The two men with clubs approach each other warily. Both are searching for some weakness, a way to disarm their opponent. A crowd of chanting men and women beat their own clubs together as the younger man with spiked black hair moves in for the kill. The older man’s eyes widen, and the shadow of a club looms over his face.
“Combat!” yells Jay Cady of Roeland Park as he comes barreling into the middle of the circle. The 58-year-old’s face is cracked wide in a smile as he twirls a plate in each hand and balances on a pedalo — a four-wheeled contraption with black rectangular footholds that are powered by the same motion as a bicycle.
It’s Wednesday night at the Kansas City Juggling Club and the jugglers, performers and yo-yo artists alike are blowing off some steam with Combat — a game where the object is to keep your own clubs in the air or yo-yo spinning as you attempt to knock the other competitors’ clubs and yo-yos out of the air. The last man or woman juggling or yo-yoing wins.
The club has been meeting for the past five years inside The Commons — a circular room on the ground floor of the Kansas City Young Audiences offices. On a given night, 40 to 50 juggling enthusiasts — and yo-yo tricksters, hula-hoopers and flying projectile manipulators — will come to the St. Teresa’s Academy campus where Kansas City Young Audiences is located.
Professionals and hobbyists alike need the 15- to 20-foot ceilings (a central beam is an obstacle) and free practice space. They will fold up the wooden tables and clear the floor in an effort to make as much space as possible for the assortment of rings, balls and clubs that will soon be airborne.
“You can sneak into places like a mall or an empty store, but you get kicked out pretty quickly,” says Jacob Tichenor, a mechanic who is hoping to start performing regularly. “We’re always looking for space. That’s the life of a juggler.”
That was the life for the club’s founder, Nick Civitello. A math teacher in Belton, Civitello has been juggling for 13 years. The club began with him juggling outdoors in public parks, inviting people to come throw. But it wasn’t until he met Cady, who works part time at Kansas City Young Audiences and helped him to secure The Commons space, that the club’s ranks began to grow.
“I think Kansas City is a good town at priming people for this sort of thing. There’s this sort of hipster interest and the desire to be good at something,” says Civitello.
This isn’t the first iteration of a juggling club in Kansas City. Some of the members have been balancing their hobby and careers for nearly three decades. Club member Tim Johnston, a computer programmer by trade, remembers the challenges of finding fellow jugglers in the era before social media.
“It was so hard back then. There was no Facebook. No Internet. We had a newsletter and the phone,” says Johnston, of Shawnee.
Now, there’s a Facebook group and a standing invitation for pizza and beer — often at Waldo Pizza — after each meeting.
“This is very much about community like a family. That’s what I had in mind early on,” says Civitello, who lives in Kansas City. “We have very good jugglers, but that’s not everything.”
On a Wednesday night in March, Cady has brought a stomp board, an unfinished wooden board that had a dowel underneath its middle. A “stomp” of the foot, and an object resting on the far end of the board can be launched into the air.
Juggler Justin Sheldon rests a hot pink sneaker on one end and tries to get a club to lie flat on the other end.
“That’s not going to work,” says a little girl, who has been watching Sheldon slowly set up the trick.
He shows a smile with plenty of teeth and then stamps down his right foot. The juggling club flies toward his right hand and Sheldon briefly has three clubs in the air before two strike each other like waves crashing against rocks.
“It’s new, so everybody has to play with it,” explains Civitello as Sheldon begins setting up the clubs again.
Sheldon has a long history of juggling, having grown up in Independence as one half of Pick ’em Up Jugglers, a performing duo with his late father. Sheldon, who found work as a jeweler after an employer correctly surmised that his skill in juggling could translate to working with delicate pieces, remembers his main rival at youth talent shows was eventual “American Idol” winner David Cook.
“I would always lose to him,” laughs Sheldon, who now lives in Blue Springs. “I’d come up to him after the show and tell him, ‘I’m out there risking my life,’ but you just keep winning.”
After a few more attempts on the stomp board, Sheldon bounds away to pick up a set of rings — his latest juggling obsession — as Leslie Seifert-Cady rolls a black bowler hat up her arm and onto her head.
“I’m always practicing my hat tricks in the dining room at midnight. We’re always looking for indoor space,” says Seifert-Cady, motioning to her husband who is fussing with the stomp board.
Jay and Leslie didn’t have to speak to fall in love. It was the tail end of the 1970s.
