JUGGLING 101 : You, Too, Can Be an Accomplished Plate-Spinner With Jahnathon Whitfield's Help

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

It was a disparate bunch that gathered on the entertainment deck that cloudy morning: retirees in Bermuda shorts, young mothers with children, matrons in sensible shoes and artists in tie-dyed shirts. Half an hour later they would part, maybe not as friends, but as least having shared a few laughs at themselves and each other.

In his California Juggling Workshop, professional juggler Jahnathon Whitfield unites the young and old, the agile and the klutzy for a 30-minute audience participation program Tuesdays and Thursdays through Aug. 29 at Laguna's Sawdust Festival. By the end of the show, everyone in the audience has a chance to try his or her hand at juggling, whether it's balancing a whirling plate on a stick or twirling a lariat. Judging from a recent morning session, the results are not always impressive, but everyone has a good time trying.

Jahnathon (his preferred stage name) says he hopes to build public appreciation of his craft by going beyond the typical, you-watch-it performance format used by most jugglers.

"Most people have tried juggling before, and more often than not, they're surprised at how tricky it can be," he explained during a phone interview from his Tustin home. "My idea is to make it approachable by giving them a step-by-step experience."

That hands-on element begins with the opening of the show. After a quick demonstration, Jahnathon, dressed in billowing pants and a multicolor skullcap, gave the entire audience a crack at plate-spinning, a trick he said originated in the Orient centuries ago. The whirling plate, balanced on top of a slender wooden stick, was passed hand to hand until it reached the end of the row. Not a crash was heard (he uses plastic plates), and the students were now primed for the next stunt.

For the rest of the show, selected audience members from kindergartners to 40-something would twirl a lariat, balance Quix Stix (a variation on Chinese rhythm or flower sticks) or try their hands at the Toss-Up (a beginners version of the Chinese diabolo, an hourglass-shaped item that's manipulated with a string). Jahnathon closed the workshop with a display of three professional-level versions of the diabolo, which he described as "the 3,500-year-old Chinese grandfather of the yo-yo."

Juggling itself began about 4,500 years ago, said Jahnathon. Ancient Egyptian tombs depict jugglers, and in the Middle Ages, court jesters often included juggling in their repertoire as did French jougleurs, or wandering minstrels.

A self-taught juggler who claims to have schooled 125,000 people in workshops at schools, libraries and festivals, Jahnathon says his is a skill that appeals to all ages and abilities.

"Juggling is something that's pure play," he explained. "There's no top end to it, so you can enjoy it for the rest of your life. It's an artistic sport that's both family-oriented and individual-oriented." To involve even more people in the sport, Jahnathon co-founded the Orange Juggler, a loosely-knit group of amateur and professional jugglers who meet regularly at local parks.

"And," he added, "juggling goes all the way up the age curve. It's like a balloon. A clown will give a balloon to someone, and it's an automatic smile-maker."

What: California Juggling Workshop.

When: Thursday, Aug. 22, and Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Aug. 29 at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Where: Entertainment Deck on the Sawdust Festival grounds, 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the Laguna (133) Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road, and travel south. The festival grounds are on the left side.

Wherewithal: Festival admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, children 12 and under are free.

Where to call: (714) 494-3030.

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