Home » The Evolution of Juggling: Jay Gilligan at TEDxHelsinki (Transcript)

The Evolution of Juggling: Jay Gilligan at TEDxHelsinki (Transcript)

Jay Gilligan

Jay Gilligan – Juggler

Thank you.

So my name is Jay. I’ve been juggling for 28 years. I grew up in America, where I learned to juggle at the age of eight. And it wasn’t until 10 years later that I came to Europe for the first time. And I saw European-style juggling. And in European-style juggling, actually, Finland and the other Scandinavian countries are big influences in that style, and I didn’t understand anything.

So I’ve been juggling for 10 years, and in America, juggling is really based upon skill. So for example, whenever I juggled, if I learned a trick with my dominant hand, I’m left-handed, so I throw under the leg with my left hand, I’d throw under the leg also with my right hand. So you can see that I’m very skilled, that I learn the trick on both sides.

As well as the other tricks in American juggling are looping, repeating patterns, for example, this trick here. It just keeps going and going. It’s the same shape. It doesn’t change. The rhythm is the same. As well, another big part of American-style juggling, can be that it’s symmetrical. So here’s a pattern that is the same on both sides.

And again, you can see that it loops and it repeats. And it doesn’t change and the rhythm is the same with a steady beat. So, when I came to Europe, and I saw the kind of juggling, and again, Scandinavian style as well, it’s similar to European style, and it looked a bit like this. And you can see it looks really strange to me, compared to the first style of juggling that I showed you. There are a lot of starts and stops. The patterns don’t repeat. They don’t happen on both sides. It’s asymmetrical.

Again, in America, where I grew up, and I learned to juggle, I would begin with a big start, and then, I would keep juggling, and at the end, a really big, clear finish. Like this. Here in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, this kind of juggling was very broken down. The rhythm started and stopped. It was hard for me to figure out. So I was really intrigued by this, and I wanted to learn how to juggle like somebody from Finland, for example.

And along with this journey, I discovered many different things, not only about the kind of juggling that I was doing but by the objects that I was using because one thing that was the same in America and in Europe is the kind of objects we juggled. So there is the juggling ball, there is also juggling club, which of course you flip and the juggling ring. These are the three main props that jugglers use.

I’ve been juggling this circle of plastic for 28 years. I’ve put in 20,000 hours of rehearsal with this prop alone, not the balls or clubs, just with rings. That’s two years of my life. Constantly, juggling this circle of plastic, no eating, no sleeping, two years non-stop juggling. I’ve built a career out of this circle of plastic. I make my living with this. It’s how I eat, how I pay my rent, and I know it very well. I can do lots of different things. I know exactly what this piece of plastic will do.

But it wasn’t until 19 years after I started juggling that I asked myself, “Why?” Why… Why is this ring like this?” “Why is it this shape? This thickness? This weight? This material?” The only thing my friends and I had ever wondered about before was maybe the color. For example, I need to have a nice bright color if I have a black backdrop and I’m going to be doing a performance. Or if I’m rehearsing, for example, in a racquetball court, which is quite popular for jugglers. They have a white ceiling, and I would need a dark colored ring. But that was the end of my thought process about this object.

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When I learned to juggle, that’s just what it was. It was just always there as far as I knew. And even in 2003, when Mister Babache, which is a juggling prop manufacturer from Switzerland, they released this ring. Here, and you can see it’s bigger. Even then, it didn’t spark anything in my mind. I’ve seen bigger rings before. But, the thing was bigger rings, they were not for throwing in the air. They are called spinning rings. So I could spin a ball on my finger and spin a ring around a part of my body on my arm, maybe on my leg, because the bigger size makes it easier to get the right rhythm to keep it spinning.

Even then when I saw this ring, I thought “Ah, it’s a spinning ring.” I just know that you don’t throw this one in the air. But then, in 2004, Mister Babache released this ring. And this ring, it made me question everything because this ring makes no sense. It’s small, it’s too small. You can see that I have very large hands. It’s too small. The weight is very bad. If I want to throw a normal ring, I put a little bit of a spin on it to keep it stable in the air. But this ring, it doesn’t have enough weight. Even if I spin it, it’s kind of light, it bounces around. It doesn’t. I don’t know why it exists. I mean, is there really a big gap in the market for small, child jugglers who are struggling. You know, they are on the street corners, can’t use this, too big or – I don’t know. I never heard about that. I don’t know.

So when this ring came out, it made me want to do two things. Number 1. It didn’t really make me want to find out why this ring was this size. Rather, it made me question why this ring was this size. So, I wanted to find out the history of my juggling props, which isn’t really in the juggling culture. And for sure, in other genres, this doesn’t seem very revolutionary. But juggling is such a young art form that these questions are coming up now.

So, I wanted to find out why this ring was this size and also, I wanted to find tricks. Juggling tricks that you would do with this small ring that could only be done with this small ring and thereby justify its existence. And so, before I show you some of those tricks I’d like to tell you why this ring is this size. It turns out my friend made that ring. And his name is Dave Finnigan. He goes under the stage name of Professor Confidence and his motto is: A touch is as good as a catch. And he wrote the first juggling book that I bought, that I learned to juggle from. And I’m very fortunate to know this man, and so I sent him an email. I said, “Hey, why is this juggling ring this size?”

