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  Tossing Off a New Hobby

Balls for Juggling
Jim Deveney suggests starting with these little gravel-filled soccer balls because they don't bounce and roll away. (The Post)
By Jim Deveney
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 20, 1999; Page Z31

The lady at the Giant checkout counter casually lifted my jar of marmalade and moved it across the scanner. She was about to deposit it in the plastic grocery bag when it somehow left her hand and arced toward the tiled floor. I caught it in midair, inches from disaster, and handed it to her.

"Wow, was that a lucky catch," she exclaimed. "That would have made one heck of a mess if it had hit the ground. Thanks."

I agreed it would have been quite a cleanup job for somebody. I didn't agree (while modestly refraining from saying so) that it was luck. I preferred to think it was just another occasion where my being a juggler came in handy.

I started juggling a few years ago after watching Perry Como's warm-up man doing amazing things with balls, boxes, scarves and various other objects, while at the same time carrying on a humorous conversation with his audience. The venue was the Patriot Center in Fairfax, and as a compulsive copier totally unable to mimic Como's velvet tones, I thought I'd give juggling a try. I was in my early seventies and had been retired from my work as an engineering technician for about nine years.

The public library provided some books, and used tennis balls became the implements ("props" in juggling terms) that got me started. The jokes, I thought, could come later.

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with health? Let's start with psychology. Imagine what a stunt like my marmalade rescue does for your self-esteem. You should have seen the appreciative look on the checkout woman's face as I nonchalantly returned the undamaged jar to her.

Juggling also improves your powers of concentration. But it's relaxed concentration, in the manner of a professional golfer about to hit his tee shot before hundreds of spectators. You must remember the basics, but not to the point of befuddlement. Once you have mastered the three-ball cascade, you can forget about the way it is done and move on to more difficult and complex routines.

You'll also find an improvement in your peripheral vision. If you are tossing balls, for instance, you see them peripherally while concentrating your eyes on the apex of your throw. This condition is absolute. With three or four balls in the air, trying to look at all of them simultaneously will inevitably cause them to bounce off your head, arms and knees. The peripheral skills you will acquire are helpful in life situations, such as when you are about to change lanes on the highway but something tells you there is a vehicle on your right shoulder even though you can't actually see it in your mirror.

You are going to drop some props, of course, at least for a while, whether you employ boxes, balls, Indian clubs or whatever else. (Good jugglers can juggle almost anything: loaves of bread, basketballs, lighted torches.) Still, if dropped they have to be picked up. Don't worry, it's good exercise. If you drop two objects a minute, let's say, and you work out for 18 minutes, that's 36 times you've exercised your knees and your back, not to mention your brain. At the beginning, if you like, you can practice over a bed, so you won't have to bend very far if you drop.

Most of us older people have a little arthritis in our joints. Juggle for three months and don't be surprised if your aching shoulder feels much better and your hands and fingers reward you with more flexibility and less pain.

Do you get depressed occasionally? Working out with your juggling equipment may help banish the blues. Stressed out? Stress has no chance against trying out a new routine or brushing up on your patter: "I'd do this for a living if I could pick up my act a little."Jim Deveney, of Hyattsville, is an amateur juggler and soccer referee.

How to Do It

Hold two balls, one in each hand, palms up, forearms parallel to the floor. Used tennis balls are okay, but if you feel like spending a few dollars, those little soft soccer training balls are better. They don't bounce, so you don't spend a lot of time digging them out from under the furniture.

1. Begin tossing the balls from hand to hand, throwing one under the other in a figure-eight motion, changing directions with enough frequency to keep from becoming bored or locked in to a particular pattern. Focus on the arcs made by the balls rather than on the balls themselves. Use the same hand to start the throw each time, then switch to the other one.

When you feel you've got the hang of it, you're ready to tackle the "three-ball cascade."

2. Add another ball. Hold two balls in one hand and one in the other. With a little relaxed throw, exchange the single ball for one of the two in the opposite hand. Then stop. Repeat. Throw, stop. Throw, stop. Count in cadence if you wish (one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four), speeding up the move as you become comfortable with the routine, and shuttling the balls so that all three are employed.

3. Now shift the two balls to the hand that had previously held one, with the single one in the other. Repeat the former procedure, but from the opposite direction: throw, stop, throw, stop. One, two, three, four, etc. This will present a little more difficulty, because now you're leading with the "subordinate" hand, sort of like throwing a baseball with the left hand if you are right-handed.

You are now actually juggling, but doing it in a somewhat stilted manner. All that is left is for the routine to be speeded up and smoothed out. Toss the balls a little higher using the fingers of the throwing hand, and catch them in the "nest" of the receiver, the nest being formed by the index, middle and ring fingers, with the thumb and little finger acting as side supports.

4. Add extra balls as you become proficient, adjusting the height of the throw to give you more "time." Experiment with other props, teach a friend (a good way to improve your skills), and you might discover a new avocation.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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