Feature Article Vol. V – No. 5

Today’s Technology

Makes Long Distance Juggling and Coaching Possible

richard kennison

Richard Kennison

If you were a figure skater or a gymnast and you wanted to compete at the highest level you would have to find a coach willing to take you on, and you would have to move and take up residence for an unspecified time in the city where your coach resided. What if you wanted to be become a world class juggler?  Until recently the same situation prevailed here as it did for skaters and gymnasts.  That was the case with Richard Kennison until a young juggler suggested he could be coached long distance using the internet.  Suddenly a whole new world opened up.

Kennison’s home base remains St. Louis’ Circus Harmony, where along with Jessica Hentoff and her staff one can take pre-professional training, and receive in person coaching, which, Kennison admits, is still the best way to develop one’s talent. People still come to St. Louis and stay with Circus Harmony for anywhere from three months to a year to work with Kennison and the circus’s other coaches.  But nowadays Kennison also has a lot of people that he coaches long distance.  They remain at home in Germany, Atlanta Ga, Alabama, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I coach them using today’s technology,” Kennison says with some chagrin. “It wasn’t my idea to do this.  It came from a kid who said he could Skype me.” Kennison, admittedly no technical wizard had to ask what the kid meant exactly.  Although his long distance coaching began with that suggestion, Kennison does not in fact do much Skyping, maybe once or twice a month.

“I would never have known I could be stuck in the state of Missouri and talk to people far away about juggling, but for that kid who told me about Skyping. I thought it would be weird working on Skype.  So then he said he could send me a private Youtube video.  That’s what we use with my students.  We use Youtube.  But it’s private, and I have a code, that’s actually how it works.  Eventually I download and keep the videos for my record.”

Each of his distance people sign a contract that covers a year of coaching.  “We usually have a goal we try to reach by the end of that year,” Kennison explains.  “It may be to compete at the IJA (Internatioanl Juggling Association), create an act or just improve in general.  They may want to get to five clubs, or conquer some high level tricks.  I am a big goal guy.  I don’t like to coach without something in mind.  I coach a lot of the IJA competitors.  For the last four years in a row, I’ve coached all the first place competitors.”

How the coaching proceeds takes different paths. Mostly, however, his protégées send him tapes which he then critiques and sends back to them.  Most people send him raw footage.  Some like to send fully produced videos.  All these kids do this as a sort of natural thing.

“I have a bit of a reputation in the juggling world,” Kennison says, “and so jugglers will come up to me and say, ‘I am from Alabama.  I can’t come to you.’ So I will say, ‘Well, we can do it long distance.’  And the younger they are the more they understand it completely. I pick up people sort of by word of mouth.  I don’t take everybody that asks me.  If you don’t have a pretty good idea of where they’re trying to get to, I don’t want to coach them.  Also if I think you’re not at a level at which your goal is attainable I won’t take you.  I will take beginners if they seem to be able to reach their stated goal.”

One of Kennison’s specialties is juggling five balls, bringing young jugglers up to that world class standard.   Some people come to St. Louis just for the weekend for him to look at their fives.  Five is a young person’s game, he points out.  It’s all about throwing high enough. Height is the answer.

One app Kennison particularly likes to use (“I’m such a technical guy,” he says self-mockingly)) is called Coach’s Eye. It is a five dollar app that had been developed for golf.  “ I can record you juggling,” he explains, “then play it back one tick at a time, one frame at a time.  You can go backwards, too, and it has all these tools where I can draw lines or boxes to illustrate what I’m talking about.  So I can send that back through the computer and the audio is recorded too, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about when I’m talking about it.  I use that app a lot.   For instance I can tell someone over and over again that they’re not throwing high enough, but on Coach’s Eye I will record you and then I show you on the play back and the person will say, ‘Oh, I’m not throwing high enough,’ and I will say, ‘Yes that’s what I had been trying to tell you.  Somehow them seeing it, really makes a difference so that’s a tool I use, Coach’s Eye.”