And this is what he wrote me back: “It was in Taiwan in 1976. I had just learned to juggle in Seattle and wanted to get juggling props made in Asia but had no samples from which to work. I had just seen one good ring juggler at the Delaware convention. He was a guy named Spider-man, who cut his rings out of sheets of plastic. There was no standard 30-inch juggling ring yet. So I was in a plastic factory in Taiwan. I was telling the proprietor, Mr. Tsai, about rings. He had a cookie tin on his desk, so I used it to draw a circle. Then, I found another round item in the office and drew a circle inside of that circle. We used that as the template for the first rings we made. So, a cookie tin. 2 years of my life. I would guess in other fields of studies or arts, there is a lot of research that goes into manufacturing, optics a lot of planning. There is a really popular three-ring trick I’d like to show you. Looks like this. Juggle the rings. Flip one. They all go on the head. Now, that’s a very standard trick. A very standard technique for me as a juggler.

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What would have happened if the factory owner was on a diet? I don’t know. Have a smaller cookie tin. I don’t know. It’d be a very different trick. when it goes on my head. My whole life works based on being put the rings around my head. It’s very strange. You already hear the prejudice in my opinion about these props because I say that this is a normal ring. And this, we call a baby ring or a small ring. And this is a big ring. But of course, jugglers who start out today, they just know there is a 40-centimeter, a 32-centimeter, and a 24-centimeter ring. They don’t see the difference that the way I do when I started out.

I’d like to show you a few of the tricks I found with this baby ring, 24 centimeters, that can only be done using this ring. There is a French juggler, Daniel Pommier, and an American juggler, Sean Blue, who started to combine these smaller rings with the larger rings. And suddenly, tricks like this became possible. So you can see by using different-sized rings together, it allows me to throw them at the same time. That same technique, using these normal rings that I started out with, they always go the same height so it’s very difficult to catch them in the same hand at the same time. So this new size of ring, suddenly, made a new technique possible.

And as well, Oskar Wrango of Sweden. He started to play with all three different sizes of rings. And I have a few tricks that I made with that. You can see this kind of juggling is very different than the style of juggling showed at the beginning with the three balls where everything was looping, repeating. It’s very much more, in one way, European. So this investigation led me to make what is called the Manipulation Research Laboratory. We did three projects and of those projects we studied and tried to find out what were the different shapes we could juggle what kinds of materials could be used in different techniques.

And now we’ve collaborated with Renegade Juggling from California and Tom Kidwell. We’ve made different kinds of juggling objects. For example, instead of a circle, why not a triangle? Again, this might not seem so difficult to grasp. Well, hey, we have a circle. Let’s use a triangle, a square, an octagon. But in juggling, this is where we’re at right now with the art. It’s really exciting. I love it. To be alive right now. Because we get to find all these new things. But they are very, very basic, I think.

So I’d like to show you a trick you can do only with three triangles. It looks like this. And, you can imagine that’s not possible with the rings because there’s not the pointed edge to hook the triangle itself. I’ve been talking a little bit about tricks you can only do with different-sized rings or only do with the triangles. Let me show you one trick as a different example. I’ll do something with five triangles that you can actually do with five rings or five squares.

All right, so it looks something like this. For example, take five objects that have a big hole in the middle and take six places around your body. So for example, I’m going to go with left foot, on the head, elbow, left hand, we’ll do right, elbow, and also, the right foot. And in this pattern, all we do is, move the triangles or the objects, around the body to each hole in sequence.

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So the first thing I can do is change from my left foot to my right foot. Then this one in my hand goes to the left foot. The head goes to the hand. This one goes back on the elbow. From this elbow onto the head. And finally, from the right foot back to the right elbow. And in this way, I can juggle these five triangles but it’s not specific to only five triangles. It can be five rings, five squares. But I can show you one more image that you can only do with five triangles. It looks like this. Yeah, that’s it. Thanks.

Now my friend, Danny and Sean, they were playing around with these different-sized rings and they combined them together. For example, the big ring and the small ring, they combine them, different sizes. What if we keep the same shape and instead of changing it to a triangle, we keep a circle but we join them together? So they are linked as well combined with entirely different shapes such as a ball. And I prepared a little choreography for you with that.


With Renegade Juggling, we’ve made a Renegade Design Lab, which is like a boutique juggling company that makes different juggling props. We’ve taken different kinds of props and combined them together. For example, today we’ve seen a juggling ring, which again, has a very large hole in the middle. And we tried to combine this with other different shapes. For example, the traditional juggling club and what it would be if it had a large hole in it as well. So the results are these clubs. It’s the normal juggling club but with a big hole in it. Of course, they can be used in the normal way like, again.

But, having this hole in the club allows for different techniques that were never possible before such as this one. So images like that were never possible before we are juggling until we started to define and combine the different shapes together. All of this investigation into the history of juggling props made me want to find an object that had its own history in the moment. An object that would leave a concrete path of where it has been as manipulated. And I can show you one option I have for that.

Now, I can juggle these balls of strings in the normal way as I’d with three balls but as they move through space, they’ll leave a record of where it has been. And it makes normal juggling a little bit more complicated. And you can start to see not only where the object has been in a relationship, for example, to my body, if I throw behind the back, or for example, under the leg, but also you can start to see the relationship of my body to the object.

If I start to try to unwind this string on purpose, and in this way, we have a record of where all these objects have been in entire time they’ve been manipulated. Here’s that pattern again, as I showed you at the beginning.

So one last thing I’d like to show you and that is out of all this research into using new juggling props and new juggling shapes, it also led me back to where I started. The original ring that I spent thousands of hours with. Through doing this new work, it allows me to come back and see this in an entirely new way. So I’d like to show you now a little bit of juggling using these new ideas.