Up for the count

Jugglers may pop out on streets this spring, but the real action is in a thriving Hub subculture

Arthur Lewbel , 50 , a BC professor who's been a key figure in the new juggling subculture, practices his moves at MIT.

Arthur Lewbel , 50 , a BC professor who's been a key figure in the new juggling subculture, practices his moves at MIT. (JUSTINE HUNT/GLOBE STAFF)

Most Sundays, Nic Price and Anton Kozhushnyan hang out in the lobby of Building 10, underneath the Great Dome at MIT. On the surface, they share little in common. Kozhushnyan, a 19-year-old from Brookline, is a freshman at Northeastern. Price, 28, is Australian and a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

Their bond is juggling -- that is, the intricate, numerically based science of juggling.

Street performers, who will start appearing around the city as the weather warms, represent the public face of juggling. But the scientist and the freshman represent the much larger, and largely hidden, side of juggling: the juggling subculture.

"We're juggling geeks," Price says. He and Kozhushnyan are members of the MIT/Boston Juggling Club, founded in 1975. It claims to be the world's oldest "hobby" juggling club in continuous operation, and is a cornerstone of the American juggling landscape.

"Boston has always had a strong local juggling scene because of its world-class street performers," says Alan Howard, the editor of Juggle Magazine. "A lot of the pioneers of street performing, and a couple world champions, started out in Faneuil Hall."

But while juggling has long been a craft for performers, the idea of a person taking it up just for the fun of it was almost unheard of until the mid-1970s, when some unlikely bedfellows -- late-era hippies and early computer programmers -- took it up as a hobby.

In hundreds of local juggling clubs -- Boston and Cambridge have five between them -- and at dozens of large regional and national conventions, juggling has developed into a fully formed subculture with tens of thousands of hardcore followers and its own stars and feuds.

And the MIT/Boston club has played an important role in what Arthur Lewbel , 50 , an economics professor at Boston College who started the club while he was an undergraduate at MIT, calls the "three great revolutions" to hit the juggling world over the last three decades.

He has dubbed the first big change "the rise of the hobby juggler," in which the MIT/Boston club was a pioneer.

"When I started the club, hobby jugglers were almost nonexistent," Lewbel says. "I learned to juggle in the early '70s, and it was almost a year-and-a-half before I met another person who could juggle three balls. The only people who juggled were in the circus or old vaudevillians.

"A lot of our early members were part of Project MAC, the first generation of computer programmers and the forerunner to the MIT Computer Science Lab," says Lewbel. "And I think what drew the geeks and the hippies was that they were both willing to be nonconformists. The fact that juggling was associated with clowns meant that it was extremely uncool, and I think those two groups were not repelled by being uncool."

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A great leap forward

Juggling took a giant leap in 1977 with the publication of "Juggling for the Complete Klutz," which sold millions of copies and brought juggling to the masses.

By the end of the '70s, the International Jugglers' Association, founded in 1947 by ex- vaudevillians hoping to preserve the craft for a future generation, saw its annual convention jump from under 100 jugglers to more than 1,000.

It was late in that decade that juggling entered its second revolution. That's when an MIT professor happened to walk by the juggling club.

"One day, we were juggling and this cheerful, gray-haired professor came by and says, 'Do you mind if I measure your juggling?' " Lewbel recalled. "We had no idea he was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century." That man was Claude Shannon, who is known as "the father of information theory" and is credited with laying the theoretical groundwork for the modern computer.

Shannon came up with a theorem -- the first application of mathematics to juggling -- that set forth the relation between the position of the balls and the action of the hands. But he just missed discovering the theory of "siteswaps," which discovered a numerical system contained within the patterns themselves. Shannon, who died in 2001, "had some ideas that were the precursors to siteswaps," Lewbel says. "If he had stewed on it a little longer, he would have come up with it."

Instead, the theory was discovered in the mid-1980s by scientists working independently both in England and the United States. Their system unlocked the mathematics hidden within traditional patterns by assigning each object being juggled a numeral based on the number of beats it remains in the air. Siteswaps allowed jugglers to take throws from different patterns and combine them to create thousands of new patterns.

"Before siteswaps were discovered, the vast majority of juggling patterns had the balls going to the same height," according to Lewbel. "Jugglers would add variations by throwing the ball under their legs or behind the back. But using siteswaps allowed there to be all these different throws, at different heights, within a single pattern. It's like the impact that jazz and rock 'n' roll had on music."

