Juggling as a Spiritual Adventure
by David Feldman, Oct 4, 2020
At White House - David Feldman on left, Leslie on right
I have noticed a repeating pattern throughout my life. I make a little effort and then, seemingly out of nowhere, possibilities and opportunities present themselves. My job is to recognize them and simply say “yes.” And that’s how juggling found me.
It was May, 1977. I was 30 years old. I’d smoked cigarettes, off and on, since I was a teenager. My wife, Catherine, was eight months pregnant with Elizabeth and it felt like the right time to give the three of us a present. I stopped smoking cold turkey. Since I was highly motivated, it was relatively easy. However, I noticed that my hands were itchy. Cigarettes had often functioned like worry beads or toys to keep my hands amused and I wondered if I could replace the habit with something useful.
Catherine and I were part of the founding group of Le Grand David Magic Company. We had purchased the Cabot Theater in Beverly, MA a year before and began our first performances in early 1977. My role in the show was to be a clown/greeter and I was in the process of defining my character, “Tassles the Clown.” (Small, gold tassels hung from my glasses.) There were several clown/greeters and we were all learning about the art of clowning.
On a warm, June evening in 1977, a few days after my decision to stop smoking, I walked to the parking lot in the back of the theatre where I saw my good friend, Leslie. He was juggling three lacrosse balls. Leslie was also a greeter as well as being a jester/puppeteer for the Magic Company. Juggling is one of the many arts associated with clowns. I stood quietly and watched. It was somewhat mesmerizing as Leslie moved around the parking lot and juggled the balls.
“Wanna try it?” Leslie inquired.
“Sure thing,” I responded. This was an invitation from that hidden land of opportunity I mentioned at the beginning.
He gave me a little lesson on the spot, but the balls kept dropping and landing all over the parking lot. It took me months of practice to get a natural basic cascade down when, finally, my mind and arms relaxed.
We really didn’t know how to proceed, but fortunately we found The Juggling Book, by Carlo. It promised “everything you need to know to master this exciting circus art and learn a lot about yourself in the process.”
The introduction to Carlo’s book read as follows: The juggling experience has many benefits for anyone willing to work conscientiously. Juggling tones and strengthens your hands, wrists and arms, your nervous system and especially your eyes. Coordination, which is not an innate quality but just another skill to be learned, will be sharpened bringing your whole body into a heightened state of awareness. … Finally, the juggling experience can teach you to remember yourself, observe what you do with your body, center yourself, calm your mind and thoughts, let your emotions subside, monitor your inner state, and generate physical energy and power. This level of awareness can bring you into contact with the “music of the spheres” or more accurately for juggling the “rhythm of the spheres.
This promise was completely aligned with many of our goals for the theater. The excellence of Carlo’s method was his ability to break things down into achievable units. We began with one ball (actually handmade bean bags constructed by Catherine and other women in the company). We flipped it from one hand to the other and soon added a second ball as a rider. We worked for a long time becoming proficient and artistic with two balls which we developed into a nice performance routine. Two balls, or even one ball done well, can be a wonderful inner and outer experience.
We advanced to eye independence - meaning we did not have to look at balls directly and could pick them up through our peripheral vision. Some of the practices we did with eyes completely closed. To our surprise we could almost manage to juggle with eyes closed. It made it so much easier to go back to eyes open – a good lesson in itself.
In warm weather we practiced outside. We went indoors for the winter months finding places where we would not break too many things. We experimented with routines and rhythms. We learned how to pass balls, pins and rings. By attraction, another clown / juggler joined us and later on a fourth.
We set only one ground rule and maintained it for ourselves throughout the eleven years and 1,100 performances before Catherine and I retired from the theater. The rule was simple – No blaming or criticizing for drops or bad throws (which occurred frequently). Perhaps this was one reason a spirit of joy permeated our practice.
We kept increasing the level of difficulty to include four or even five balls. We learned to throw balls, pins and rings under our legs, behind our backs and over our heads. Juggling became part of us and part of the Magic Company. The jugglers became a little force in the Magic Company experience. We taught many people including our own children how to juggle.
We performed in Hollywood, New York and at the White House Easter Egg Roll many times as part of the Magic Company. My personal favorite was performing at the Christmas Party for the children of the diplomats. Wearing our beautiful clown costumes and make-up in the East Room of the White House with maybe 100 children sitting in front of us on the floor in the “costumes” of their country was a remarkable experience.
As we walked around the White House, I thought of Carlo’s promises for anyone willing to work conscientiously. To a large degree, they came true. Whether we connected with the “Rhythm of the Spheres” might be a stretch, but certainly we loved the rhythm of working together and sharing this wonderful art with many others.
About the Author
David lives with his wife, Catherine, on a small farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts with four dogs, three horses and a gaggle of chickens and ducks. He is a therapeutic dog massager focusing on elderly dogs and hospice work.