In Thom Wall’s new book Juggling–What It Is And How To Do It –a not so brief introduction to the world’s most underrated pastime, it is possible to get serious about your juggling practice at last, or if you’re a newbie, to delve in without hesitation or the need to hire an expensive private coach. And it’s not a bad idea to start a new hobby you can work on solo during pandemic times either.
As for underrated pastimes, I have dabbled with many of them over the years; knitting, archery, Dungeons & Dragons, bullet journaling, stamp collecting– I even tried candle-making during an especially productive phase. But juggling–to me, it is the gold standard of pastimes. It is the hobby that keeps on giving, and yet the public knows so little about its merits and complexities. Without the proper tour of the discipline that Wall provides, it would be easy to miss the point that juggling has a lot to offer. It’s portable, affordable, you can learn at your own pace, it involves math and science, it’s accessible to everyone regardless of age, athleticism or body size, it strengthens neurons and reflexes, it can lead to a flow state, it can be done alone or with friends, and it will be a great form of entertainment in the dark times when the power goes out. The unplugged hordes already know this.
When I asked Wall why he felt the impetus to write this book, besides his prolific urge to write and research in general, he said, “This book really is ‘the book that I wish I had when I first learned to juggle.’ I learned the basics from Dave Finnigan’s The Complete Juggler, and eventually found a juggling club near my family’s home in St. Louis and never left! I was brought up in the juggling community–that’s where I learned the bulk of my juggling technique. My first times on stage were at juggling festivals.” Wall’s career went on from there, leading him to work with Cirque du Soleil on Totem from 2014 to 2019, to tour 12 countries, and to find his specialty, recreating and enhancing juggling tricks from the past. That lead him to write Juggling From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, which won the Best Nonfiction title at the Indie Book Awards in 2019.
One of the reasons juggling may be under-appreciated is that it is hard to get good at it. It requires a level of grit, coordination and doggedness demanded of Olympic athletes, but with way less payoff in fame and not so many photos of good abs to show on Instagram for it. Fortunately, Wall has made a tome for the prospective juggler that makes juggling and progression in juggling accessible, doable and way less haphazard.
Speaking as a novice juggler, I have endeavored to answer this question in relation to Juggling–What It Is And How To Do It–What does any new juggler want/need in a juggling book?
There is no shortage of reassurance from Wall throughout, starting from picking up your first ball all the way to multiplexes and beyond. He models the healthy sort of pep talk a juggler needs to hear from their coach in the beginning which eventually evolves into the kind of self-talk you need to get past those inevitable plateaus. You may have seen the man himself balance a chalice holding a balloon (which in turn held another balloon inside of it) on the tip of a dagger that he gripped in his own teeth. But that doesn’t mean he is not a mensch willing to walk you through the pitfalls of drills. Wall explains why, “There are lots of jugglers who juggle for fun, but want to have some really nuanced help with technique or help to get a routine together. This book is for them! That’s me back then!” His tone is consistently one of a patient coach reassuring you that you can indeed get to the point of doing a 5551 siteswap with four balls if you just patiently drill all of the steps he set forth for you earlier. He even digs deeper and explains why–unlike your 9th-grade algebra teacher. Wall says, “A few of the advance readers of my book said that it’s “more of a ‘learning’ book than a ‘doing’ book” and I think I agree with that. In my view, the best way to teach–to really drive the point home to learners–is to explain everything in detail. Talk about the reasons *why* something is important or needs focusing on.
2. The Basics
Wall doesn’t just provide the recipe (mechanics, drills, support, multi-modal explanations), he also provides the ingredients list, the notes from experience, and just the right sprinkling of personal anecdotes to get a new juggler through the challenging first phases of learning to juggle, that time period where you are just tossing one or two balls from hand to hand (to focus on your scoop) and trying to believe that it WILL help in the end. His unspoken promise is that if you have the perseverance to break through that initial no trick phase, a whole juggling subculture of challenge and playfulness awaits you.
One of the most valuable but brief chapters in the book is General Training Tips where a newbie can internalize some useful advice, such as “Finish on a high note, with a trick or a sequence you can do reliably,” or when he delineates the meaning between the three distinct forms of practicing juggling: practice (a time to explore and discover new tricks), training (goal-oriented) and rehearsal (working on sequences of tricks and phrases with an audience in mind.)
The book has a natural progression from three ball basics, to three-ball tricks and siteswaps, to multiplexes, moving on to four balls, balancing, and eventually five balls. Besides providing a variety of different instructions for each new skill set (visual diagrams, images and word descriptions) to accommodate the different learning styles of each juggler, Wall also provides explanations of different training methods so that jugglers can find the method or methods that best suit their personality. You can give endurance training, the twenties, or pyramid training a good go to see which helps you progress the most. These are all simple rule-based methods of training to get your drills in and skills up without burning out your interest.
