Plate spinning and bowl spinning have long been associated with juggling. There are multiple forms of plate spinning that can be done by jugglers. Some are very basic and can be learned in a matter of minutes. Others are quite advanced. Let’s examine the history and the varied forms of this ancient skill.
In China, acrobatic performances date back at least 2000 years to the Western Han Dynasty. It was during this time that the “Show Of One Hundred Skills,” also known as the 100 Games, came into being. These performances eventually included acrobatics, acting, dragon dances, music, and circus skills, including plate spinning. We do know that by the third century A.D., these performances included plate spinning, which was called the “dance of the seven plates.”
Plate spinning in the West also has a long history. We have multiple examples of plate spinning appearing in illustrations in books in the early 1300s. Three examples of these medieval plate spinners can be seen below.
Obviously plate spinning had to have been already established for some time and be popular enough to be included in various books of this time period. Note from the top photo that the tossing and catching of plates on sticks that we’ll discuss later as “dynamic plate spinning” is at least 700 years old.
When “modern juggling” appeared as a separate art form in the West, plate spinning was a significant part of the juggler’s repertoire and has remained so ever since. The first books that provide juggling instruction included complex tricks involving plate spinning. Below are pictures from Ellis Stanyon’s New Juggling Tricks (1901) and William J. Hiiliar’s Modern Magician’s Hand Book (1902) showing some of these early instructional diagrams.
Plate Spinning from Stanyon’s New Juggling Tricks
From Stanton’s New Juggling Tricks
From Hilliar’s Modern Magician’s Hand Book
From Hilliar’s Modern Magician’s Hand Book
Forms Of Plate Spinning
Chinese Acrobatic Plate Spinning
Perhaps the most famous form of plate spinning is Chinese Acrobatic Plate Spinning. This form is usually performed by a troupe of women who are each spinning multiple plates on their rims on sticks with each hand while doing various acrobatic tricks. Watch the following video from 1959 to see a traditional such act featuring just two women.
Now watch the following video showing a modern version. Besides the size of the group and the tricks performed, there is one big difference, which will be discussed below.
The big difference that isn’t clear to see is that the second act, like almost every modern Chinese acrobatic plate spinning act, uses plates that have a ball bearing system into which the stick fits. In other words, it’s impossible to drop the plates! The first time I saw this up close I was floored. Here is a look at the underside of these gimmicked plates.
This explains why these acts always begin with either the plate spinners entering from offstage and exiting the stage at the end or with the curtain opening and closing with the performers still spinning the plates. The only way to get the plates off of the sticks during a performance is to turn the stick almost completely upside down. You can see the gimmicked nature of these plates by watching the very end of the following video, as the performer in the middle sets down her plates, showing them still attached the the sticks.
I have only seen two examples of modern plate spinners who spin multiple plates on multiple sticks with the same hand who don’t use gimmicked plates. One of these is the incredible juggler Angel Bojilov Jr. Check out his use of ungimmicked plates in the following video.
Rack / Table Plate Spinning
This form of plate spinning is also well known to much of the general public. It consists of a performer spinning a number of plates or bowls on sticks that are attached to a table or mounted in a rack. Famous performers of the past who presented of this type of plate spinning include Erich Brenn and Kumar Pallana. Watch Erich Brenn perform his famous act on the Ed Sullivan Show below.
Quite a number of modern jugglers present a very similar act today. These include Albert Lucas, Henrik Bothe, Bob Cates, John Park, Robert Baxt, David Burlet, Keith Nelson, Jon Anton, Daniel Gorski, and Ian Marchant. Such acts usually use real, breakable plates which are spun on the inside of the bottom rim or in an off center divot, so that as the plate slows its spin, it will start to wobble, causing the performer to run to it and add spin. There are three common methods used to start the plates or bowls spinning on the sticks. Brenn used an unattached stick to get the bowls spinning before transferring them to the stationary sticks. Some jugglers start the plates on the stationary sticks in the first place, while others start the plates on the sticks before then placing those same sticks in the rack or table. An example of this type of starting method can be seen by clicking here. Rack or table plate spinners will often label the sticks so the audience can yell out the numbers of the plates that are about to fall. They will also often add in other tricks during the process of getting the plates going, as Erich Brenn did in the video above.