Marcel Marceau was a television star and America was having, what we now know, was a brief dalliance with mime.
Jay came to Kansas City from Omaha because of a group named Mimewock — a variety act with the art of mime at its core — that had booked gigs as a quartet, but only had three members. Leslie was a recent addition to the existing trio.
The two rookies practiced juggling together, developing their initial street-performing duo under the name of “Svelte and Gangly.”
“We had no idea that nobody would know that meant,” says Leslie. “We also figured out that we’d probably end up more portly and pudgy.”
They dropped Svelte and Gangly shortly thereafter, but Leslie took on a new name — adding Jay’s to her own. The couple married in 1984 and two years later, debuted Laughing Matters, a new variety act for children, on the stage of The Coterie Theater.
The bits that started as pieces of paper on a corkboard eventually developed into an entire routine designed to teach children math and science. For the teaching artists who live in Roeland Park, juggling balls double as atoms and molecules for an Earth science segment and a there’s a bit on long division called “Scott,” with 13 rolls of toilet paper from the manufacturer of the same name. In a given year, they’ll play as many as 250 performances at area schools and stages.
“The term of teaching artist seems odd at first, grammatically awkward, almost like an operating doctor,” says Jay.
“But we’re used to it now,” adds Leslie. “And our health insurance rates are lower than when we listed our profession as entertainers.”
The juggling club practice is like a band’s jam session. People just show up and pick up the rhythm. About 30 minutes into a two-hour session, two lines of five jugglers form to the right of the central beam that is an ever-present threat to knock a club or ring out of the air. The jugglers begin passing clubs back and forth, stopping only when an errant toss sends one clattering to the linoleum.
“Jugglers don’t have to say fore,” laughs Cady, when asked if a wayward club comes with any warning.
Behind him an unlit set of fire sticks clatters to the ground, but Cady doesn’t even flinch. Coy Espinoza of Kansas City is doing a handstand on a rolling board while attempting to hang onto a pair of fire sticks.
Kansas City resident Jacob Tichenor stands only three feet from Cady’s right, bobbing his head slowly to the bass that leaks out of his headphones. Last year marked the first time he performed at the Renaissance Festival, and he’s determined to improve his act in the hopes of juggling full time.
“There’s something in the room, a mojo or something and it just clicks,” Tichenor says of why practicing amid club members can lead to breakthroughs in his routine.
As he talks, a white ring rolls toward his feet before snapping backward as if pulled by a string. It spins for 15 feet before Sheldon grabs it off the ground and throws it up in the air. Rings swirl around Sheldon’s head, as Rico Norris hurls them at the ceiling with a whip of his wrists.
Norris, of Lenexa, moved here from Tulsa a year ago to be a part of this community.
“The main reason I moved here was the juggling club,” says Norris, who juggles during down times at the factory where he works. “Juggling can be a closed hobby, but that’s not the case here. I’ve traveled 43 states and there’s nothing like this.”
Tim Johnston believes that sense of support from fellow jugglers is what connects the members of the old club with the newest iteration.
“Most people here like to share, but they don’t care about showing off,” says Johnston.
Showing off is reserved for the stage. And plenty of acts have launched from The Commons. The club holds an annual Kansas City Juggling Festival, attracting hundreds of jugglers like Rico Norris for performances and classes that celebrate the art of object manipulation.
Robin Rosenberger, the proprietor of the MoonDrop Circus, left her full-time job as a florist in January to launch her act which brings aerialists, unicyclists and jugglers together on one stage.
“I wouldn’t have a circus without this group of people,” says Rosenberger, who lives in Kansas City.
As the Wednesday night practice draws to a close, the Combat games get more outlandish. The soundtrack to “Mortal Kombat” thuds from a boom box on the floor as Sheldon backs into a yo-yo-er, attempting to use his seat to upset his competitor’s rhythm.
Tichenor bounces a club off the beam, deftly snags it a few inches from the ground and keeps his trio of clubs spinning. The crowd roars in approval.
Civitello is one of the final two jugglers in a tense battle. Voices shout out his first name, some to distract him, others to encourage him. A set of clubs clatters to the ground and the club’s founder tastes victory. He steps back to the outside of the circle, where the crowd is once again chanting. There’s time for one more game before the tables have to be pulled back and the lights turned off.
“That’s the beauty of juggling,” says Civitello. “You can never top out.”