Contact Juggling Beginner's Instructions

The following note was made by me long ago, and has been lovingly preserved on the Rialto over time. The document below has been updated to clarify the instructions, update the information, and add some new hints.

From: (Les Barstow: Phoenix)
Date: 7 Feb 90 00:54:16 GMT
Updated: From: Les Barstow
Date: 26 Apr 99 00:00:00 EDT

[Regarding the availability of a book on "Contact Juggling", which is best-known from the movie Labyrinth, where the Goblin King juggles a crystal ball. Those sequences were performed by Michael Moschen, who is the pre-eminent "contact juggler".]

I'm not sure there *is* a book on the subject... [NOTE: There is a book called "Contact Juggling" by James Ernest]

I can give you some basic info, which might help - I also suggest watching the movie [Labyrinth] to get the feel of it... Even more, I suggest watching the PBS Great Performances "In Motion with Michael Moschen", available from Brian Dube, Inc.].

I learned this with a friend, who dissected "Labyrinth" until he got it mostly right. I wanted to simplify teaching it, since it took us weeks just to learn the basics. The following basic instructions, taught in person, have had people doing basic contact juggling in about 20 minutes. As with most things, simple to learn, but a lifetime to master...

First, find a ball to use - I suggest a cue ball or a juggling ball (the cue ball is better because it has less friction...) KMart sells cue balls for about $4.

Whatever you use should be heavy, of good size, and smooth. Tennis balls are right out, as are racquet balls. I have used cue balls, crystal and polished rock/mineral balls, and even oranges (not good after the first couple of falls, though ;^)

Second, find a place to practice - carpet, no breakables, and first floor would be best (first floor so that when you drop it it doesn't make a resounding crash throughout the house...) You may wish to kneel, as that puts you closer to the floor, which quiets things down a bit and allows you to chase the ball sooner...

The basic motion is side-to-side, like a windshield wiper, and your hand should be straightened out, fingers flexed back as far as they go (after a while, your fingers bend back more than they used to, making it easier...) Your hand should be perpendicular to your body (palm facing to the side, up, or down - not towards or away from you) at all times - after all, you are not trying to push the ball towards or away from you, only side-to-side in front of you. The motion itself is almost entirely from the elbow - your upper arm should not move more than marginally, and your wrist and hand should only move to adjust for the ball's motion.

Basic contact juggling can be seperated into two motions. One where the ball starts on the back of your hand, and the other where it starts from the palm. The easier of the two (I think) is from the back of the hand to the palm, so it might be best to try that one first for a while.

Holding your elbow near your side, put your lower arm in front of you in a horizontal position (both sweeps start and end from horizontal - if you don't quite get to the horizontal position, the ball starts to roll down your arm, and, hence, away from you (say, under the couch...)). With your fingers stretched back, the ball should be able to rest comfortably in the split between your index and middle fingers. Keeping all other fingers together, spread your index and middle fingers slightly apart - this is the guide and the path along which the ball will travel when you start. Now, in a winshield-wiper type motion, bring your lower arm and hand up and then out in a right-to-left or left-to-right motion, (depending on which hand you are using).

If you go fast enough, the ball will creep up your fingers and go up and over them (if you go too fast, the ball goes up, over, and off your fingers - this is okay - the ball will still land in your palm, and you can slow the motion down later; on the other hand, if you go too slow, the ball catches on your fingers about halfway up and goes flying off to the side, loudly.) You may have to adjust your speed, the spread of your two fingers, and the position of your fingers (how far bent back they are) during this sweep (and every sweep - this is the trick...). With luck, and lots of practice, your motion will end with the ball exactly in the same place on the opposite side of your hand from when you started the motion. Practice this for a while until you can get the ball to roll all the way over without leaving your hand (and without running away most of the time).

The other sweep is similar - start with the ball in the split between your middle and index fingers, palm-up and lower arm in a horizontal position to your side (this may be initially uncomfortable for the unlimber). Sweep up and over, and the ball will land where the first sweep started - in the seam of your fingers on the back of your hand. There are two hazards from palm to back-of-hand:

  1. The ball may attach itself to the pads of your fingertips, catch, and fly away; give the ball more up motion, and less side motion, or bend your fingers back more.
  2. The ball may not want to stop on the back of your hand, gleefully running down your arm and off under the sofa; try dropping your hand down below horizontal after reaching the top of your arc - overcompensate the motion.

After a you get each motion right a few times, try the full motion, sweeping both directions one after another - try not to let the ball stop for more than a fraction of a second, as the motion should be fluid. You may also wish to tighten up your fingers a bit, to make the trick less obvious. When you have the one hand down, swith to the other hand (I have found that people sometimes learn better with their off-hand for contact juggling, so if you are having problems, switch hands until you figure out the basic motions).

There are several alternate sweeping motions I have seen. Some people like a much tighter motion, with more wrist and not a full horizontal arm motion; this gives the illusion of a more fluid wrist, but seems rushed and sometimes jerky. The other is an "infinity" motion, with a bit more up motion on the ends, and slightly shortened from the full horizontal motion (somewhere between the wrist and arm motions); this is fluid, but the extra motion can detract from the effect. Experiment - you do not have to do the full motion, so long as you can bring the ball to a stop and get it to reverse without an obvious catch.

You will eventually become so good two things will happen. First, it will appear to your audience that you have developed a limited prescience - when you *do* screw up, and the ball catches on your fingers, you will know exactly where it is about to zip off to, and will be able to intercept it before it gets away from you; you will be able to do this blindfolded (I am *not* joking about this...). Second, you will be able to close the gap in your fingers to a point where either it doesn't exist, or at least the audience can't tell that's how you're doing it (actually, contact juggling does look better when the ball rolls over the top of your middle finger, rather than behind it, and you will get there... eventually).

The passes are a challenge at first, but, briefly, they go from the outside of one hand at the wrist to the inside of the other, also at the wrist (by outside and inside I mean towards the pinky and thumb, respectively) on the back of the hand. Do not stop the ball as it rolls down to the back of your hand; instead, let it slowly continue, and let it pass over to the other hand, where you pick up the juggle. The hand with the ball should be closer to you. First, learn to juggle with both hands, then start to practice the passes - that way you can continue the motion much more easily. There are other passes and other tricks performed in Labyrinth and on the PBS video (and others you can discover on your own - we did...).

This should keep people who are interested occupied for quite some time...
Have fun!