Internationally known as an innovator in the theory and practice of inclusive juggling, Craig Quat grew up attending a social circus after-school program. When, as a teenager, he started volunteering in the same program, teaching juggling and chess, “I fell in love with the rush of teaching,” he says. But it wasn’t until 2009 or 2010 (he can’t quite remember) that he was able to focus his calling. He saw a video on YouTube called Spark, in which master juggler Michael Karas juggles using an array of props and devices like a set of PVC pipes rotating around a fixed frame, and, says Quat, “it changed my life.”
Starting with his own version of Karas’s “pipes,” repurposed for educational use rather than performance, Quat is now a master of adaptive, or functional juggling, using creatively designed frames and other props to make juggling accessible to anyone willing to give it a go. He firmly rejects the notion that juggling is a skill reserved for an exclusive set of performers. “Society has told you that it’s this elite activity only available to people with talent,” he says, “so when you’re teaching people tell you all this stuff, like ‘I’m not coordinated, I can’t juggle.’” It makes you realize, he says, that people are hard-wired not to believe in themselves.
Rather than an activity defined by the tossing objects into the air, Quat would prefer the world see juggling as, in his words, “a managed anti-entropic sequence of orbital events harmonized by space and time.”
He talks like this a lot. Reached by Skype at his temporary home in Budapest, where he’s regrouping after eighteen months on the road with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and as a consultant with Cirque du Soleil, he is passionate about the potential of juggling to transform not just the confidence level of its practitioners but their very consciousness itself.
Juggling is fractal geometry, he says; it distorts and compresses time. “It’s a reflection of the same mathematics all around you just like music and dance are all around us,” he says. “It’s part of the same fabric, the same material. Through certain types of activities we can stimulate ourselves to access these experiences in which you’re processing multiple moments in time simultaneously.”
“Like, literally it blows the mind,” he adds. When you’re juggling, your mind is not a normal mind — “it’s a euphoric mind. Like playing music. All regions of the brain are growing so rapidly. Whereas traditional sports or academics will just develop one area of the brain.”
Quat was first exposed to the possibilities of adaptive juggling technology as a teenager, when he was teaching social circus camps for terminally ill children. In that setting, he says, “failure was less of an option.” The kids he was working with weren’t going to get a second chance to master the skill. Instead, he started to look beyond the physical experience of juggling to its emotional effects.
“Teaching people to juggle reminds them to play,” he says. It encourages them to take risks and to tap into a nonlinear, nonjudgmental state of mind. His lessons, for example, are all nonverbal: Using a prop like a Juggle Board he’ll set a tempo with his partner and then use a tactile mirroring technique to create a pattern. “If I want you to use my force, I’ll use more force; if I want them to slow down, I slow down. And people mirror that.”
Juggling has been shown to have positive impacts on brain plasticity and mental health, and Quat’s work has broad clinical possibilities, applicable to people with a wide range of physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges, from blindness to autism. Recently, he gave a presentation for a group of neuroscientists interested in monitoring rhythm and tempo as part of their research into cognitive disorders like dyslexia and ADD. Adaptive juggling has also been used in eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a growing treatment for people with PTSD. Like running or drumming (other activities used in creative EMDR), juggling alternates left- and right-brain activation, creating a background rhythm that makes it easier for patients to access traumatic memories without triggering anxiety. “It’s a flow state,” says Quat. “It’s mindfulness.”
His work is not without its detractors, he says — mostly old-school circus folk who, he speculates, might feel threatened by the egalitarian philosophy he espouses, and medical professionals skeptical of his clinical expertise (he has no formal medical training). Still, he takes it in stride: “I think my casualness about what I am doing threatens their authority, which I totally understand.” He’s just trying to share knowledge, he says — and his business practices back that up. His doesn’t sell Juggle Boards himself; he designed them for a flat fee and they’re sold by PlayJuggling.com. And his website includes open source instructions for building your own juggle board out of inexpensive materials like PVC pipe.
Currently, Quat is taking six months (or more, he’s not sure) away from teaching and performing to work on new, larger scale props that will allow him to explore “immersive juggling.” The first, which he’s dubbed the “Abacus,” is a horizontal plane with bells on one end. Eventually, he says, he’d like to make one that can be “played” in three dimensions — “an immersive mechanical structure that can be manipulated, creating patterns that are manifestations of the mathematical ideas behind it.” Eventually, he says, he’d like to complete the circle begun when he appropriated Karas’s pipes, and develop his work for performance. But for now, he’s training apprentices to teach his curriculum around the world and just going with the flow.
Feature photo from Juggling for the Masses workshop in Prague. Photo courtesy of David Konečný