OJ Simpson running through an airport. It’s a popular commercial to mainstream America but has long been a laughing stock within the Black community for being comically unrealistic.
Anyway, that juggler was comedian, Ngaio Bealum, who emceed the IJA Championships the following year in Las Vegas.
“He was clearly surprised to see a Black woman walk into the gym. He wasn’t gonna let me disappear without saying something. So he ran up to me, and of course, we immediately started talking,” says Sky.
He then introduced her to Ray Smith, the third and only other Black juggler at the convention.
“I jokingly said, ‘This is the inaugural meeting of the BJA — Black Jugglers Association’ — and they both fell out laughing. But of course, it wasn’t really funny because it was a shame — one thousand people and there are three Black folks.” says Sky. “That didn’t deter me or put me out, but it would have been nice to see more people of color represented.”
After learning her first set of intermediate juggling tricks from Josh, her friend and Sesame Street coworker at the time, he surprised her by taking her to her first juggling club: The Carmine Street Irregulars, which is New York’s longest-running and only active juggling club at that time.
“There were probably 30 people there, including a bunch of notables,” recalls Sky.
By notables, she means Cindy Marvel, Tony Duncan, Matt Henry and many others. She hit it off instantly with people who would later become her lifelong friends. The club had nearly everything from incredible talent to watch and learn from, to friendly people, but there was one glaring omission: music. The next week, Sky showed up with headphones and her personal music that she mixed after coming straight from a DJing gig. Sky thought she was being discreet, hoping not to disturb the vibe, but she doesn’t just listen to music, she experiences it. She instantly attracted attention as she passionately bobbed her head to the music in her headphones.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh what? You don’t share?’ I was like “I didn’t know if this was cool. I came here last week, you all were juggling and it was to the sound of falling props. I figured that’s the way you liked it,” recalls Sky.
After more requests to share her music, she managed to find a boombox at the recreation center where the juggling club was located. To this day, the Carmine Street Irregulars (which Sky named) have never gone without music — this is a testament to how impactful Sky’s presence is wherever she goes. Eight months later, I met Sky King during my first visit to Carmine during my first year of juggling at age 12, and of course, great music was playing.
Sky has a long and well-noted rap sheet for proving that diversifying pays dividends. In the 1980s, she was one of the few female DJs spinning in New York City’s biggest nightclubs such as The Garage, The Red Parrot, and The Roxy during hip-hop’s infancy. In the 1970s, when society was even less open than today to women in leadership roles, she performed with a competitive roller skating team that toured internationally. Roller skating still brings her joy as it led her to some of her proudest moments such as meeting her husband, Maris, who is the father of their beloved daughter Krista, and even landed her a role as skating stunt coordinator in the movie Muppets Take Manhattan, where she worked alongside legendary tap dancer Gregory Hines. Her work in that movie connected her to a man who also knew her as a DJ and became musical director for Ghostwriter, a mystery TV show aimed at tweens. The show took place in an urban setting with a diverse cast, and he needed a composer to create music that worked for the theme. He enlisted Sky King. Having a diverse cast on camera created the need for having a diverse cast behind the scenes. While at Ghostwriter, she got a surprise phone call from Kevin Clash, an African American puppeteer who created and at the time voiced Elmo on Sesame Street. He was pitching a new character for Sesame Street and needed someone who could compose some fresh music specifically for that character. He was a fan of Sky’s work on Ghostwriter and felt she was perfect.
“I really didn’t believe he was the guy so I made him prove it. Of course, he did the Elmo voice and I cracked up,” Sky recalls.
The character never made it on screen, but powers that be at Sesame Street were impressed enough to hire her as a staff composer.
While working at Sesame Street, Sky continued to make her mark in juggling. In Harlem, there was a youth circus outreach program sponsored by the Big Apple Circus that had an after-school program that was partnered with the Harbor School for Performing Arts. That’s the same school where I learned how to juggle. One year after I graduated in 1996, my teacher at that school, Russell Davis, moved out of state and needed a replacement. Russell recommended Sky King as his replacement, emphasizing the need to continue filling the staff with people who reflected the school’s almost exclusively Black and Hispanic population, as well as Sky’s attention to detail and her love for teaching. As usual, Sky made an impact immediately, choreographing juggling routines that the students and parents loved, including one performed by Harlem teens Walter and Javier that made it to the 1999 IJA Youth Showcase stage.
“I’m not going to name any names, but not everybody was equally enthusiastic [about them]. That’s all I can say. Of course, you know they decided ultimately that they should be the top of the show because they were expected to be weak,” says Sky.
