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Published Saturday, July 1, 2000

Junior jugglers

Kelli D. Esters / Star Tribune

Barbara Thompson of Woodbury spends more than half an hour driving to Edina a couple of times a week so her 10-year-old son, Benjamin, can be around other kids who juggle.

Benjamin is a member of the Jugheads Youth Juggling Company, made up of third-through 10th-graders. Directed and coached by Paul Arneberg of Edina, the Jugheads have more than 60 members who participate after school, on Saturdays and through the summer in camps held at the Edina Community Center.

Scott Huntley, 11, juggled rings while Sofia Meyer balanced atop a ball during a class at the Edina Community Center. Both are from Edina.

Thompson said that juggling has helped her shy son make new friends. "Juggling has given him a common ground to go and talk to other people, and he feels good about himself," she said. "He has great potential to be quite interesting at a cocktail party when he grows up."

These youngsters can execute some impressive feats. Don't worry -- they don't use machetes or fire to display their talents. They toss traditional items such as balls, clubs and rings. Then there are the auxiliary props, like a diablo, which resembles an oversized butterfly yo-yo made of rubber; it's tossed and caught on a string. Then there are cigar boxes and crystal sticks, wherein two sticks are used to toss and twirl a third. Or throw a unicycle into the mix.

On his third day at camp, Alex Hield, 9, of Edina is learning how to juggle three palm-sized balls filled with birdseed while trying to keep his balance on a 2-foot-tall hard-plastic ball. He makes up to 35 consecutive catches while maintaining his balance on the ball. "I like juggling a lot," Alex said. I'm hoping to get up to four balls."

But not everyone picks up juggling as easily as Alex has. Charlie Peterson, 9, of Edina walked around trying to juggle two balls. He threw one up in the air, stopped to compose himself and then started the process all over again.

His slow progress has not hindered his enthusiasm. He said that the club isn't what he expected it to be. "It's more fun," Charlie said. His goal: to juggle three balls by the end of the week.

Goals are an important part of Jugheads. Beginners start with one ball. As they get the passing and catching motions down, they progress to two balls, three, and so on. They learn at their own pace and are taught to be patient and to persevere. It's no big deal if a ball or a club drops.

Arneberg has each youngster post a progress chart. "What is so great about juggling is that nobody can juggle for them," he said. "It is purely individual."

Top tossers

When a young juggler reaches a pre-set goal, it's a real ego booster. "Seven balls -- that's my crown accomplishment," said Dan Berman, 13.

He and Peter Frey, 14, both of Edina, are two of the more experienced Jugheads and are performance partners. Peter has been juggling for six years and taught Dan how to juggle four years ago. Both like to come to the club early in the day to coach younger jugglers.

On a recent day, they stood before the young group and demonstrated how to pass seven clubs. Peter looked up, concentrating on the continuous stream of circus clubs cascading from the sky. His alert eyes darted from club to club. His lips stretched back and then pinched forward. Occasionally his tongue would involuntarily stick out as he caught each club and passed it to his partner.

Peter and Dan have improved their hand-eye coordination -- and hand-foot connection, too. Peter's ability to juggle with his feet has helped him when he plays soccer, he says.

Dan says he used to strike out in baseball frequently, but hardly ever misses since taking up juggling.

Juggling may even help in the classroom. Arneberg said that parents have told him him that their children's math scores have gone up as a result of juggling.

Perhaps that is because counting and rhythm are emphasized at camp. Music plays in the background during practice sessions, making it easier for the young jugglers to concentrate on the steady stream of objects coming at them.

Competitive spirit

Performing in public is a big deal for the Jugheads. Every spring the entire club puts on a show called Juggle Jam, a full program where members show off their skills to a paid audience.

Lana Bolin, 13, of Edina is the female world record holder for "joggling," which is running while juggling. In 15.9 seconds, she can run 100 meters while juggling three balls. Late this month in Montreal, Lana will defend her title and compete in the mile joggle at the 53rd Annual International Juggling Association (IJA) Festival.

It will be the Jugheads' fifth consecutive appearance at the festival, which is open to all of the IJA's 3,000 members.

The Jughead performance team consists of the club's 12 most advanced jugglers. The team performs at functions throughout the year, and will appear at the IJA Festival's Youth Showcase, sharing the stage with other young American jugglers.

It's yet another chance for the Jugheads to establish relationships and make friends.

The older, more advanced jugglers benefit from coaching the beginners. "I get happy when I teach them something and they do it," Dan Berman said.

And the younger jugglers have people to look up to. "It gives you a chance to meet older kids who are more experienced and they can help you," said Fiona Rentoul, 10, of Edina.

From klutz to king

Arneberg started Jugheads six years ago. "I am doing what I have been called to do," he said.

He runs the program six days a week with help from his wife, Wendy, and his parents. It began as a branch of a youth program called the Wise Guys that Arneberg supervised. But as interest in juggling increased, Jugheads became its own entity. Arneberg stepped down as manager of Wise Guys to devote more time to what he refers to as his "made-up" job with the Jugheads. It became a full-time career in 1998.

"What I'm really good at is working with kids, and juggling is my vehicle," said Arneberg.

Arneberg began juggling at age 20 when his brother gave him a book called "Juggling for the Complete Klutz." He caught on quickly. Juggling was then regarded as a fun hobby and a tool to "accent" his acting career. "Little did I know that juggling would turn into a career and a magnet for kids," he said.

Arneberg admits that juggling is not wildly popular with the age group that he deals with, and he loses a large percentage of his students around the time they start middle school. But he tries to keep it fun and interesting by showing his enthusiasm for the sport.

Arneberg said that he is a "dichotomy being": one part camp director, one part business owner. "I take it a year at a time," he said. "I don't see myself leaving to make more money or for something more fulfilling."

"He's like a kid," said Dan Berman. "He'll invite us over to play Nintendo or eat pizza."

Arneberg describes himself as a "vicarious uncle," treating those involved in the club as an extended family.

"He has enriched these kids' lives tremendously," said Henry Berman, Dan's father.

-- Kelli D. Esters can be contacted via e-mail at kesters@startribune.com.

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