Speaking of those extra tricks that Brenn performed, you may have noticed him spinning upside down plates on the table between the sticks. This type of plate spinning is known as plate waltzing. Plate waltzing goes back to at least the mid-1800s. It may have been invented by famous magician and ventriloquist Signor Blitz (1810-1877). He was famous enough for performing plate waltzing that an actual waltz was written to celebrate his skill. Sheet music for it can be seen below.
Another famous plate waltzing performer was magician John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917). He had so much control with his waltzing plates that he could somehow get them to go up and down spiral ramps, as can be seen in the illustration and photo below.
Here is a very brief video of Maskelyne doing plate waltzing.
Here is a video of Kumar Pallana doing plate waltzing.
Mouth Stick Plate Spinning
Another category of plate spinning is mouth stick plate spinning. As the name implies, this is plate spinning done using a mouth stick. This can be very simple or fairly complex. A simple example can be seen by clicking here, where I spin a dented plate (see below) on a mouth stick as part of a combination trick. Click here to see me perform a more complex trick, spinning a plate on a wooden spoon that is balanced on a spoon held in my mouth. You can see Helena Rosi perform two more complex (and gimmicked) mouth stick plate spinning tricks by clicking here and here. Note that the first one is the same as pictured in some of the illustrations near the beginning of this article.
Dynamic Plate Spinning
Dynamic Plate Spinning is the name I’ve given to plate spinning that involves spinning a plate (almost always a plastic or metal plate that has a conical indentation in the middle so that can be spun inside the rim or in the center dent) in such a way that the plate can be tossed and manipulated in a variety of ways. Some of these tricks can be very simple, as you can see in the following video of Ethan Cain doing some tricks at the age of one and a half.
Dynamic plate spinning has come a long way in recent years. Jugglers are no longer satisfied with simply holding the stick and maybe tossing the plate up a few times or just balancing the stick. In 2008, I made a video showing some new ideas and tricks using just a simple plastic spinning plate and a stick. Some new tricks in the video, which you can see below, included bouncing the plate off of the horizontally held stick before catching it on the other end of the stick as well as tossing up the plate, tossing up the stick, briefly catching the still spinning plate on a finger from the throwing hand, tossing the plate back up, catching the stick, and finally catching the plate back on the stick.
Another more recent dynamic plate spinning trend is to toss juggle plates on sticks. You can see me juggle two plates on one stick by clicking here. You can see Tanaka Tengo perform many great dynamic plate spinning tricks, including toss juggling three plates, in the video below.
While the trend of toss juggling spinning plates of sticks is new, it was actually done at least as far back as 1965 by Soviet juggler Nikolai Stolayrov, who cascaded glass bowls rather than plates. Click here to see him perform this trick.
An interesting plate spinner from the 1970s was Wiki, who did some dynamic plate spinning and balance tricks. Watch his act below.
Here’s a video of Benjamin Domask performing a comedic dynamic plate spinning act at the 2015 Groundhog Day Jugglers Festival. It contains several nice original tricks (and one that I invented!).
A Brief History Of The Conically Indented Spinning Plate
Metal spinning plates with a center indentation have been around for at least 115 years. Edward Van Wyck included the following picture and advertisement in his catalog around 1900 for nickel plated spinning plates.
The spinning plate below was made in Japan and sold in the United States as a toy in the 1930s.
The brass spinning plate below was used by Johnny Lux in his juggling performances in the 1950s.
Below is another vintage metal spinning plate of unknown date and origin. This is the bottom of the plate.
In the late 1950s, the Whirley Whirler plastic spinning plate came onto the market in the USA as a toy. It was the first plastic spinning plate available and sold for 98 cents. It was made by The Whirley Corporation of St. Louis, MO (USA). Two million of them were sold in 1958. A plethora of copycat plates were immediately made by other companies. The modern plastic spinning plate is almost indistinguishable from the Whirley Whirler, which is pictured below.
Whirley Whirler spinning plate from 1958
As you can see, plate spinning can be performed in a wide variety of ways. Many jugglers only think of plate spinning as something to do with young children, but when done well, it can be very entertaining to audiences and can even impress seasoned jugglers. I encourage readers to give plate spinning a shot and see what you can come up with.
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 three books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).