Three Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Juggling

Juggling is really old.

Did you know that images of jugglers have been discovered on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is about 4,000 years old? Near the town of modern-day Minya, Egypt, you can visit the Beni Hasan tombs. In tomb number 15, you can see an unmistakable illustration of multiple women juggling balls or rocks of some sort (some to themselves and some with one another). Researcher Billy Gillen believes the juggling had some sort of religious funerary significance to it – like an offering of performance art made on behalf of the deceased (Juggler’s World, Vol. 38, No. 2). The first image is a darkening of the drawing. The second image is a still shot of a video someone took inside the actual tomb.

Other depictions of juggling throughout history have been discovered as well, like this illustration of a juggler on a tomb wall in China that is nearly 2,000 years old (Dahuting Tomb, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China):

You can actually see the newly acquired skill of juggling show up as grey matter in a brain scan!

In 2004, a group of scholars published an article in the journal Nature that described how they found new areas of grey matter on brain scans of people who had recently learned how to juggle. Basically, they did brain scans on a group of people. They then split the group into two parts and taught one part of the group how to juggle over a three-month period. The people who learned how to juggle then showed new grey matter in a particular part of the brain while the non-jugglers showed no new grey matter. Furthermore, the new jugglers intentionally let their new skill fade away for the study. They stopped practicing for three months. A final scan was done at that point and the grey matter had faded into a smaller size of grey matter!

This means that when it comes to our brains, if we don’t use it, we literally lose it (that is, the muscle memory we had built up when originally learning something). It also shows what is called the neuro-plasticity of our brains. Our brains can grow and learn new things throughout our entire lives (and conversely lose things that we stop working on). Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Here is the reference for the article: Bogdan Draganski, Christian Gaser, Volker Busch, Gerhard Schuierer, Ulrich Bogdahn & Arne May. “Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training.” Nature 427, 311-312 (22 January 2004).

Juggling is a powerful force of art.

Pretty much all art has the power to communicate messages in remarkable ways. I have found that the art of juggling is no exception. This does not mean we should necessarily “exploit” art for the purpose of communication. Often, art stands on its own as great art with no intended message. But if I want to teach children about the solar system, character development, gravity, or about loving one’s neighbor, I have found that juggling will not only hold their attention for the message, but it also helps them visualize a point and even retain it for a long period of time.

Let me give an example: One of my first shows when I was just starting out was a Parent’s Night Out event at a church in Marion, Indiana (Hanfield United Methodist Church). I was a young college student at Taylor University just down the road. I was responsible for entertaining of room of about 30 or 40 kids on Valentine’s Day evening while their parents went out on a date. I performed my show, the kids loved it, the parents came back, and everyone went home happy.

So happy, in fact, that the event organizer invited me back the following year for the same event on Valentine’s Day. I was still young and new at performing, so this was my first repeat customer. I figured it had been an entire year since my last show, so there would be no problem performing the same routine…right?

I was wrong. I started my show that second year and noticed that many of the same kids from the previous year were in the crowd. How did I know? They started feeding me the lines of my stories and jokes before the words came out of my mouth! They had remembered my words A YEAR LATER. I was dumbfounded. What if kids could retain everything they learn in school and church the same way?

I realized two truths while performing that show: Number one, juggling is a powerful tool for teaching as it somehow causes children to remember whatever you’re saying with the show with amazing precision. Number two, I needed to work on some new material!

So I often present some sort of story or message along with my show. It might be a Biblical story for a faith-based group or a topic related to hard work and character development for a school assembly. I also perform shows that are strictly entertainment. Those are fun too, because we all know that sometimes, the best thing to do is just relax and laugh without a particular message or agenda being presented.

Which brings me to my final story: I once was asked to perform for a group of mostly Arab children in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem at one of the schools there. The year was 2000, and I was a study-abroad student that semester at Jerusalem University College. What became known as The Second Intafada flared up while I was there. It was a period of intense fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters.

My host was one of the school’s administrators and showed me around a village that had been destroyed by the fighting the night before I came. These children lived and saw war all around them. I humbly stood before them and performed my juggling show. They laughed and had a great time. So did I.

After the show, my host came up to me and said, “Thank you so much, Jesse. This is exactly what these kids needed. When they go outside for recess, they play funeral. They line up in a procession and pretend to carry a coffin and march through the playground. What you did today made them laugh and brought smiles to their faces. Thank you.”

Play funeral?! Wow. And here I am, just a silly juggler from another country doing something that I enjoy doing. I didn’t have all the answers to their troubles and I certainly don’t have all the answers to war. But the little bit that I did by doing a juggling show somehow helped, even if just in a small way. The small things we do (whether juggling or something else) can be more powerful than we ever know.

Do you juggle? If so, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about juggling in your life? If you don’t juggle, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about life from your interests, hobbies, and work?


First Night Virginia!

