Prompted by Jonathan Alvarez, here’s the story of how I became a contact juggler:
I first found “the flow” in the service industry, not in the circus. I was trained in the Hogwarts of barista-craft, what was (sometime around 2001) a somewhat-secret, hyper-elite team of the top 0.5% of… coffee nerds. I could (and still can) tell which coffees came from which countries just by flavor, and at one point was invited to study coffee farming with a guy who’d produce the 8th highest rated coffee in Guatemala one year. I was ready for anything, earning the nickname “Anikin” for the exuberance with which I wanted to tackle the world of barista competitions. My mentor, an international barista competition judge, referred to me as “a machine” and brought some of the best baristas, farmers, and roasters to come in to taste my drinks. It was around then that I started having these “funny feelings,” which I confessed to a mentor: the strange phenomenon that, when 40 customers walk in the door at the same time, this kind of Matrix effect happens – time stops, you sprout six extra arms, and you enter this kind of meditative state – and after knocking out 50+ perfect drinks in a row, an hour has passed by in about ten minutes. He confirmed that the feelings were real, and to take them as a sign that I was on the right track — a special student who could find something so magical in a craft considered as cheap and profane as making coffee.
Having also cultivated a life-long love of music, I’d also been cultivating my talents as a DJ. Classically trained on viola for ten years, I found that the musicality necessary for juggling polyrhythms on the wheels of steel was relatively easy to grasp. I’d found deep pleasure mixing dance music at the sketchy small-town party house we’d all infested as teenagers, and once that scene grew up we started taking over local clubs. One of my old fans had started playing music in that club scene, and he invited me to come back to try my hand at a real DJ setup. I had a knack for it, and I eventually wound up with a residency mixing tracks once or more per week. It was when I heard DJ Qbert, one of the world’s best turntablists, talking about the VERY SAME PHENOMENON — time dilation, perfect focus, a state of communion with your audience — that I knew something magical was happening. I developed a career in turntablism that supported me for years, and found myself cultivating that flow more consciously. It was my second shot at cultivating flow for a living. The thing my fans would say set me apart from so many other DJs was that I was “having so much fun up there!”
Years passed. I developed an understanding that there were plenty of routes to the flow state, and that music was my #1. And one year, I followed some circus friends to the Summer Meltdown festival after a couple years of getting heckled to go. It was my first entry into “festival culture” since I was a small child, not counting more mainstream music fests like Bumbershoot.
Friday night. It was right after seeing March Fourth Marching Band for my very first of many, many times. I was working my new-found festie skill of Staying A Step Ahead Of The Pack Of Wasted Bros; the dancefloor I was on had turned sour, and I walked off into the night looking for something else. Pinpoints of light danced in the darkness, and I went to investigate. Sitting at the edge of the fire circle, I saw fire spinners. Fire spinners GOING OFF. Watching them hitting it, hitting it the same way I could “hit it” in a coffee bar or “hit it” playing records or “hit it” dropping foes in Soul Calibur, burned a singular thought in my head: “Music’s not going to be enough.”
That night, the thought was burned into my mind: that the creative urge is the same as hunger, or loneliness – an urge that we learn to satisfy with a sufficient diversity of “food groups.” If the “food groups” of the body are carbs/protein/water/etc, and the “food groups” of fighting loneliness are goths/nerds/hippies/hiphoppers/etc, then what were the “food groups” to satisfy the creative urge? “Craft” was one, and for me that was barista-craft. And “music” was a group, which I could explore with strings or with vinyl. And “dance,” which included martial arts and other movement arts, was definitely one. But what was my form of dance?
I spent the rest of the weekend learning the three-beat weave and the butterfly, thinking I might become a great poi spinner. But I’d dicked around with contact juggling during my crappy video arcade job in the mall years before, I’d bought the book off Michael Moschen’s rogue colleague who’d lifted all Moschen’s tricks and released them in a volume titled “Contact Juggling.” But it had gotten hard, so I’d quit. Still, I knew that a contact juggler that I had a crush on was at the fest, and I tracked her down to teach me some tricks that would help me round out my skills.
When I came home from the festival and saw the circus troupe under whose auspices I’d traveled the weekend prior, really saw them in a full venue in their full splendor, it was all over. I ran up to my friend (a costumer and promoter, now a force in the Acrobatic Conundrum) in the troupe and asked her: “I know what you’re trying to do. How do you get involved?” And fifty juggling clubs later, I was pretty good. And fifty juggling clubs after that, I was pretty great. Back then, I had the attitude that I would learn every trick possible, and that led me to hitchhike all the way to the Vulcan to learn (from Greg Maldonado) the first trick I’d seen someone do on the Internet that I couldn’t teach myself. And, because learning to do it well makes you want to do it more, contact juggling soon took over my life. Since that one festival in the forests of northwest Washington, the circus has taken me on a journey of tens of thousands of miles. And most importantly, it’s taken me on an inner journey to a deep and cosmic truth — that everything, including the impossible, becomes possible with practice.
I always wonder whether I’ll drift into a different practice. Getting a degree in hard science is showing me a different kind of practice, a different “food group” of flow. But movement practice will always be an essential part of my being — just like music, or craft, or the other essential creative outlets. It’s all magic, in the end. All you’ve gotta do to get it is #findyourflow.