Some Things in the Air

Juggling clubs (and balls, and chainsaws)

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You can pound the gavel and call things to order with an "Oyez, oyez." But the business at a meeting of the St. Louis Juggling Club remains largely up in the air. The group gathers each week, tossing rings, balls and clubs along with ideas ... sometimes three, five, even nine at a time. The agenda is always the same: It's about harnessing gravity, time, space, mass and motion. Always trying again. And always going for the jugular.

"Just about every week, somebody will walk in and say, "I've always wanted to juggle,'" says Richard Kennison, club president. "They might learn a pattern and be happy with that and never come back. But a good number of people, once they get that taste, are hooked. They want to see how far they can take it."

About 100 jugglers attend meetings occasionally, with perhaps 30 forming the core membership. The club's jugglers range from grade-schoolers to silver-card-discounters and are drawn from all parts of the metropolitan area. Jugglers will tell you that almost anyone can juggle. But the magnet seems to pull hardest on those who are buffs of hard science.

"I would say in the International Jugglers Association that the membership is probably 3-to-1 computer people, engineers and math people, "Kennison says. "No one really has made a super study of that or tried to figure out why. But I always say, "Juggling is mathematics made tangible.' There's something there that's the same as math. You are manipulating time and space."

Kennison, 41, is employed as a Montessori teacher. He started juggling as a student at Hazelwood West High School and eventually found his way to the club, which began around 1980 as an offspring of the juggling troupe Gravity's Last Stand. Kennison has a second job making motivational speeches in corporate settings, often enlivening the proceedings by teaching necktied-and-bejeweled audiences how to juggle.

"It never fails," Kennison says. "About 20 minutes into the demonstration, some woman will scream, "Look at me!' And she's doing it. And everybody goes, "Look at Martha!' And everybody sees that, yes, it can be done."

More than a few times, Kennison has later given private lessons to high-level executives, too proud to fail in front their employees. "They want to appear that they could always do it and didn't have to work at it," Kennison says. "I find it kind of sad. But at the same time, if they want to learn to juggle, that's great."

The club presents at least two exhibitions each year. In July or August is the annual Elsie Wilks Jugglers' Performance Showcase, sponsored by and held at Union Station. The event, named after a now-deceased local woman who learned to juggle late in life, features about 12 juggling acts competing for three prizes of $200 each.

"The showcase is judged by three people that I find in the audience," Kennison says. "Their only qualification is that they don't know anything about juggling. What makes it interesting is that it is not just a technician's competition, so a person doing three eggs and making you laugh can win this thing. And then a person doing seven balls can win. At most juggling competitions, only people that can do high numbers (of implements) get to compete."

In the fall will be the sixth annual St. Louis Juggling Club Convention, held Oct. 20-22 at Jefferson Barracks Park. Jugglers from at least five states will gather to present workshops and perform. "Some of the best jugglers in the world aren't performers," Kennison says. "They don't care to be performers. We call them hobbyists. They stand in their backyard and juggle nine balls just because they enjoy it. But at a convention, they will demonstrate and share their knowledge with other jugglers. But they're not really performers."

The skill level of the average juggler has risen in the last 20 years, Kennison believes. "In the '80s, doing five balls was still a major thing. You were good, really good," he says. "And if you could do five clubs, oh my gosh, you were probably one of 25 people on the planet. Now, five balls is fairly common. And it's probably up to 300 people on the planet who can do five clubs."

The time will come when juggling will be part of the Olympics, enthusiasts say. They're adamant that the art be considered a sport -- an athletic endeavor -- as opposed to a clownish comedy prop.

"When I coach kids to juggle, I tell them to look at other arts," Kennison says. "And I make them watch ice skating, because it's very much the same. I personally believe juggling is every bit as much of a sport as (figure) ice skating, and I really like ice skating. There's a costume; there's music; there's technical things that you have to do. And there's the aspect of how you put it together.

"Juggling is a sport. And those who juggle are athletes."

An affiliate of the St. Louis club is a jugglers' group, called Major, that meets weekly at St. Louis Community College-Meramec. The eight-year-old club -- advised by William Thayer, associate professor of mathematics -- is proud of its Web site for the thinking juggler: You can reach Major (Meramec + juggling + organization) at 821-5299. The St. Louis Juggling Club meets each Wednesday evening at Hope Presbyterian Church, 1433 Ross Rd.; the club's contact number is 636-946-4448.

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