The Carleton Juggling F.I.S.H. hold the distinction of being the only juggling group on campus and the only group that is, as their mission statement boldly claims, "fully committed to developing the art of thumbing one's nose at gravity." Founded as an informal hobby group 15 years ago, F.I.S.H. has flourished over the last five years into a full-grown organization that performs at events both on and off campus. But although most Carleton students may have encountered the group practicing in Cowling Gym or the Recreation Center, or performing in Great Space or on the Bald Spot, too few of them have glimpsed the unique juggling culture of which F.I.S.H. is a passionate part.
What drives these students to, among other tricks, juggle flaming objects, throw knives, and balance twelve-foot ladders on their chins? More generally, is juggling a sport or an art? Ellen Winters ’04, a co-leader of the group, claims juggling is both a sport and an art. "That’s one of the things I love most about it, it’s a communal creative process," she says, adding that often "music seems the closest to juggling – mathematically structured, yet intended to be art."
Chris Taylor ‘04, another F.I.S.H. co-leader, describes juggling in artistic terms: "It’s irresistible, somewhere in between a quiet musical instrument and a dance. It's distraction, meditation, conversation, and complication all at the same time."
Although F.I.S.H. members think the group was founded in the mid-80s, records indicate the first official campus F.I.S.H. performance was in 1990. Things have changed. Nowadays, F.I.S.H. juggles with the Twin Cities juggling group NeverThriving two or three times a term, and F.I.S.H. members travel throughout the Midwest regularly to participate in juggling meets and competitions.
Last fall F.I.S.H. members participated in juggling festivals in St. Louis and Iowa’s Quad Cities, and in January nine members traveled to Madison, Wis., for MadFest, another regional festival bringing young, old, professional, and amateur jugglers together. These festivals are usually informal – prizes are rarely awarded to winning juggling teams – and are quite simple: they give hundreds of jugglers a weekend full of gym space, workshops, games, competitions, and a professional show for a finale, and let them go wild.
It wasn’t until the group began performing together at juggling festivals in 2000 that students became aware of F.I.S.H.’s unorthodox style. Winters explains that "F.I.S.H. has a very distinctive style, we like mayhem. Whereas most jugglers would stop if there were four clubs on the floor and only two left in the pattern, we try to stay in rhythm and get the pattern up again with whatever we’ve got. It’s a sloppy style, and occasionally we get jealous of the pretty clockwork patterns of the other jugglers at festivals. But I think we have more fun than they do." Although most F.I.S.H. members began juggling before coming to Carleton – Winters began at age 10, while Taylor began at 11 – Taylor says that every time the group has talked a non-juggler into coming to a Festival, "they've walked away from the experience skilled. You can learn after one day of practice."
But F.I.S.H. is also a recurring presence on Carleton’s campus and in the Northfield community. Occasionally the group hosts an "All-Night Juggle" in the Sayles-Hill Great Space. These nocturnal events attempt to answer the profound question, "What happens to sleep-deprived jugglers?" Usually these marathon juggling sessions turn into public teaching sessions – with the air full of objects and music and free food provided, students inevitably end up wandering in and learning basic juggling patterns. Over the years F.I.S.H. has performed widely, including fire juggling on Halloweens, on Jesse James Days and Parent’s Weekends, and for the Northfield Arts Guild. The group also regularly performs at the annual Kids Night Out events and area high schools.
Juggling F.I.S.H.’s weekly meetings are open to all and are held on Mondays and Thursdays from 7 to 8 pm in Carleton’s Cowling Gym.