Fun in the air at juggling festival

Why did 400 dexterous artists come from around the globe to converge in SE Portland for a weekend of throwing things around? Take a look, and discover what we learned from our visit …

Award-winning 11-year old juggler Rachel Leshikar, from Kennewick, Washington, shows her skill at five-ball juggling. (To see her perform on YouTube: CLICK HERE)

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The director of one of our favorite annual events – the 16th annual Portland Juggling Festival – Daniel Peterson, didn’t travel far to the event – he lives in SE Portland. But, some of the 400 participants trekked half way around the world to attend this annual event.

“We’ve brought in performers from Germany and Japan,” says Peterson, a Brooklyn neighborhood native. “But we have performers come from Canada, California, and points east.”

The performers converge on Reed College for a long weekend of juggling to see new “patterns” and equipment, reunite with old friends.

Portland Juggling Festival Director Daniel Peterson (left) “passes clubs” with friends Jennifer Noll and Borg Norum.

Reed College a juggling hub
Another reason Reed College is a juggling nexus is that the school has offered juggling as a physical education course for 30 years.

“I took juggling when I attended Reed College my freshman year, about 20 years ago,” Peterson relates. “But, I really got into it about 10 years ago.”

Asked about his favorite style of juggling, Peterson replies that it is “passing clubs”.

“Two or more people juggle clubs, and pass them back and forth among one another,” he explains. “There are standard, internationally-known ‘patterns’ or sequences for passing clubs; partners don’t need to speak to do it. And, people are always generating new, challenging patterns.”

Daniela Künster teaches new patterns to a class learning ways of passing clubs.

Although it might look like martial-arts mayhem, no one was injured in this – or any – juggling classes at the Festival.

Build mind, body, and friendships
Peterson says most jugglers he knows like the activity because it is challenging, both intellectually and physically. “There’s something new to learn and make a connection to what I’ve figured out in the past. It’s part of my lifelong continuing learning program.”

All of the jugglers with whom we speak also commented that – unlike magicians, who keep the secret of their tricks hidden – “There’s always somebody in the juggling community who has something amazing to show that I want to learn. Sharing juggling tricks builds friendships.”

Class is in session
In one room during the festival, I find two long rows of participants facing each other, ready to pass clubs. “Pass-self-self-pass-self-self,” chants German instructor Daniela Künster, as clubs start to fly through the air in orchestrated pandemonium.

“This is just one of many classes offered at the Juggling Festival,” says Peterson, as we watch advanced jugglers help novices learn how to juggle and pass clubs.

“And, over here, we have a ‘Stilt-walking 101’ class going on. We even offer a class dedicated to picking up dropped juggling equipment,” the event’s host added.

Rob Brown shows off while riding his seatless “Ultimate Wheel”.

Just how many rings is Matthew Knight, who hails from SE Portland, juggling?

Allied arts welcomed
We ask why there are folks at the festival performing related arts such as unicycling, diabolo, devil stick, poi, footbag, and Rolla-Bolla.

“All these arts are affiliated with one another; all ‘circus arts’ are welcomed,” replies Peterson. “Our participants are folks who like to work with props. We all learn from one another.”

Whizzing around the perimeter of the lower gym, in perfect control, is unicyclist Rob Brown. “When I was in sixth grade, I asked for a unicycle for Christmas. About three months after Santa brought it, I was unicycling to school. That was 32 years ago!”

Michael DeBuhr quickly learns how to walk on stilts. “I have a really good sense of balance.”

When he moved to Portland in 1990, Brown looked for a place to ride his unicycles during the rainy winter months, and found that jugglers welcomed him into their midst.

We see that the unicycle Brown was “riding” has no seat – it’s simply a spoked bicycle wheel with pedal cranks. “It’s called ‘The Ultimate Wheel’; I’ve been riding one for 20 years,” Brown explains. “I kept lowering the seat on my unicycles until finally I just took it off. You won’t find many people riding this.”

The best part of unicycling, Brown says, is feeling success after he works at learning difficult tricks. “And let’s face it – I like to show off. Ask anyone here; it’s one of the reasons we do this!”

Peterson smiles and nods his head in agreement. “No matter what a performer may say, we all love to show off.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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