Juggling Pact

In the University Center breezeway on the Coral Gables campus, a slim barefoot man, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and sporting an impressive beard, is doing what he’s done almost every Thursday evening for nearly three decades—juggling.

The man is David Landowne, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the Miller School of Medicine. The dozen and a half people with him are part of the Coconut Grove Juggling Exchange (its origins date back to 1984 in the Grove’s Peacock Park), more popularly known as the Juggling Club. It’s an eclectic mix of UM, high school, and middle school students, plus a couple of adults from the community, one FIU professor, and Landowne, who’s been at UM since 1972 and whose academic pedigree includes M.I.T., Harvard, and Yale.

Most of them practice with balls and “clubs,” which resemble stretched-out bowling pins. Some juggle while moving around and balancing an object on their head. A few are “hooping”—spinning modular hoops that can be joined in segments to create large diameters. One UM student has two hoops going—one around her waist and another on the wrist raised above her head. Someone else is hooping and juggling in unison.

Landowne, whose day job includes teaching about cellular function and studying squid axons, claims he can get anyone juggling in ten minutes. “If you can put both hands on your head, you can juggle,” he assures. “If you can play catch, you’re three quarters of the way there.” To demonstrate, he and the FIU professor take three clubs each and play a thrilling version of catch, occasionally adding fancy moves like tossing from beneath their leg.

Starting a beginner with one object, Landowne instructs, “Just toss it from one hand to the other, in an arc about the height of the top of your head.” Advancing to two items, he adds, “Toss one, and wait for it to begin coming down.” Of course, the key is bringing your hand back in time to catch the item tossed by the other hand.

“It’s not as difficult as it looks,” insists Landowne, who learned to juggle long ago while working in community theater. “No matter how many balls you’re juggling, you only really have one in the air at any one time.” Still, when the novice attempts the three-ball challenge, all three wind up rolling aimlessly on the breezeway floor. Only ten minutes to teach someone? Really? “Well, that’s an average,” Landowne says with a smile. He considers these Thursday nights a “reward.”

“I protect and value that time. I also enjoy teaching new jugglers,” he explains. “It’s exciting when they get it. I enjoy being there when they accomplish something—just as I do in the classroom. If you break things down into little steps, they become possible; if you repeat them, they become learned.”

Robert S. Benchley