She knew that even though the routine didn’t have the level of technical difficulty that the other routines at the Youth Showcase had, its cultural relevance, tight choreography, performance quality and, of course, great music, would rule.
“The routine was so cohesive and truly had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Walter and Javier were both very charismatic and engaging on stage even though the juggling might have been more simple than what some of the other people did,” she says.
She was right. The routine was an instant hit with the audience, garnering praise in the next edition of Juggle Magazine. The following year, Sky brought another group of her students from the Harbor School to perform at the IJA convention.
It’s typical at an IJA convention to be able to count the number of Black jugglers on one hand compared to the hundreds of White jugglers, and it has changed little since Sky started.
“There’s a much bigger Asian presence [today] than there was in my first fest and many more women,” says Sky. “A lot of women who were at my first fest were often not so much active jugglers, as they were the wives and family members who were there to watch the kids. But it’s changed dramatically. Women definitely have become highly active participants in this fight. And there are some women who are incredibly skilled now as well. They’re not just casual observers. When you have women like Delaney Bales, I mean, she’s no joke.”
While applauding the increased presence of women and international jugglers, Sky expresses disappointment in the lack of progress with the number of African American jugglers when looking back at her very first convention in 1994.
“We’ve got some pretty serious players in there now [such as] Erin Stephens, Taylor [Glenn], so there are some very impressive women involved at this point. Yet the number of Black people has not grown a whole lot since then. Of course, [there’s] Shivella [Schwab], who a lot of people thought was me for a while. People that didn’t know, they just saw she was a Black female juggler,” says Sky.
I can also relate to what it’s like being one of the few Black jugglers at a convention. People make assumptions about us being foreign or that we’re related. So many people have assumed that Sky King is my mother when they see us together. It has happened so much over the past 20 years that we simply stopped correcting people out of sheer exhaustion. Sky has always linked that to the lack of diversity and believes that we need to have conversations about race in the juggling community, stating that the IJA has to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive.
When speaking of two consecutive summers that she chaperoned her students from Harlem at the IJA convention, she emphasizes the difficulty of the task but also the important need for both the students and the IJA.
“I had to get permission from the parents. I had to drive them there. I had to be the chaperone while I was there, I had to share my room with a bunch of kids. It wasn’t ideal, but I thought it would be great exposure for them,” says Sky. “This was an experience that none of them ever forgot, and the hope was that me doing that would encourage other people to do the same and that the numbers might grow, but that isn’t quite what happened.”
In 2020, the video of the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police set off a spark around the globe that forced many people and organizations to reevaluate what they know about race and what changes they’ll make in the fight against systemic racism. The IJA made a public statement on Instagram. However, Sky, who sees the IJA as a well-meaning organization, still felt their track record of not addressing race directly required them to do more.
“The only time it comes up is if [Paris] bring[s] it up, or I bring it up. It doesn’t seem to be naturally part of the mindset, and I don’t believe it’s malicious intent necessarily. I think it just kind of hasn’t occurred to them,” says Sky.
That led Sky to partner with the IJA and have a panel discussion titled Race In Juggling as an official segment of the 2020 convention with panelists that she selected, which included Shivella Schwab, Sam Malcolm, Jacob Alex Dyer, and me.
“I think it was an important step because it did help to open the idea up to [more people than I realized],” says Sky. “There were people that came to me after the fact and commented that they learned from it.”
In addition to the potential seen during the 2020 IJA convention, the first online-only convention in the IJA’s history, she also was very impressed with the significance of Zaila Avant-Garde, a Black 13-year old (now 14-year old) sensation whose basketball juggling routine won her 2nd place in the Juniors competition that year.
“I’m very eager to meet her at some point. That kid is a phenom. And the fact is that she wouldn’t be the only one. We can open the doors, and open exposure to more people,” says Sky.
Of course, she can’t help but think what if we had addressed race in juggling earlier.
“When we were at Harbor and we ran that program, there were a whole lot of people that learned to juggle, and of course the IJA didn’t know that any of them existed or do exist and that’s too bad because when given the opportunity, we will get involved. I mean it doesn’t take a lot to encourage us to do so. So I obviously would like to see more of that. I’m tired of being a party of one or three. Seems to always be three,” she says, laughing. “It would be a great thing if there was a convention and there was a significant percentage of Black folks involved.”
Sky believes the conversations about race as it pertains to juggling need to continue.
“There is a need only because without it, we’ll never get the diversification that we should see. There are a great many Black people now and people of color in general who are getting involved in the world of circus arts,” she explains. “There are Black aerialists, Black tumblers, and Black ringmasters, and all the roles that typically have been previously done by White people, we’re now seeing a lot more faces of people of color which is great. Juggling is just one more wall that has to be knocked down.”