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A Pair of Suspenders : Jahnathon Earns Living by Tossing Things in Air

February 11, 1988|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

OK, so juggling checkbooks doesn't give you the thrill it once did, and you're looking for new challenges.

Call Jahnathon Whitfield. He'll show you what juggling is all about.

Jahnathon (because he's probably the only person in creation who spells it that way, it's the only name he uses) is one of the few people in the country to make a living throwing odd objects in the air and making them stay there.

And when he's not performing, he's teaching other people to throw objects into the air, although in the early stages anyway, they don't always seem to stay there.

Jahnathon runs the California Juggling Institute in Santa Ana, operating out of the basement ("lower level, if you don't mind") of the old City Hall on Main Street in what used to be the police garage. He also teaches juggling at Orange Coast College and at any number of schools and recreation centers throughout California and Nevada--a touring pro, if you will.

And he offers a money-back guarantee that he will have you juggling inside of an hour, regardless of where you rank in the realm of klutzdom. Of course, because he doesn't charge very much--parks and recreation classes cost about $15--he's not risking a whole lot, but he seldom if ever has any reason to make good on the offer.

"Anyone can juggle," he says, "and you don't have to be super-coordinated to do it." All it takes is some interest and some time--not much time for a casual interest, but an "irrational dedication" if your goal is to someday play the Palace.

Jahnathon demonstrated his methods (madness, some might say) recently at a class sponsored by the Newport Beach Parks and Recreation Department at the Oasis Senior Center in Corona del Mar. Six people signed up and showed up, from a third-grader to a senior citizen. All they really had in common was a fascination with the ancient art.

Nomenclature being important in any field, he began there.

"Is tossing two oranges from hand to hand juggling?" he asks. Before anyone has a chance to reply, they get the answer. "Of course not; that's making what is called a 'correct exchange.' "

"How about tossing two oranges with one hand?" Heads shake, shoulders shrug. "Yes, that's juggling!

"By definition, juggling is handling one more object than the hands you're using. So, throwing two oranges with one hand is juggling, throwing three with two is juggling, and on up."

He starts his students off with nylon scarfs, thereby "eliminating the gravity problem." They begin with one scarf, casting it palms down from about knee height straight up in the air. It slowly floats down, giving them plenty of time to grab it with a claw-like motion.

After a few minutes, they move on to two scarfs, one in each hand. The right hand casts a scarf up across the body and the left hand follows suit a second later. The exchange is made and when they get proficient at that, the third scarf is introduced.

Amazingly--especially to the students--in no time at all they are indeed juggling, scarfs wafting around the room, palms down, hands clawing for them, with very few ever reaching the floor.

It's the moment Jahnathon relishes more than any other with his classes. "They go from the 'I can't' stage to the 'I can't yet' stage to the 'Hey, I can !' stage."

The skepticism of the class is gone, and they eagerly move on to bean bags, which brings them face to face with the "gravity problem" that they were able to avoid with the almost-lighter-than-air scarfs. This is a palms-up exercise, and the thuds of falling bean bags on the hardwood floor are so distracting that Jahnathon has the group move to a carpeted area, where the noise, if not the embarrassment, is somewhat cushioned.

One student, 20-year-old Daniel Sidman, loses a bean bag in the hood of his sweat jacket. He retrieves it and pulls the hood over his head to avoid any repetition.

Jahnathon shows them little tricks of the trade, provides individual attention and encouragement and, inch by inch, at least a modicum of success is achieved by each student.

Now all they need is practice, and Jahnathon tells them that there is a "very thin line between your moving from two bean bags to three and a professional moving from six balls to seven; it's all in practice and in the head. Your thoughts can either restrict you or take you anywhere you want to go."

Who are these people and why are they here? Most echo Robert Swayne, 40, of San Clemente, who is accompanied by his daughter, Renee, 14. "I've wanted to be able to juggle as long as I can remember," he says. An engineer for Southern California Edison, Swayne sees it as a "nice form of relaxation."

David Newbro of Newport Beach, 54 and retired, may be the most determined of the bunch. He says that his grandson will be visiting him soon and that he would like to have a few routines down before the boy arrives. "His parents are great athletes," says Newbro with a little twinkle, "but they can't juggle."

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