One of Kennison’s current students who will perform under the name Brinley Rose, lives in Alabama. She wants to be a performer in the worst way possible and her goal is to enter the Groundhog Day Festival, the second oldest juggling festival in America.  It’s been around for thirty-eight years, and they have a really unusual competition. The judges are chosen from the audience, ten minutes before the competition begins. Their only requirement being that they have to know nothing about juggling.  There are three winners and the winning designation changes every year, like most incredible, most outrageous, most original. “ I discovered a long time ago its great place to take competitors, who have never competed before.  It’s a kind of love fest, and everyone must perform a four minute program.  It’s  a great way to start your competitive career.”

The first place his own son, Book Kennison, ever competed was at Groundhogs. Jessica Hentoff’s son, Kellin Quinn was only eight when he won.  “Brinley wants to compete there, so our big goal is to perform and compete for the first time in 2017.  She sends me tapes once a week, and I critique them, saying things like you have two different heights; you’re turning without knowing it, all very technical, factual statements, and comments directed at performance.  I send back my critique with verbal suggestions like ‘your weak side is throwing shorter than your dominant hand.’  Skype is more for when we are sitting down and talking rather than me watching them juggle.  We can check in and discuss where we’re at,  what they think is going well. I’ll tell them what we need to work on more.  How we are in the calendar insofar as whatever their goal is.  Are we ahead or behind ourselves.  The IJA needs to get our audition tape and there is a deadline for that and so we have to be ready to have that tape sent in.  The tape is due May 1 even though you don’t get to compete until July.    Once that tape is sent in you’re stuck with what you do on it; you can’t change your act.  So there are deadlines we have to meet. If you are going to compete at the IJA either I come to you or you come to me at least once, and we will spend a few days together while I go over your act.  “You can’t beat live interaction, but I must say this computer age stuff  has aided me in being a professional coach.  I make a living do it.  I am a full time juggling coach.  Of course, the definition of what is a living is open for debate.  Mostly I work for Circus Harmony full time.  There we will have a juggling class. It’s a very interesting thing, because it includes young kids, older people, adults, all ages.  There is no show at the end of the fifteen weeks, so in that respect it is different than a camp.  I work with each of those people wherever they are at and move them along.   Some of them will book a private session, and then I can help with what their goal is.  If you have a goal and a work ethic, with this computer, even though we are not in the same city, we can work together, and we do.”

Another of Kennison’s current student is Delaney Bales. “At first she hated rings, but I convinced her that a world class juggler has to be able to do all three props: balls, clubs and rings.  She is the master of rings now.  She has great transitions.  She does nine balls and seven clubs.  Her ambition is to be a professional performer and a mathematician.  Her family is academic, and she starts college this fall.  Any aspirations I have for her like in Europe will have to been woven around four years of college.  Which is great.  I understand it.  Delaney is seventeen and is world class.  I’ve never met anyone with such a work ethic.  She sometimes sends me two or three tapes a week.  She works that much.  Usually I will take only one tape a week, but Delaney I will take as much as she sends me, and I respond in real time as soon as I get them. Most people are on a weekly schedule.  It doesn’t matter when you send the tape, but if your day is Tuesday, that’s when I am going to respond.  That’s the only way I can keep order for myself.  Sometimes people will have something going on and will pass a week.  I devote a day to each of my people. It’s the only way to keep sane.”

IJA historian David Cain, who has a juggling museum in Ohio, has called Delaney the greatest female juggler in history, “which is funny,” Kennison point out, “because she doesn’t like to be called a female. She thinks it’s demeaning. I think of her as one of the top five jugglers on the planet earth.”  In judging jugglers the ability to do seven balls, five clubs and back crosses would be the beginning of world class juggling.  In the IJA there are no moves you have to do as there are in figure skating, but they are expected at that level.  In the WJF, which is sort of the Olympics of juggling, no costumes are required, you don’t have to smile, you don’t have to move, you just have to stand there and put up numbers and transitions without dropping.  They do have standard moves that are required.  This December I am going back to Vegas with Delaney, and I am confident she will win first place in the highest category.

