The Language of Juggling

hermannismAs noted by celebrated juggling essayist Jonathan Hermann, there is a link between juggling and jazz, both of which use various techniques to communicate to the audience. A key part of jazz musiciany, as it is technically called, is developing a language of licks and phrases that speak to those enraptured ear holes sitting round the round tables, drinking gin and genuinely enjoy the jive.

Juggling, like its jazzy brethren, uses language to communicate ideas and emotions to the audience. This language consists of the same elements as spoken language, except it’s more visual and twice as awesome. Not to suggest that verbal linguistics cannot be awesome when wielded by the right professional (such as myself and Shakespeare, just to name the only two). But the language of juggling deserves proper props.

In the language of juggling, each beat is a syllable, each throw a word. When mixed together in the proper order, sentences are formed, forming paragraphs that paraphrase laughter, anticipation, tomfoolery, struggle, heartache, conflict, rising up and crashing down. This fluid form of poetry resonates in the eyes of the audience as Keats’ words do in their ears.

Juggling is a language developed over years, decades. We learn it the same way babies learn to speak. At first, the baby listens, unable to mimic the sounds her parents say. Slowly the child throws out a few noises, a coo and an ah, doing her best to imitate the vocal parade she hears everyday. Soon, this imitation turns into true words, and true words turn into full sentences. Only then can the child begin to express herself and the ideas bubbling within her brain.

Eventually she learns the rules of grammar, along with different figures of speech, to make her sentences deftly dance with complex ideas. And finally, after many years of learning and use, she can banter with the best of them, sharing her thoughts with boys who pretend to listen but only want to discover the color of her underpants.

Enter the young juggler. At first he watches, amazed, unable to mimic the throws of the clown he saw on TV or the performer at the circus. Slowly the child throws a few objects into the air—tennis balls or wadded up pieces of paper—doing his best to imitate the tricks he now watches everyday on YouTube.

Soon this imitation turns into true throws and catches, and true throws and catches turn into full patterns. Only then can the young juggler begin to express himself and the creativity bubbling within his hands. Slowly he learns the rules of siteswaps—along with different props, even the basics of contact juggling—to make his patterns more complex. And finally, after years of learning and practicing, he can toss with the best of them, passing clubs with talented girls who secretly wonder if he’s wearing any underpants.

The limits of language never restrain the The Juggler, as they failed to confine the creativity of Nabokov, Whitman or Poe. The Juggler takes hold of the phonetically-nimble fragments he learns from others and creates a personal way to express himself. He develops his own style and dialect that translates easily on any stage.

And yet, even though The Juggler speaks for himself, he still uses cliches, simple tricks that every juggler throws into the conversation without thinking. A common ball-tosser (as uncommon as we are) cannot help but relax for nine beats without a simple game of tennis or a thoughtless cascade to collect our thoughts.

The Juggler uses these many linguistic similarities to chat with the audience. First he thinks about what he wants the routine to say—it could be an adventure, something dramatic or simple entertainment—and he tells that story in a way that is concise, that is creative, that is never verbose or overburdened with grammatical mistakes.

He starts off with some playful chit-chat, perhaps a four-ball box that unboxes itself, before unleashing a soliloquy filled with his personal groove and unique style. He builds the action with a show-stopping skit-skat tour de force of verbiage and throws, preaching to the masses with gravitational poetry. And then he concludes with a denouement that completes the story and leaves the audience satiated and sweaty.

That is the language we speak to anyone with eyes to listen.

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Jonathan Hermann juggles words, balls and small children in Alexandria, Virginia.

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