Odd Origins of Genres of Juggling

There are several types of juggling that were discovered by accident or have an origin that is particularly strange. Let’s look at four examples of juggling genres with such beginnings.

Mouth Juggling

Juggling table tennis balls with the mouth is a fairly well-known form of juggling. This skill of mouth juggling has actually been invented twice. The skill was originally done by the Balladinis, who were the German brothers, Willi and Fritz. In 1939, as prisoners of war, they learned to juggle small peeled potatoes with their mouths. Willi learned this first and then taught his brother. They eventually switched to using cork balls. After the war, they toured throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and made several important television appearances including The Ed Sullivan Show. In addition to their famed mouth juggling, they were also known for passing medium sized balls with one brother using his hands while the other brother used either a mouth stick or his feet.

Willi Balladini

The Balladinis

Around twenty years later, El Gran Picaso, (Francisco Tebar Saez, born in 1938) independently learned mouth juggling with grapes while working as an orange picker in Spain. This discovery eventually led him to became world-famous for juggling up to five table tennis balls with his mouth

El Gran Picaso

 

It’s interesting that peeled potatoes and grapes would lead to a form of juggling performed all around the world.

Hoop Rolling

Hoop rolling as a juggling art was invented by William Everhart of Columbus, Ohio (USA). Everhart, who was born in 1868, learned to juggle as a young child and was inspired to work with hoops after seeing someone accidentally step on a hoop of a broken barrel, which instantly jumped up and rolled away. From that witnessed accident, Everhart created an entire genre of juggling that is popular around the world.

William Everhart

William Everhart

William Everhart

Cigar Boxes

Cigar box juggling is believed to have its origins in Japanese wooden block tricks. Japanese juggler Gintaro Mizuhara (1875-1952) performed with such tricks and shared the following information about them, including their unusual origin.

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Some of our most effective feats are very old, and a kind of tradition attaches to each of them. Take, for instance, the familiar balancing feat performed with blocks of wood (Fig. 1). I build up a pile of these blocks ten or eleven feet high, and place a glass of water on the top. Then I push the bottom block very gently on one side with my fan, but before the whole pile can fall I slip my fan under the bottom block and balance the pile on my fan. Then I throw up the pile of blocks and catch the glass without spilling a drop of the water. (Click here to see Gintaro perform this trick.)

GintaroFig1

This is only one of very many feats performed with these ordinary blocks of wood. I am able to perform with these blocks for two hours; as a rule, the feats I present to English audiences last for five minutes.

These feats are based on those devised by a Japanese prisoner in the 17th century. In those days the Japanese wore their hair long, and, to protect it during the hours of sleep, very high pillows were used. Even the occupants of the jails had to be provided with pillows; plain wooden blocks, similar to those used today by Japanese jugglers, served the purpose. The particular prisoner to whom jugglers will always be grateful probably suffered from insomnia; at any rate, he amused himself by throwing up the blocks in his cell and catching them. Then he devised various simple little balancing feats with the blocks, and the exercise he obtained in this way improved his physique. His appearance became too good. The authorities could not understand how a man living on a little food could contrive to put on flesh. The juggling prisoner was watched, and, being caught in the act, was taken to the governor of the prison.  The prisoner was commanded to perform; tradition does not say what were the actual feats he presented, but they impressed the governor, who had the man taken to the civil authorities of the town. In the end the prisoner was released, because he was appointed Court Entertainer to the governor of the State.

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So, juggling with blocks, and in turn, cigar boxes, comes from prisoners’ pillows. Who would have guessed?

Diabolo

The final origin story is quite odd. According to the diabolo museum in Beijing, China, diabolo was accidentally invented when someone was carrying a Chinese drinking gourd with a string attached to carry it around the shoulder. These gourds were hollowed out and dried and used to carry water like a canteen. Supposedly, such a gourd once became unwrapped from it’s string and started spinning as it traveled down the string. This inspired a witness to try to repeat the incident and the basic idea of spinning a diabolo was born. As you can see in following photos, the shape of these gourds is quite diabolo-like.

Such gourd diabolos can be found in the diabolo museum in Beijing and tours of the museum share the gourd origin story. I hope to do more research on this story, but it sounds quite plausible.

If you know of other types of juggling with odd origins, we’d love to hear about them.

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 twenty-four books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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