Oberlin Blogs

How I’ve run away and joined the Circus

November 18, 2022

Sean Norton ’25

I’ve been told a few times over the years that I seem like the type of person who’d be able to juggle. Before coming here, I was never really sure how to take that. It was always a sort of mouth open, click, and cocked head sort of “Thank you?” And a “You know, I’ve tried to learn many times and I can never do it!” 

But no longer! Today I am a juggling fiend! It’s become a real problem, honestly. Every time I’m holding three, even two, objects I have to fight not to start juggling them. Apples, oranges, eggs, bottles, towels, cooking utensils, you name it—it’s all fair game. 

My current affliction started growing my first semester, when I signed up for the Juggling Exco, one of the for-credit classes taught by students through Oberlin's own Experimental College. It was a little slapdash from the get-go, without a consistent meeting location and an even less consistent set of attendees. We bounced around from lawn to lawn while the weather was warm—and for a bit while it wasn’t—into the gym in the basement of South, and finally landing on an acoustically terrible racquetball court in Philips. At least it was warm in there, even if conversation was nearly impossible. 

Despite the variety of tribulations that befell our poor juggling class, I loved it. The students teaching were laid back and engaging, and the juggling was a blast. I apparently had the spirit of Rog already, because it only took one class for me to get over the hurdle of throwing and catching that third ball, and I never looked back. It became, silly as it sounds, a meditative activity for me. I discovered that I couldn’t really juggle and think at the same time, so the Exco proved to be a great break in the middle of my otherwise hectic week. 

My juggling teachers, perhaps unsurprisingly, were a right lot of circus freaks, and through them I got involved with Oberlin’s very own ragtag troupe, Ocircus! I had missed having a circus in my life, and it was nice to be welcomed with open arms. 

I was a gymnast as a child, stopped at the age of 12 when there was no boys' competitive team and I was not yet so bold as to just try to join the girls' team, and slightly later in life found myself taking classes at a lovely circus school in my hometown of Ithaca, where I tumbled and flipped and threw myself around to my heart's content. I was certainly never a performer, though. And, perhaps most importantly, I never touched a juggling ball. 

But here, I am a juggler. A performative juggler in fact! I never felt confident enough in my tumbling or aerial abilities to perform as part of a troupe, but not so with my little tossing and catching routine. I’ve now had acts in two Ocircus productions, most recently as a club-juggling space cowboy alongside one of my former Exco teachers. We had a bang-up act, with several flavors of partner passing and two-person circle juggling, not to mention a selection of bullwhip tricks by yours truly. It was a campy, low-budget, poorly executed, absolute blast. 

And it was in practicing for said low-rent circus that I had my first moment of connection with an Oberlin alum. My juggling partner and I were practicing our club passing in Tappan Square during commencement weekend last spring in preparation for our last show of the season, when an older woman with a rugged, hiking boots, quarter zip and a close-fit backpack sort of aura walked over and asked if she could join us. A little surprised, we said “sure!” and she quickly proved to be wayyyyy better than us. With a cockeyed grin and a rapidly rotating trio of clubs she revealed that she was in fact a professional juggler with an impressive bigtop CV. We got to talking and passing and talking and passing, and she told us about her time at Oberlin in the '70s and the thriving juggling club of the day. Apparently it was one of the largest organizations on campus! 

Sadly, the current juggling club, the Oberlin Skilled Handlers In Training–OSHIT, if you will–is but a shadow of its former glory. I don’t know if it’s a change of era or a change of prevailing jugglo-political winds. Perhaps juggling just doesn’t hold the same mystique in the information age, where I assume everyone is flooded constantly by a barrage of historically secret juggling knowledge, or perhaps people’s taste in clubs just changed. 

In any case, since coming to Oberlin, I’ve discovered that juggling is a ridiculous sport perpetuated by ridiculous people with ridiculous items, and I love it.  

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