The first juggler arrived on Library Mall just after sunset, early for the scheduled practice.
He sported a long, graying ponytail, an “Adventures of TinTin” t-shirt and a canvas bag from which he pulled two clubs — plastic and shaped like slim bowling pins.
Holding the clubs in one hand, he flipped them toward the sky, one after the other. Each turned exactly twice in the air, fell, was caught and tossed upwards again.
It was five minutes before the first club clattered to the ground.
When asked for an interview, the juggler said yes — but maybe later.
“I’m really hot right now,” he said. “I need to keep juggling otherwise I lose my edge.”
As more jugglers slowly trickled in, the Library Mall crowd flowed by — some rubbernecking, some stopping to observe or snap pictures, some shouting encouragement. The majority though gave the spectacle little more than a glance, perhaps because they’re used to it.
After all, the Madison Area Jugglers have been at the same spot, weather allowing, every week, often twice a week, for over 35 years.
The ponytailed man, who goes by Melonhead, said he started juggling here in 1983 when an informal group was already practicing every Sunday on the mall.
The club has developed over time, now with twice-weekly meetings and its own annual juggling festival, but informality remains at the heart of what they do.
There is no application process, no requisite skill level: just show up and start juggling. And without agendas, rules or formal positions, the club has come to mean different things to different members.
For Nick Aikens, juggling is social. The Pittsburgh native used it as a way of meeting people his own age when he took a gap year between high school and college.
“I enjoy that there are people who are weird and nerdy that you can juggle with,” Aikens said. “None of us are all that normal and, to me, being abnormal is perfectly fine.”
Aikens jumps at any chance to teach newcomers — and it’s impossible to refuse one of his lessons.
“Do you juggle?” he asked immediately when he saw a reporter on the scene. “Do you want to learn how to juggle? Oh, you’re taking a report? So you want to fully do your report by learning, right? Okay sounds good!”
Curious passersby are free to join the group, a perk of practicing on Library Mall, the group’s customary location. But it also has its drawbacks.
“You get people heckling you, but that’s life,” Aikens said. “They’re like, ‘Light it on fire!’ and I’m like, ‘That’s the wrong object for lighting on fire, come back two weeks from now and we’ll be doing fire!’”
Aikens gave another lesson to a student passerby, who hopped off his bike and asked if he could join in the fun. Aikens teaches him the basics of “passing” — juggling between multiple people — which is the group’s specialty.
In groups of four, with a dozen or more pins between them, members practice tricks from the Madison Area Jugglers Pattern Book, a 173-page document describing various passing arrangements, such as the “Khaos Butterfly” and the “Bermuda Quadrangle.”
Melonhead calls the club “recess for adults,” but for some, that’s an understatement.
The goal of juggling for him is control, not how many objects you throw or how fast you juggle. (But Melonhead claimed he once made 480 consecutive catches juggling five balls while standing on a platform on a rolling cylinder).
“[The goal is to] put [objects] in the right place at the right time so you’re comfortable with it,” Melonhead said. “You feel the rhythm of what you’re doing, and once you get into that flow, it’s just so much fun.”
Most of the jugglers agreed that the act of juggling, rather than the outcome, was most important to them. But it’s not everything, according to Melonhead.
“This is the second biggest passion I have in life,” Melonhead said. So what could possibly overshadow juggling?
He was quick to answer: “Family always goes first.”
Mike Newton, a UW-Madison Statistics professor, has been juggling with the group since 1981. He first learned the trade from his older sister’s prom date, who showed up early on the big night and needed a way to kill time.
What really got Newton into juggling, though, was his PhD. Under intense stress, he turned to the tricks as a way to relieve stress while keeping his mind active.
“You’re focused really hard,” Newton said. “But it’s not the same part of your brain that you focus on when you’re at work.”
Ben Perreth has been coming to practices for almost five years. He lost the use of his right hand to a brain injury when he was seven. For him, juggling is a form of “self-therapy” for his ADHD.
Perreth, who works as a motivational speaker, has also taught juggling to students as a confidence-building exercise.
“It’s self-esteem in my opinion, more than anything else,” Perreth said. “If you have a little faith and a lot of resilience, [you] can do things that will dazzle the audience.”