I am happy to announce that I will be performing at First Night Virginia in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve! My shows will be at 3pm and 5:30pm, respectively. Bring the whole family and tell your friends about it too. There are lots of other activities and entertainers for the whole family. See you there!

Here is the link to their website so you can learn all about it:

Juggling While in Motion

Last month I successfully juggled while flying down a zip line. I had tried the feat three or four times previously and I always dropped about halfway down the line. This most recent time, though, I made it the whole way (about 100 yards). Here is the video evidence, followed by some thoughts on the science behind it….

Between doing this zip line juggle and juggling while running (“joggling”), people often make comments to me that imply their confusion over the science of how it works. Many people think I need to throw the balls ahead of me in order to juggle while in forward motion.

The answer is, no, I do not. The balls are already in forward motion with me as I’m running or flying on a zip line. They are traveling the same speed as me, so when I toss them upward, they fly both up and forward without any extra forward effort on my part. If you were to stand in the back of a moving pick-up truck (do not attempt) and toss a basketball straight up, it would not fly behind you but rather in front of you as if you were standing still (as long as you are not going so incredibly fast that there is crazy wind resistance).

The problem with the zip line, though, is not the forward motion, but rather the spinning motion. That is what has always messed me up in the past. When I spin while juggling, I do need to overcompensate my throws in a particular direction to make up for the spin. When I successfully juggled down the zip line, I just happened to get the throws right based on my spins. It was tough, but certainly possible.

Fun at Eagle Church in Indiana

Enjoy this short video of the machete juggling at the Upward closing ceremony for Eagle Church in Whitestown, IN!


Valentine’s Day Lesson for Children’s Church

Here is a brief presentation I gave for the kids at my church on Valentine’s Day 2016. I do some juggling in it, but if you give a similar lesson (which you are free to do, of course), just insert your own version of something impressive to demonstrate to the children instead of juggling. The message is the same either way. Or you can just show this video to your kids if you like. Hope you enjoy!

Atlanta Tour Recap

I just got back from three shows in the greater Atlanta area over the weekend. I had a wonderful time visiting three churches. At each one, I got to perform my show and share about the story of Christ. My prayer is that God’s Word will be planted in good soil in the hearts of those who heard. Here are some pics from one of the shows (for Redeemer Sports at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, GA):

12688102_1640753132842839_3707916654693450546_n 12647515_10207258163606645_4890059711459172973_n 12654497_10207258163486642_6008792442474139473_n

The Easiest Way to Learn Juggling

Perhaps you took a how-to-juggle seminar in third grade gym class, like me. Or maybe you warmed the bench (like me) on the baseball team and taught yourself how to juggle baseballs with all that time on your hands.

But maybe you haven’t learned yet. Or the things you’ve tried have all failed. Over the years, I have come across many juggling props. I can say that the simplest props to use when first learning how to juggle (for most people) are scarves.

The scarves float, so they turn the juggling pattern into a slow motion cascade. They make it easy for your brain to learn the pattern so you can eventually graduate to juggling balls. Scarves usually run anywhere from $1 to $10 for a set of three. You can get them from or any juggling supplier.

Then one day, my friend David Cain tipped me off to something about scarves. If you want to save your money, simply use plastic grocery bags! You can even snip off the handles and presto!, you have free juggling scarves. I’ve used plastic grocery bags ever since when I teach large groups how to juggle. They work great and you’re saving the earth at the same time. Here are some pics from an instructional I gave my fellow PhD students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

IMG_3993 IMG_3991

The idea of the lesson was to give an example of adult learning. We can indeed learn new things like juggling as adults! This is know as the neuroplasticity of our brains (Draganski, et al. Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature 427, 311-312 [22 January 2004]). We learn best through experiential learning, and juggling is very hands-on and experiential.

IMG_3996 IMG_3986

Watch my video on how to juggle three balls. If you’re starting with scarves, you can use those too. The pattern is the same. Just know that they will float slower (of course) and you’re going to toss and catch them with your palms forward instead of palms facing up (as with balls). Let me know if you have any questions!

Juggling Ice

I ordered some silicone molds that make perfect ice spheres about the size of a baseball. I put them in the freezer and out came the ice balls for juggling. I went outside and tried them out.

I was able to do it – and of course my hands got very cold! The balls began to melt and in turn got slippery. But I could still maintain the juggle for about a minute or so. Maybe my next trick should involve some sort of mix of juggling these with fire torches. The fire and ice show. What do you think?IMG_6177.JPG

I can see some good teaching opportunities here too, such as the nature of water and how it can take on different properties. And how the hands are very warm and have the potential to melt ice fairly quickly.

How to Balance a Hat on Your Face

Enjoy this new video I just posted on balancing a hat on your face. Always remember two main things:

  1. Keep your eyes fixed on the highest point possible on the object you’re balancing.
  2. Tilt your head back farther than you think you should.

Let me know if you have any questions!