The Sole of Juggling

Below is an article that first appeared in JUGGLE magazine.


The Sole of Juggling

There has been some discussion about whether juggling is a sport or not. One possible way to find out is to answer this question: "When you juggle, do you wear special shoes?" If the answer is "Yes," then juggling may well be on its way to becoming a recognized sport. At least according to Nike, Adidas, and the global marketplace.


Sergei Ignatov says that juggling begins with the feet. He may be understating the case. It could be argued that almost any physical activity is dependent on the feet, or at least on having the proper footwear. Imagine beginning a new sport. What is one of the first items you will need? New shoes. Scuba divers wear swim fins. Baseball players put on cleats. Bowlers rent fungus colonies from the fifties. Hockey players lace up ice skates. Wrestlers don activity-specific shoes, as do tennis players and golfers. More? Mountaineers first climb into hiking boots. Rock climbers have RRs or some other brand. Bicyclists clip themselves onto their pedals with special shoes. Skiers attach the latest space age technology to their feet before falling down the slope. Running shoes are different from walking shoes. Even clowns have their own special, inflatable footwear.


When first starting out as a juggler, I quickly realized that in order to balance a devil stick on the top my toes I needed a shoe with a very thin upper layer of cloth so I could better feel the object. Chinese martial arts slippers work well for me. These became my juggling shoe of choice. People at the circus school in France, where I used to work, commented that they could hear the distinctive "slap slap" of my shoes as I walked down the hallway on the way to class.


Specialization can become extreme to the point where one shoe in a pair is modified for a specific role. Didier AndrČ was one of the performers at the second IJA Showcase of European Talent that was held at the Pittsburgh festival a couple of years ago. Just before the show, Didier pulled me aside and pointed out his shoes. He had hand-sewn a skin of rubber to the top of his right shoe. Didier uses the extra traction for all the kick-up moves he performs with his right foot.


It is rumored that Francis Brunn was approached by some jugglers after a show. Along with many questions, these aspiring stars surreptitiously tried to get the toe and heel measurements of Brunn's shoes. Apparently the thinking was that one needed to replicate these dimensions in order to be a world class juggler.


Speaking of world class jugglers, Mark Nizer, former IJA Nationals Champion, has strong feelings about footwear. Mark prefers the split-sole design of wrestling shoes when amazing audiences. The break in the sole between the ball and heel allows Mark to point his toes when needed for spinning and balance tricks. The flex in his shoes also makes it easier for him to do kick-ups.


Mark cautions budding professionals to always practice while wearing the same style of shoe as one's performance shoes. This helps to minimize the differences between training and juggling in front of an audience. His thought is that venues are different enough for a traveling juggler; don't add to the problems by switching shoes. Mark has also found an occasional good use for Coca-Cola when on the road. If the floor is particularly slippery, he spills some Coke on it to sticky things up. Mr. Nizer is also willing to dab the cola to the soles of his wrestling shoes for extra traction, if needed.


Jugglers with size 9 1/2 feet may be in for a treat. On rare occasions, when his luggage has been lost, Mr. Nizer has had to go out in the audience before the show and borrow a pair of sneakers from someone. Not only does the lucky volunteer receive free admission, she or he gets the shoes back thoroughly sprayed with Lysol disinfectant, both before and after Mark wears them.


Tony Duncan, another former IJA Nationals Champion, performs tricks with his feet that are so precise he used to have to change shoes during his show. Different shoes worked well for different tricks. While traveling, Tony spent years searching out ideal footwear that would suit his needs for the entire show. He finally found a shop in his own neighborhood with shoes that met his needs. Concerned by the "Going out of business!" banner in the shop window, he bought every pair that the store had. It was only later that Tony realized, most stores in Brooklyn are constantly announcing their intentions to go out of business.


Got the shoes. Where do I put them?


Regardless of the footwear, how the feet are placed can influence how one juggles. For most solo juggling, the feet should be parallel to one another, about shoulder width apart, with the weight distributed evenly. This stance not only helps the juggler throw in the wall plane, the plane that is perpendicular to one's line of sight, it looks comfortable and relaxed to the audience.


Standing with one foot pointed out tends to rotate the hips, torso, and shoulders. This skewed posture forces throws that are not in the wall plane. To compensate for being in front of the left, the right hand must throw to a point behind the wall plane. The left hand needs to throw across and forward. This makes for a juggling wall plane that is not perpendicular to one's line of sight, but at an angle. A juggler who notices one hand constantly reaching out to make the catch may want to glance down at his or her feet to see if the problem originates there.


Several years ago, while teaching at the circus school in Rosny-sous-Bois, I received a letter from Phillip, a German juggler who was concerned that his five-ball pattern had deteriorated. He wanted to know if I could offer any advice. Discussing the letter with one of the advanced students, we theorized that there was something wrong with how Phillip was standing.


I had a chance to travel to Germany a few weeks later and stopped in for a visit. True enough, Phillip had recently changed his stance. After years of juggling with one foot in front of the other, he decided to stand with both feet even. It wasn't until he changed the placement of his feet that he realized he had unknowingly adapted to standing with one foot in front of the other. Phillip had been correcting the rotation of his hips by twisting his torso back in the other direction so his shoulders were aligned to the wall plane. When he began placing his feet evenly, his hips were no longer twisted. However, he had gotten used to this twist and automatically turned his shoulders back. With the new stance, his shoulders were turning for no need, out of alignment, causing his five-ball pattern to suffer. Realizing this, he began standing straight (from the feet, hips, and shoulders). After an initial lapse to get used to the new stance, his five ball pattern became even stronger than before.


One Foot in Front of the Other

When passing clubs in traditional two and four count right-handed passing patterns, the feet should run parallel to one another with the right foot slightly behind the left. Standing with one foot in front of the other places the passer in a better position to lunge after those occasional wild throws she or he must salvage. Bringing the right leg back, rather than the left, creates more space for the lowered club in the right hand before it is passed. Plus, standing with the legs apart when passing clubs looks better to the audience.


Will juggling props and clothing accessories soon be sporting a swoosh? Probably not in the immediate future. It would, however, mean a great leg up for the growth of juggling.



copyright 2002 by Todd Strong


Copyright © Todd Strong

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