Japanese Juggling With A Ball And Two Sticks

The title of this article is probably a bit misleading. While the form of juggling discussed certainly did originate in Japan and is still practiced there, it was picked up well over a hundred years ago by Western performers and was extremely popular at the early part of the twentieth century. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A December 1914 edition of The Strand magazine from the UK featured a wonderful article written by famous Japanese juggler Gintaro Mizuhara (1875-1952) about the origins of different forms of Japanese juggling. This is what Gintaro had to say regarding the topic of juggling with a ball and two sticks.

“The oldest juggling feats in the world are those known by the title” Ball and Stick.” Some performers will use two balls and all of them will use two sticks, but “ball and stick” is the English name for this group of tricks.

The stick is a drumstick, for the feat was originated by a drummer who played outside a Japanese temple. Thinking to engage the attention of passers by (for the drummers are in a sense officials of the temple), this drummer made a number of flourishes with his stick, similar to those used to this day bv drummers in the British Army. Then the drummer learned how to throw up his stick and catch it again in a variety of ways. Afterwards he did the same thing with two sticks. One day he saw some children playing with a ball several simple games very much like those played by English children to this day. The drummer conceived the idea of doing something with a ball and his two sticks, and so the foundation for a long series of juggling feats was laid.”

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To see video of Gintaro performing, please click here.

Traditional Japanese juggling, known as daikagura, has been around for approximately 400 years. In daikagura, the sticks are called bachi and the ball made of string is called hitotsumari or itomari. The routine combining these props is known as Hitotsumari-no-kyoku. There are 48 tricks in the standard routine, which typically takes five years of daily practice to master. Click here to see Michiyo Kagami perform a traditional Hitotsumari-no-kyoku act. As can be seen in the photo of Gintaro and from Michiyo Kagami’s video, the trick of balancing the ball on one stick on the chin and transferring the ball to the other stick balanced on the forehead is the most famous trick of the Japanese version of a ball and two sticks. Sometimes this particular trick was performed as a stand alone trick with a teapot used instead of the traditional ball of string. Below is a picture of well known Japanese juggler Senmaru doing the teapot version.

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This form of juggling remained a purely Japanese pursuit until the late 1800s. In 1870, Katsnoshin Awata, the court juggler of the Emporer of Japan, came to the West and amazed audiences with his demonstrations of Japanese juggling, including his work with a ball and two sticks. Awata so impressed the jugglers of the time that many copied him, learning what was soon referred to as the “Awata Games.” Sylvester Schaeffer Sr. and other Western jugglers of the time began to learn some of Awata’s tricks and routines, with a ball and two sticks being one of the most popular. Below are several pictures and posters of Awata.

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While other Japanese daikagura artists, such as Takashima and Ja-En-See, had visited England prior to Awata, they didn’t cause the stir that Awata did. It should be noted, however, that Enrico Rastelli was later inspired by Takashima to learn ball and mouth stick work and to use bachi-style sticks for toss juggling. Below are some images of Takashima followed by some close ups of Rastelli’s bachi sticks.

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RastelliSticksViennaEnrico Rastelli’s sticks

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Rastelli’s choice to use Japanese bachi-style sticks for toss juggling influenced many others, such as Rudy Cardenas, seen below.

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A Rudy Cardenas Stick from David Cain’s Juggling Museum

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Back to the topic at hand, Awata’s influence was soon seen among Western jugglers, particularly in their adoption of routines using a ball and two sticks. Many jugglers, including Sylvester Schaeffer Jr., Jenny Jaeger, Selma Braatz, and Serge Flash, included ball and sticks routines in their acts. It’s likely that even the great Cinquevalli learned or copied one of Awata’s tricks to do the feat pictured below, although Cinquevalli did it with a cannon ball. Awata and Cinquevalli performed at the same time and met each other at least once.

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Below is a picture of Selma Bratz using a ball and sticks, with the addition of a mouth stick as well.

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Click here to see Serge Flash doing some great early twentieth century Western style juggling with a ball and two sticks as well as toss juggling using the bachi-style sticks.

Here is a picture of Sylvester Schaeffer Jr. with his ball and sticks.

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Below are some pictures of Jenny Jaeger doing this routine or showing her props.

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As you can see from the Jenny Jaeger photos, the ‘sticks” that she used were shorter and were much more flared at the ends. This trend quickly became the standard for many Western jugglers performing this routine. Rupert Ingalese’s 1921 book, “Juggling”, featured props for sale, including “Ball and Two Sticks”, as can be seen below.

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Below is a picture that shows Ingalese’s personal performance version of these props.

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It was also around this time that the Western style of using these props started to integrate more cigar box-style moves. This has been true of Western jugglers’ use of these props ever since. During the middle part of the twentieth century, fewer jugglers include ball and sticks in their acts, but it didn’t completely disappear. This is evidenced by an article from the 1950 Jugglers’ Bulletin Annual that was written by Roy Henderson. In the short article, Henderson describes seeing a juggler performing the routine and them making his own set of props and learning the skill. He included written directions for making these “juggling spools,” as he called them, and provided the illustrations shown below. (Permission to reprint given by Roger Montandon.)

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During most of the second half of the twentieth century, the routine died out almost completely among Western performers while Japanese daikagura jugglers continued to perform the traditional routines with the props. One exception was well known cruise ship juggler Barnaby, who recently passed away. Starting in the early 1980s, Barnaby used traditional bachi style sticks and a soccer ball to perform a variety of tricks. Below is a picture of Barnaby using these props.

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Here is a close up of Barnaby’s bachi sticks, which are now in David Cain’s juggling museum.

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In the 1990s, British juggler Guy Heathcote started experimenting with the routine using wooden sticks. Click here to see an early performance of the routine by Guy. Later, he developed an aluminum version that has been sold in select juggling stores ever since. You can see this beautiful prop below.

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Speaking of beautiful versions of this prop, Paul Seward (Little Paul) uses a wonderful wooden set.

PaulSewardBallSticksLittle Paul’s set

While such props look great, they can be expensive to buy or make. However, there is a much cheaper and easier way to get started learning to use a ball and two sticks that will cost very little. Click here to see Little Paul make and use his sticks with nothing more than four cheap plastic cups and some electrical tape. David Cain made a similar set using eight cups and electrical tape. The use of four extra cups stems from sticking an additional cup in each end and taping it on to add additional weight and a tiny bit of extra length. You can watch David Cain experimenting with these props in the video below.

One of the best known Western performers currently using a ball and two sticks is Arron Sparks. Click here to see Arron performing his version of the routine on the Le Plus Grand Cabaret Du Monde television show.

Another well known Western performer that worked with a ball and two sticks is legendary Argentinian juggler Victor Ponce. Click here to see him use these props in a video from 1980.

Many of the moves with the modern style sticks are very easy. This is especially true for the cigar box style tricks, which are considerably easier with the ball and “sticks” than they are with cigar boxes. Click here to see 10 year old Isabel Cain doing a routine with the props to get an idea of the ease of learning them. There are many, many ideas yet to be discovered with this very old art form. For two or three dollars or euros, you can make the props and start learning it yourself.

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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