Juggling and Jugglers by Emilio Rodríguez-Alvarez

The art of juggling, the ability to toss into the air and catch a series of objects, called props, keeping at least one in the air while others are handled, seems to be an innate ability to human nature. There are multiple historical and archaeological evidences of the presence of jugglers in the distant past, performing a series of forms that we can recognize as patterns of juggling, and that, reinterpreted, are still use in modern-day shows.

Early History of Juggling:

Unlike the well-defined idea of juggling we have today, the origins of this activity are closely associated with pantomime, dance and music. Although entertainers are attested in religious festivities in Mesopotamia, the earliest evidence on juggling comes from one of the tombs of the funerary complex of Beni Hassan, in Egypt. This burial belonged to Baqet III, governor of the province of Menat-Khufu during the 11th Dynasty (2025 − 1991 BCE) and among the scenes represented in the walls there is one with female dancers and acrobats juggling up to three balls, one of the them tossing them while her arms remain crossed.

Visual evidence from a variety of sources, such as pottery, reliefs, and terracotta figures shows us the presence of jugglers and other acrobats in ancient Greece. Xenophon and Manetho wrote about itinerant entertainers of both sexes who performed during the celebration of symposia. In one of these dinners presided over by Sokrates, Xenophon describes a female acrobat dancing and juggling up to twelve hoops in the air, while accompanied by the music of the flute. On an Attic red kylix in the Antonio Salinas Museum of Palermo and dated to 470-460 BCE, a girl appears in a domestic scene juggling some balls or stones.

During the Roman Empire the number of references to jugglers increased. We have depictions associated with the games at the circus, but the most interesting evidence comes from a 2nd c. CE relief honouring a Roman citizen named Ursus, who praised himself as being the first juggler playing with a glass ball in several baths of the city of Rome. Although most of the references refer to common props such as balls or clubs, other routines with more unusual objects were practised. The poet Martial praised the technique of Agathinus, who performed using a shield as a prop. At the end of the Roman Empire we have notice through Chrysostom of jugglers in Antioch performing with knives (see Truzzi 1979; Ziethen and Allen 1985 for some examples).

During the Middle Ages the term juggler covered a variety of artistic attitudes, from music and poetry to any show that had won favor on the court. Although there is a general belief that jugglers were associated mainly with religious authorities, the truth is that they are constantly depicted in illuminated manuscripts, such as the juggler in the court of king David depicted in a manuscript in the British Museum (Cotton MS. Tib. C. vi, folio 30 v.). Performances in the market places and the travelling fairs are perhaps one of the most romantic and enduring images of jugglers in the past. These itinerant entertainers performed with balls and devil sticks and, after the 16th century with cannonballs. The advent of the printing press allowed us to preserve on paper some images of the period (Alvarez 1984).

Vaudeville Era:

The 19th century witnessed the creation of what we can identify as the modern juggler, associated with the development of the circus and vaudeville. As early as 1793, when John Bill Rickets presented what is considered to be the first modern circus, one of the central performances consisted of a juggling routine performed while riding on horseback. Variety and music hall theatres started to employ jugglers to perform between musical acts as a way to entertain the audience while settings were changed behind curtains. Two of the earliest names preserved in this period are Carl Rappo and Karl Johann Schäffer, who specialized in heavy props, such as barrels full of water, according to the fashion of the time.

This is a time of consolidation both in the technology and the technique of juggling. The development of rubber as an industry material introduced the use of rubber balls in the routines, making bounce juggling also possible. Performers moved from a side show to become one of the main elements on the bill, and the first juggling stars appear in England and the United States. Some of the earliest names include Cinquevalli, a German juggler. Although he performed in tight leotards, his use of everyday objects makes him one of the precursors of the “gentlemen jugglers” that will appear two decades later (Ziethen 1981).

