Too many balls in the air? That doesn’t stress professional juggler Ellen Winters ’03.
When her parents gave Ellen Winters ’03 the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz and a set of beanbags for her 10th birthday, they had no idea that they were helping launch her future career. “I practiced for five hours a day until I got it,” says Winters.
Today she spends even more time juggling each day, with two hours of solo practice and four to six hours of practice with her business partner, Galen Harp. In 2005 Winters and Harp founded the Institute of Jugglology, a Fayetteville, Arkansas–based business that encompasses both performing and teaching. The duo is currently the top-ranked American juggling team, and they won the silver medal at this year’s International Jugglers’ Association Team Championships in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They’re also the unofficial world record holders for passing clubs at the highest altitude: They juggled at 13,380 feet on Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains.
“Before I joined the Juggling F.I.S.H. [a student organization] at Carleton, I didn’t know how fun it could be to juggle with other people,” says Winters. She performed professionally for the first time after her freshman year, when she was living in Iowa City. “I had impulsively spent my rent money on a tattoo,” she says, “so the night before the rent was due, I went down to a pedestrian mall and started juggling. I made enough money to pay the rent.”
After that, Winters was hooked, and she began attending juggling festivals. She met Harp in 2005 at an International Jugglers’ Association meeting in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa. “As we talked, we realized that we have a lot of the same ideas about juggling and performance,” Winters says. A few months later, she moved to Arkansas to join Harp, and her career as a professional juggler began in earnest.
“That was my starving artist phase,” she says, recalling that she was working three jobs at the time as a massage therapist, waitress, and juggler. “It was rough for a while, but it paid off.”
Winters (who performs under the name Ella Winters) and Harp now perform at schools and libraries, festivals, museums, and corporate events. They’ve also performed during halftime at a University of Arkansas men’s basketball game. Their performances include both athletic and artistic elements in a blend of current juggling styles. “We try to appeal to everybody,” she says.
They also lead a juggling club and teach classes and workshops for all ages. “Some kids come in thinking that juggling is the hardest thing in the world, but usually they learn the basics by the end of the class,” says Winters. “We have classes for everyone—we’ve taught a blind man to juggle and a 60-year-old couple to pass juggling balls.”
Juggling has even played a role in Winters’ love life. She met her husband, Mike Johnston, after she moved to Arkansas. “Mike taught himself to juggle in order to get a second date with me,” she says.
Two days before their wedding, Winters accidentally set her hair on fire during a performance. It was a windy day, and a strand of her hair blew into one of the flaming torches. “I thought, ‘It will look more professional if I finish the trick before I put myself out,’ but I stopped when the audience started shouting and Galen was about to tackle me,” she says. “My hairdresser hid the burned hair under my veil for the wedding, so no regrets.”
Another stunt took an unexpected turn when Winters and Harp were performing at the University of Iowa. “We went a little over our allotted time, and someone signaled for us to get off the stage by turning the lights off briefly,” says Winters. Unfortunately, at that moment, she had a carrot in her mouth that Harp was preparing to cut in half with twirling machetes. “It went dark right when the machete was up in the air in a double spin,” she says. “When the lights came back on, he had caught the machete and I had half a carrot in my mouth.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Winters’ future goals include completing a triathlon while juggling, choreographing a juggling piece with a marching band or drum line, and opening for an arena concert—specifically for the bands Pink Floyd or Tool, because she thinks the way they incorporate theater into their performances is similar to what she’s trying to do with her juggling. And then there are the rumors that juggling might become an Olympic sport. “It would be really cool to try out for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team,” says Winters.
Keep your eyes open for flaming torches of a different kind at the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
Web Extra: Learn more about the Institute of Jugglology at jugglology.com.