“Juggling got me out of my head and into my hands,” says Ingrid Johnson, co-owner of Toy Boat Community Art Space. Growing up in rural Tennessee, Johnson and her brother learned how to juggle together in order to have something to do, but since then, Johnson has gotten serious about entertaining. In addition to her work at Toy Boat, she performs with local juggling troupe Forty Fingers & A Missing Tooth, whose members are known for their immense talent and silly live shows.
“There are three things you should know as a minimum,” the Forty Fingers & A Missing Tooth website reads. “No. 1: We love juggling. No. 2: We love ’80s music. No. 3: We love unicorns.” For the sixth year in a row, the eclectic group is organizing the Asheville Juggling Festival, where spectators can expect balls, clubs, rings and even cigar boxes and plates to fly from Friday to Sunday, Sept. 23-25.
The Asheville Juggling Festival is a free, supportive gathering where those who Johnson calls the “juggling family” can share new skills and connect to other jugglers. The three-day event takes place at Toy Boat and the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center during the day, with performances at Toy Boat on Friday and Saturday evenings. The festival attracts many seasoned jugglers but also caters to beginners and welcomes onlookers. “We try to attract folks who might have no experience but are curious,” Johnson says.
Since passing balls or clubs is such a central part of the sport, Johnson believes that juggling naturally extends an invitation to others. “Jugglers will come, no matter what, but there’s something really special about passing the passion along,” Johnson says.
Friday night promises a renegade show, which, in the juggling world, creates an open, somewhat unpredictable space for theatrical performances of all kinds. That event is recommended for ages 18 and older; but Saturday evening’s programming is a family-friendly variety extravaganza. The show will feature local belly dancer Claire Dima as well as Brandon Malzahn, who practices contact juggling — a variation of the sport that involves rolling a ball all over the body rather than throwing it in the air.
Also on the schedule for Saturday night is Raíces (Spanish for “roots,”) an after-school cultural enrichment program funded by Asheville’s grassroots Latino organization, Nuestro Centro. Six students will perform a traditional folk dance from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. “Sharing the dance opens a dialogue between cultures with a goal of increasing mutual respect,” says Nuestro Centro co-coordinator Mirian Porras. “Ingrid has really embraced us as a community, and we are so excited to be included this year.”
Proceeds from the by-donation Saturday production will go to funding future juggling festivals as well as Raíces. Forty Fingers is likely to perform, and more acts will be announced closer to the event. Raffle prizes will be awarded at the end of the show, and later, in classic Forty Fingers fashion, an ’80s dance party will take place.
The best opportunity to actually learn to juggle is during “open gym” time, which will be held all three days of the festival. During that part of the program, in a designated area called the “construction zone,” experienced volunteers provide juggling balls and teach the basics to newcomers. “It’s a safe place for total beginners, or maybe people who knew how to juggle 15 years ago and forgot,” says Forty Fingers & A Missing Tooth juggler Keith Campbell. “Most people are actually capable of learning in less than an hour.”
On Saturday, the festival will also hold juggling workshops from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and lighthearted games from 4 to 5 p.m. at Stephens-Lee. In one such game, jugglers are challenged to balance clubs somewhere on their heads — typically the forehead, nose or chin. The game heats up when jugglers are asked to walk around the room, or sit and stand back up while still balancing clubs on their faces. But even with friendly competition, the festival is an encouraging space meant for learning and fun. “It’s so nonjudgmental, and I really appreciate that about the juggling world,” Johnson says. “If you walk into a room of jugglers, they’re all superstoked to show tricks and welcome others to the family.”
WHAT: Asheville Juggling Festival
WHERE: Toy Boat Community Art Space, 101 Fairview Road, and Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, 30 George Washington Carver Ave.
WHEN: Friday to Sunday, Sept. 23-25. Most events are free/$10 suggested donation for Saturday evening show. See website for schedule: ashevillejugglingfestival.com.