“I told her I would not allow her to do nine balls, because she’s too young. It’s like typing, very repetitive; you can develop carpel tunnel syndrome. Back in my day we didn’t know you were supposed to stretch, now all my jugglers stretch. Nine balls at her age is too much stress.  One night she sent me a tape, ‘Richard’s special tape.’  I was almost asleep when I heard it go ding,  and I turned it on, and she was doing nine balls.  She said she was sorry.  I told her it was beautiful but I advised her to lay off the nine balls for a while.

Last year I met a girl named Copper at Circus Harmony, and both Jessica and I said, “You need to move to St. Louis; we want you,” and she did. She was here for six months. “I improved her five balls.  To put up four or five clubs with one arm is a chunk of work.  A lot of people just want me to look at their act.  I can make you look the best you can look with the skills you have here today.  Lots of performers aren’t directors and don’t know what to do with their skills. I always encourage people to get a third eye, a theatrical director, preferably.  Not a juggler.  I can look at juggling like I’ve never seen it before, so can theatrical directors.  I think I know how an audience sees a juggler and what they think.  You hear jugglers talk all the time that it doesn’t matter how many you do because audiences can’t tell the difference.  But I don’t demean the audience.  I think they can tell.  I believe you need to have the biggest vocabulary that you can have, and then from that we’ll create an act.  My son does seven balls. He has yet to find a real reason to put it into his act.  But he has it, and I am big on a big vocabulary.  We need to be as good as we can be.”

Kennison believes that Juggling, after about 30 seconds, is boring to an audience, so you need to learn more tricks and have an act with an arc, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but what an audience really needs is you. You have to learn to give your soul on stage. I love the St. Louis Arches (Circus Harmony’s tumbling team).  Are all their tumbling tricks perfect? Absolutely not. Does it matter?  It is that youthful joy that comes from them that just slays us, and that is true of all performers. It’s true in circus as well. Some people are phoning it in, and some are there with you alive every night.  That can’t be replaced by anything.”

Besides his son Book, Kennison has five daughters none of whom are professional jugglers, although they all can all do various circus tricks. When Kennison asked his son if he was right in setting him on the path he has taken he replied, “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, but, Dad, why did you choose the hardest circus art for me?”

“Juggling, I do believe,” Kennison avers, “is the hardest circus art.  Although gravity is a minor force in most people’s lives, it is a major force in our world.  When an audience is watching a lyra act, as long as they don’t fall, an audience can’t judge them at all.  When jugglers flop and drop they say, ‘Oh, he’s not that good a juggler,’ even if he just did a run of nine balls.  There’s no hiding it.  People ask me all the time how do I get better, and I go to these festivals, where I see plenty of raw talent out there, but they only do it once a week, for three hours.  In my world, the secret is every day for at least an hour.”

There has been much talk recently of the retirement of Anthony Gatto long considered the world’s best juggler. Kennison has a theory about that.  “I personally believe that after forty years at the level he was at, I bet you he has got tendinitis, elbow tennis, his body was done.  His act started where most acts finish.  His eight minutes were a killer literally.”

In addition to coaching technical matters, and performance matters, the computer also allows Kennison to coach motivation as well. “I am a motivator,” he says. “That is part of my job.  Many times I believe in these young kids way more than they believe in themselves, at least in the beginning, but eventually I get them to where they can see that the world is opening up to them.  For instance people now respect Delaney and are responding to her. So I don’t have to believe in her by myself anymore.”

Over the course of his long career Kennison has taught thousands of people to juggle, and he has done it in a variety of venues from inner city schools to corporate meetings.  He has trained and coached a number of national award winning young jugglers including his son Book Kennison, Casey Boehmer, Ryan Himmel, Cameron Ritter, Jessica Hentoff’s son Kellin Quinn, Tony Pazzo, Thom Wall, Delaney Bales, Ashley Ellis, Jack Denger, Viola Dix, Kiera Daisy Conner, and Reggie Moore.  In 2012 the International Juggling Association presented him with its Excellence in Education Award for his lifetime of teaching juggling.  He has coached the past four years’ Gold Medal Junior Champion at the IJA annual competition, including the first female winner in the last 30 years.  He has also coached fourteen Groundhog Day Juggling Festival award winning acts.  He has a BA in philosophy from Webster University and a business degree in Sports and Entertainment Management from Fontbonne University.