3. A Slice of the Culture/Insider Tips
Sprinkled throughout the lessons on the fundamentals of juggling there are tidbits of history and contemporary juggling culture ranging from Paul Cinquevalli to Gandini. Wall pays homage to his predecessors and passes on the history of juggling as easily as he informs the reader about the lingo. Unlike the classic Juggling For Klutzes style of how-to books on juggling that instruct on a handful of tricks, Wall is laying a juggling foundation based on training, knowledge and access to the culture that will lead to a lifelong engagement with the art form, and that is something you can’t pick up from Youtube tutorials either. And he brings in some juggling friends to help. Benjamin Domask-Ruh, Jay Gilligan and Frtiz Gribe contribute. Gilligan expounds on trick development, Domask-Ruh is the jack of all trades, helping with book logistics, structure and layout (and modeling some moves), and Grobe tackles how to juggle for an audience.
4. Progressions & Higher Concepts
What keeps people hooked on juggling is how there is no end to what you can master and that means eternal challenges. Developing your understanding of juggling means broadening an ever-increasing ring of skills and comprehension of complex concepts, and melding those with creativity. The cool thing is that Wall is excited to walk you through that progression rubric and help you make sense of it so it’s not just trial and error. By focusing on form, mechanics, Siteswaps, trick creation (with some guidance and insight from the afore-mentioned master creator Jay Gilligan), act creation and performance, ethics, resources, and strategies–you get a fuller picture of how to progress as a hobbyist or a professional.
5. Handy Appendixes
Appendixes A through G are essentially lists, deep dives and instructions you would gather as a juggler from your friends over a lifetime of immersion in juggling culture. What books should you read about juggling? What type of juggling equipment should you get? Can you make your own equipment? How many siteswaps are there? These are invaluable resources that can be explored deeply and will have you pulling the book off of the shelf over and over again for years to come.
Juggling–What It Is And How To Do It is a primer of sorts, for every juggler, from the newbie, to the hobbyist or aspiring professional who wants to begin with juggling balls. It would be an excellent circus school/studio resource for students as well as teachers and belongs in every circus library. But not every juggling journey begins and ends with balls. There are hoops, clubs, diabolos, boxes, cups and knives to name a few other options. Wall does not address them, preferring instead to set the principles of juggling balls (and balance) down, stating “The book is definitely more limited in scope when compared to, say, Dave Finnigan’sComplete Juggler. I talk about ball juggling, balance, and theory….With a solid understanding of fundamental techniques, the other props–the clubs and the rings and so on–are much simpler. The ball juggling is to understand properties of the juggling, and the balance is to understand properties of the juggler!” In any case, there is enough material in Juggling–What It Is And How To Do It to keep you busy making juggling gains for a whole pandemic or two. However, it takes!
A Sidebar: How Juggling Achieves Holistic Circus Education By Madeline Hoak I am not a juggler, I am an aerialist, but after reading Juggling - What it is and How to Do It by Thom Wall, I feel like I am able to think like a juggler. As a fellow circus educator, I know that thinking through and with a technique is a huge milestone for a student. Wall achieves this easily through excellent instruction and by giving his student agency to learn at their own pace. He also assumes the student is smart and competent, and encourages them to do what they find fun. I read Juggling lounging on my couch, but I could immediately tell that when I reread it with juggling balls in hand, I am going to be successful. Wall nails what I consider the magic recipe of teaching circus: technical biomechanics contextualized by why the technique works and all presented in multiple learning styles. To achieve any physical endeavor, it’s essential to understand the biomechanics of the skill: what limbs go where, what muscles should engage, how much force to give, etc. Wall’s writing clearly and concisely explains both the broad-strokes and nuances of the biomechanics of juggling technique. Biomechanics make a successful technician, but are only one facet of a good education. If a student comes to a conclusion on their own, they embody it and remember it much better. (This is the educe in education.) In this way, a teacher is a guide rather than an instructor. This is tricky, sometimes impossible, when teaching circus skills -- often we need to instruct right off the bat to keep our students safe -- or when teaching through a book. Yet, embodiment is also achievable if students understand why a technique works. Sometimes in the span of a single sentence, Wall gives his reader clear biomechanical instructions and explains why that technique is important for successful juggling. The instruction is encased in context, a necessary pairing for embodied understanding. Juggling also models what I call holistic learning and consider a keystone of healthy education. Human brains learn different ways, and Wall’s multimodal explanations — verbal, visual and mathematical — get the student’s whole brain working. When we engage in multiple ways with a lesson, we more fully synthesize the presented concepts. Nothing can replace in-person tutelage, but Juggling exemplifies how holistic learning can be successfully translated into a book. After reading Juggling, I literally felt smarter. I gained a deeper appreciation for the art form. Next time I see a juggling act, I will be able to recognize and name more of the skills I’m watching. I am now a more educated audience member. Anyone who loves to juggle should read this book, and anyone who just loves juggling should read it too.