It was compulsion that brought them to the gym. They had always wanted to do it; they had even gone off and practiced secretly, oblivious to ridicule. Their spouses shrugged it off. Only the occasional fellow addict recognized their need.
"Where could a grown man go and learn to do this?" said Dallas Taylor, 28, of Santa Paula.
Where indeed? Until the ad appeared: "Juggling club to meet from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Westpark Recreation Center, Ventura."
So there they were: a dozen men and women, with an inspired look in their eyes, all holding odd-shaped drawstring bags. Within minutes, the bags were opened and out came balls, beanbags and elongated clubs all brought to order through such rituals as the star, the claw, the yo-yo and the giraffe.
This was all Bill Robinson's and Leslyn Keith's idea. They had met several years before through an interest in basketball, and only later discovered their common roots in juggling. Hers was a teen-age fascination from a decade before, his from an even earlier phase.
"The kind of people who juggle are not mainstream people. It's a real small group because it takes absolute dedication," said Robinson, an accountant.
In July, Robinson and Keith, a teacher at Camarillo State Hospital, discovered the International Jugglers Assn., a group that draws from a worldwide pool of jugglers. They attended its festival in Los Angeles.
More than 800 jugglers came. It was inspiring. It made them want to practice with a group regularly. They tossed ideas as well as beanbags around. And the ad went into the paper.
It has drawn people such as Taylor and Calvin Reeves--irrepressible, if undisciplined, jugglers. The two had met just out of high school, when employed as laborers in local citrus groves. Lunch breaks tended to drag, and the pair used oranges to work up a juggling routine.
Now technicians at General Electric in Oxnard, they have found that faulty plastic resin strands make passable juggling balls. Break time is again filled with challenge.
On their first night at the gym, they had six beanbags in the air between them, holding them in orbits of three while they chanted softly, "Self, self, pass!" whereupon two bags interchanged expertly between their circles, and the orbits resumed.
Along the wall were people not yet ready for the passing lane. Sally McNeilar, a realtor from Ventura, had mastered two balls and was striving for a third.
"I can get the first one back in the air before everything goes to pieces," she said, retrieving the escaping balls.
Working next to her, Jack Warwick, an insurance agent from Camarillo, also tried to master his threes. Warwick said he was motivated by watching his 25-year-old son juggle.
On the opposite side of the room, half a dozen veterans were flinging armfuls of clubs at one another across a wide pattern, sometimes with jugglers changing places while everything stayed in the air. They called out suggestions and switched routines at will.
Richard Lewis, 26, was probably the only person in the room who aspires to juggle full time. Lewis spends afternoons practicing his art in Orange County, which he says is a hotbed of juggling. No slouch, he regularly hits the Ventura session on the way back to his home in Goleta.
In between runs, Lewis practices with his brother, David, who is almost as serious about juggling as he is, and works graveyard shift as an aircraft mechanic.
"You have to juggle every day," Richard Lewis said, complaining that most jugglers he practices with have to hold down jobs during the day.
Another participant in the fast workout was Robinson, who winds down afterward with solo routines.
Robinson appears to be a man who prefers a laid-back image--at least where juggling is concerned. He said the newly formed club has no purpose, no business meetings, no rules and no membership fees. Attendees pay a $1 a night gym fee and are welcome to join the association if it interests them.
Meanwhile, the lack of organization seems to appeal to locals.
"We didn't know anybody else in Ventura who juggled, and people have been coming out of the woodwork," Robinson said.
WHERE AND WHEN
Jugglers and aspiring jugglers can meet every Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Westpark Recreation Center, Ventura. For information on the meetings or the International Jugglers Assn., call 642-9612.