THE ONE-TWO-THREES OF IT

1. @WHAT TO USE

Everyone has a favorite, but here are some suggestions. Pat Picciano started me with lacrosse balls, which you can get at sporting-goods stores for $1 to $1.50 each. Bob Hoffman first practices with light-weight rubber balls before using the heavier lacrosse balls. Nancy Lynner starts her students on beanbags, so they won't spend all their time chasing objects around the room.

2. WHERE TO LEARN

THE CIRCLE PLAYERS hold their workshop Thursday evenings at 8, at All Souls' Church, 16th and Harvard NW. Bring three balls. Free. Call 483-5243.

OPEN UNIVERSITY offers an evening class taught by Nancy Lynner, at 7 o'clock on February 4 and 11, at 3333 Connecticut Avenue NW. Cost is $8. Call 966-9606.

3. WHERE TO PRACTICE

ALMOST ANYPLACE, although rooms with low chandeliers are not recommended. "Juggling is a very portable sport," Picciano says. "You can practice while you wait for the bus."

Deftly tossing three lacrosse balls into the air, Pat Picciano looked at me and said, "You will know how to juggle in an hour."

I dropped my pen. Picciano had his work cut out for him.

"Anyone who can count to three can also juggle," he added, picking up my pen and handing it to me. So much for my illusions that he'd perceived me as a natural.

He and his three partners, who together form a juggling-and-mime group called the Circle Players, began teaching last summer at Dupont Circle. With the zeal of missionaries, they try to teach us klutzes the wonders of making balls or pins or rings fly in the air and land in outstretched hands.

"When we practiced at lunchtime last summer, people kept stopping us and asking how we could do it," said Bob Hoffman, launching balls through the air. "So we decided to show them how." The workshops have moved indoors for the winter, to All Souls' Church, where the jugglers continue to sing the prasises of their pastime.

"It's meditative," said Hoffman. "Everything is focused in on your tosses, even if you're talking or moving at the same time."

"It helps your coordination," Shelley Harris added. "Now if a glass drops from the table at home, I can catch it before it hits the floor."

"Juggling is great therapy," said Picciano. "You have to force yourself to move into another space.

"You have two spaces around you, the table space and the picture frame," he explained. "Your hands remain flat, as if they were on a table. The balls always travel in an area around you about the size of a rectangular frame." Then he handed me a lacrosse ball, which he uses because of its small size and weight. "Just throw this up in the air a few times."

That's not too difficult, I figured. After a tentative first toss, I threw the ball more assertively.

"No, your hand is moving away from the table," corrected Picciano. "And you have to move forward to catch the ball, which means you're not throwing properly." He had only 55 minutes left to make his promise good, and I obviously needed a lot of instruction.

"It's the throw you have to worry about," interjected Barbara Stolper. "Gravity brings the ball down, so don't think about catching it." The consensus of the nine jugglers and near-jugglers was that losing inhibitions and the fear of missing were the hardest part.

I tried to concentrate on my lopsided attempts, but it was hard not to stare at the more skilled around me. For no matter how effortless a juggler looks handling balls, rings or clubs, the sight of things flying through the air and back to awaiting hands seizes the observer's eye and attention.

In uniform trajectory and even rhythm, one, two, three balls pop up in the air and back. Then -- "Rats!" -- one, two, three balls bounce to the floor and roll across the room.

But enough wistful staring: Picciano had bigger and better things in mind for me. Time for Lesson Two.

"When the orange ball reaches its highest point, throw the white one," he instructed, giving me a second ball. "Nice and steady."

Nice and steady, I launched the balls at the same time. They collided.

One bounded across the room, hitting an ankle or two before it lodged itself behind a table leg.

The other hit Picciano in the stomach.

"Your timing was just a little off," called out Stolper encouragaingly. Jugglers seem to live by a credo of positive reinforcement. "You'll have it shortly, I can tell."

Indeed, soon I was tossing the two balls properly, and occasionally even catching them. Around me, people worked on learning new tricks or smoothing out their wobbles. One man practiced in front of a wall, to keep from throwing his balls too far forward. Groups of twos and threes formed petiodically to pass objects.

"Juggling's an individual thing," said Stolper, "but it's group thing, too. When you pass with someone and get into the same rhythm, you feel incredibly satisfied."

Picciano has modified a passing technique for beginners, which he showed me. We stood next to each other, so my right hand and his left were soon handling three balls."Now," Hoffman proclaimed as he watched us, "you're ready to try three yourself.

"It's the same thing you were doing before," he asured me. "This time, as the second ball reaches its highest point, you add the third. That's all there is to it."

This occupied me for the rest of the session. I didn't, I confess, learn in an hour.

Anyone might be able to juggle, but some people do learn more easily than others.

Harris contends that basketball players make good jugglers, because they concentrate on eye-to-hand contact when shooting baskets. Hoffman disagrees, saying anyone with general athletic ability masters the movements quickly. According to Stolper, it's not muscle tone but concentration and a little nerve that make a good juggler.

Lawyers make great jugglers," she remarked. "They like to be in the limelight all the time."

Hoffman, a lawyer, again protested.

Nancy Lynner, a mime artist, has taught a juggling course at Open University, with students who have included parents and children seeking a common hobby, people in occupations that range from computer programmer to legislative assistant, and even once a man with a broken leg.

"He was great," she said. "He had an added motive to throw gently and straight up.

"The only thing all these people had in common," she says, "was that somewhere they had seen someone else juggle and were hooked." She began in 1975, when she went to a school for pantomimes. "I had to struggle to learn, but now I use juggling as a tease to draw people to watch me."

Picciano is the only member of the Circle Players who supports himself with his performances. Stolper say him juggling one day while she worked at a food co-op and rushed out to learn more. Hoffman had just learned on his own for a reason he "can't remember anymore" when he met Picciano last year. They've been practicing together ever since. Harris was working in an office near Dupont Circle last summer when she saw them, and became a regular.

"I have never met an arrogant juggler," Picciano claims. "The first thing jugglers do when they meet one another is say hello. Then they start teaching each other tricks. You meet great people, even if they're all a bit crazy."

Then there are the economic benefits. As we gathered lacrosse balls, ski jackets and overcoats to leave, Picciano called out, "Let's go juggle for a few beers!" Turning to me, he said: "It never fails: Walk into a bar, whip out your pins and you're in business."