Anyone would be envious of Chris Garcia’s hands. With them he can make a diabolo — also called a Chinese yo-yo — dance with electric leaps across a string. When juggling five balls, he keeps his hands at hip level, snapping each beanbag so it arcs just above his eyes before plopping perfectly into his other hand. Even at rest, he loosely bounces a fistful of markers in his hand, giving the impression that with just a flick of his wrist he can steal your breath away with a dazzling performance.
But on Friday morning, he did not have an audience yet. Walking alone around the West Field House Gym, Garcia, the head of the UC Santa Cruz Juggling Club, was still making preparations for the third annual Santa Cruz Juggling Festival.
Hosted May 6–8 at the West Field House Gym, the free festival offered juggling workshops for beginners, a nature juggling walk, public exhibitions of world-class jugglers and a fire show on the beach.
Despite the attractions, the club website anticipated only 50 attendees. Garcia, a third-year Merrill student who has run the club for three years, said he did not expect a large turnout because juggling at UCSC does not have a consistently large community.
“[The UCSC Juggling Club] Facebook group says we have 100-plus people,” Garcia said. “But only three people showed up to our meeting last night. It varies — usually, later on in the quarter, people get busier with college.”
The UCSC Juggling Club was founded in 1984 as a nonprofit campus club open to jugglers of all skill levels. The club meets twice a week and puts on performances once a month downtown.
Garcia has been running the UCSC Juggling Club since he was a first-year. Garcia said because there is no intercollegiate juggling league, festivals and competitions are the primary ways collegiate jugglers participate in the community.
“There aren’t too many competitions for colleges,” Garcia said. “It would be kind of cool, but nobody organizes it. There’s no community that organizes it, like [in] basketball.”
This year the club received a grant from UCSC to fly in guest performer and teacher Erin Stephens from Colorado.
Stephens said festivals allow college-level jugglers to develop relationships with other juggling clubs and learn from professional jugglers.
“A lot of college campuses that have a juggling club will often put on a juggling festival,” Stephens said. “That’s where a lot of festivals happen across the country.”
Stephens, who is a UCSC alumna and former member of the UCSC Juggling Club, said festivals are especially important for maintaining a strong juggling community because in her experience, membership in clubs is prone to fluctuation.
“There were some years when it was pretty big — I mean like 15–20 [students],” Stephenson said. “Then there were times you’d come and there were only four or five. It just depended on the time of year — usually the beginning has a lot of interest from new students, then it kind of peters off through the year.”
By Saturday, the event had attracted a score of jugglers — newcomers and pros alike — among them Matt Hall, Chris Garcia’s former high school teacher and a professional juggler.
Hall said Santa Cruz has traditionally been a strong center for juggling culture.
“Santa Cruz is home to Renegade Juggling, which is one of the first juggling prop makers — those guys have been around for 20 or 30 years,” Hall said. “And there’s always been a juggling club here at Santa Cruz.”
Hall, who won a silver medal in the 2003 International Juggling Championships, said even in Santa Cruz it was unlikely to find a large population of skilled jugglers. Hall said juggling gets exponentially more difficult with each new trick.
“For every ball you add, you decrease [the number of people who can juggle it] by a factor of 10 or 100,” Hall said. “So there may be millions of three-ball jugglers, but the number of people who can juggle four balls is probably in the hundreds of thousands. Five-ball jugglers, now you’re talking tens of thousands.”
Hall praised both the club and festival, but harbored doubts as to whether the club could survive without the direction of a strong leader like Garcia.
“Chris is definitely the guiding spirit, the moving force behind this club,” Hall said. “If he goes away, I’d be surprised to see if it survives.”
Although Garcia admitted his club is mostly composed of novices, he said the club remains committed to bringing in new members. He said he hopes the juggling club will encourage those who have never juggled before to pick up the new hobby.
“You don’t need to know how to juggle or anything,” Garcia said. “You could just come and we’ll teach you and accept you into our group, as long as you show an interest.”