Sean Gandini, a British juggler known for his use of complex, multiperson siteswaps in avant-garde performances, recently released "Siteswap," a documentary-style video featuring interviews with the inventors and footage of jugglers doing about 2,000 patterns. The DVD is 11 hours long.

"I would aggrandize and say that it is the most important thing to happen to juggling," says Gandini of siteswap theory. "We just made a piece with six jugglers that was very tightly scored to a Mozart symphony, and siteswaps allowed us to match the heights of the throws to the notes of the score in just a few days. That would have been impossible before siteswaps."

The problem with siteswaps is that they're rarely seen outside of the juggling subculture . Many professional jugglers shy away from performing siteswaps because an untrained audience is incapable of appreciating, or even following, the complex patterns.

"An audience can barely tell the difference between five and seven balls," says Emil Lamprecht, a 19-year-old performer who founded the Emerson College Student Juggling Club last year. (Harvard, Boston University and MIT all have separate student clubs.) "Can they see 663?" he asks, referring to a pattern with two high throws and a low one. "No. They'll just see balls going all over the place and think the juggler has lost control."

Revolution No. 3

Lewbel, who wrote a column called "The Academic Juggler" for Juggler's World magazine from 1987 to '96, was one of the first to spread the siteswap concept to the juggling world. But he says it was not until the third revolution, the rise of the Internet juggling community and the spread of video, that siteswaps truly took off.

"The Internet has had a huge impact on juggling," he says. "The average skill level has grown exponentially, because juggling is one of those skills where you really need to see it done by others."

To put the rise in skill level into perspective, Edward Jackman won the first IJA numbers competition in 1979 -- a challenge to see who can juggle the most objects longest -- by juggling seven rings for six seconds. Today, the seven-ring record is 15 minutes, and jugglers have "qualified" 10 objects (to "qualify" means to go through the pattern twice, which would be 20 catches for ten objects) and "flashed" 13 (a "flash" is once through the pattern, which would be 13 catches for 13 objects).

But the spread of Internet juggling videos has had a curious effect on the juggling community, says Lewbel. "Jugglers are trying a lot more crazier things," he says. "In the old days, you wouldn't work on a trick unless you were planning to perform it." Now, many young jugglers will roll the video until they land a once-in-a-hundred trick, and then release the edited video on the Internet in a bid for minor juggling stardom. (Jay Gilligan, a well-respected 30-year-old artistic performer from Ohio, coined a derogatory term for this younger generation. He calls them instant jugglers.")

The MIT/Boston Club is largely removed from the "instant" world and many of the other raging controversies in the subculture. The most heated topic in juggling now is the art vs. sport debate, which began four years ago when Jason Garfield, a 32-year-old from Las Vegas, started the World Juggling Federation to rid juggling of the clowns and chainsaws and bowling balls -- gimmicks employed "by hacks who make juggling look stupid," Garfield says -- and instead treat juggling as a quantifiable athletic skill, capable of being judged along the lines of gymnastics and figure skating. The WJF competitions have aired on ESPN2, and the next competition and convention -- the first on the East Coast -- will be held in Hartford in July. (Lewbel, incidentally, is a judge for the WJF competitions, but thinks juggling can be both an art and a sport.)

Still, any trip to the MIT/Boston club is bound to turn up a young juggler trying something that would have seemed beyond "crazy" when the club started.

On a recent Sunday, Lewbel and Barry Rosenberg, veterans of juggling revolution #1, were standing in the lobby of Building 10 on the MIT campus -- where the club meets every Sunday from 3 to 6:30 --watching MIT junior Eric Gilbertson, a shining example of juggling revolution #3, attempt to flash 10 balls.

"Sure, five balls in each hand," says Rosenberg, his voice dripping with the sarcasm of someone who began juggling 25 years ago, when five balls with two hands was enough to make you a star in the gym. "No problem."

"This would have been unheard of in the old days," Lewbel adds. "Maybe some Russian circus performer would have tried 10 in practice, but I would never have thought I'd see a young hobby juggler working on something like that.

"Juggling," Lewbel says, "just looks different."

And no, he is not referring to the fact that none of the two-dozen jugglers present were wearing a big red nose and floppy shoes. He is talking about numbers.

Billy Baker is writing a book about the juggling subculture. He can be reached at williamgbaker@yahoo.com