DeWitt Cook and his juggling clubs ca. 1890

Vaudeville imposed the seeking of innovation on the jugglers, in order to avoid repetition in the routines. The end of the 19th century is the time of the “first ever” this and that when new props were introduced. Some of them were rather simple, and are still present today, such as the club introduced by DeWitt Cook and popularized by Morris Cronin, while others were of larger dimensions and weights, such as the small cannons balanced by Soadoni and Conchas on their back and chin respectively. This style, however, lost popularity at the turn of the century, and by the 1910s most shows were performed by the so-called “gentlemen jugglers”. Many outstanding artists worked at this time, including, Pierre Amoros, Rapoli or Selma Braatz, but the top performers of the day were Kara and Salerno. Kara’s routines included props such as eggs, egg-cups, plates, small fruits, billiard cues and balls. The coin tossed from toe to eye and caught as a monocle, and the pulling of the tablecloth from under the dishes became typical “gentleman” tricks of the period. Salerno used the popular routine of hat, cane, umbrella and glove. He also added colors to the show, and performed with three torches shaped like lamps turning red, yellow and green.

In opposition to the “gentleman” juggler we find the “tramp” juggler.

W. C. Fields reprises his early juggling act in the 1930s

Harrigan is considered to be the forerunner of this style in the first decade of the 20th century and was a great influence on performers such as W. C. Fields. Harrigan was also the first juggler to include jokes and monologues on his routines, which fit very well with the style of vaudeville and the performance style of W. C. Fields in particular.

By the 1910s the gentleman juggler was well established in vaudeville, but the attire required for the show did not suit circus performances. A new style was required, and European circuses looked to the east and started to perform in Japanese-inspired clothes (Ziethen and Allen 1985). From the circus the next juggling innovator rrived to vaudeville, Enrico Rastelli. Greatly influenced by Japanese jugglers, especially Takashima, Rastelli moved from Europe to the United States in late 1923. He is best remembered for his routines with sticks and balls or balls and plates, and his tours in the 1924 and 1928 were not only a great business success but also a source of inspiration for many amateur jugglers (Alvarez 1984).

Enrico Rastelli

By the end of the ’20s Rastelli’s style had influenced many performers, but other styles flourished. Club-throwing acts were especially demanded by the public, such as those the Three Swifts, the Five Elgins and the Juggling Jewels. Bobby May was considered the best club juggler of the time, although the comical routines of Stan Kavanaugh and Bob DuPont are better known. The best foot juggler, acting while lying on his back all the time, was James Evans; Howard Nichols was the best juggler with hoops.

Bobby May Upside Down

Recent Times:

The end of the vaudeville did not happen overnight. The crash of 1929 is usually taken as the starting point, although vaudeville hows still flourished during the decade of the 30’s, with many performers joining the USO during WWII. But the advent of television and the consolidation of the cinema as mass spectacle in the 1950’s gave the last blow to the vaudeville in the US and the music hall in Europe. In this context jugglers, due to the characteristics of their routines and equipment, adapted better to the new circumstances. Performers appeared in the new media, especially on TV, and they left the stage to come back to the street corners. Paradoxically, this return to the street actually had a significant effect on the preservation of juggling. It became a hobby, a leisure activity, and associations such as the International Jugglers’ Association (1947) and European Juggling Association (1987) appeared. Some of the most important names of the second half of the 20th century such as Philippe Petit found enjoyable and profitable to perform outdoors, in the streets of Paris and New York. The development of the contemporary circus (“nouveau cirque”), especially the creation of Cirque du Soleil in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix are but the latest step in the evolution of juggling as form of art.

One of the last of the famous jugglers was the incredible and acrobatic Mexican star Rudy Cardenas:







Alvarez, Francisco. 1984 Juggling, Its History and Greatest Performances. Albuquerque.

Truzzi, Marcello. 1979 On Keeping Things Up in the Air. Natural History 88: 44–55.

Ziethen, Karl-Heinz. 1981 4000 Years of Juggling. Paris: Editions Michel Poignant.

Ziethen, Karl-Heinz, and Andrew Allen.1985 Juggling – The Art and Its Artists. Berlin: Werner Rausch & Werner Luft Inc.

Topics: Juggling