Art vs Sport in Juggling / Object Manipulation

This debate, I’m sure, has run through the ages and has affected any discipline that has crossed the treacherous line between art and sport. This issue has been a particularly hot topic in the juggling world over the last decade since the creation of the World Juggling Federation (WJF) in 2000 and the securing of televised coverage for its competitions.

Now the same controversy is about to come into focus in the fire spinning community as well. Flame Master Fest (FM), held in Mexico between 20th and 27th May 2012, is, if not the first, the most heavily publicised and promoted competition fire spinning has ever seen.

Just to clarify, we’re not talking about the fun and informal juggling games found at conventions. Even more the more prestigious of these games, like five ball endurance, aren’t a patch on the WJF or Flame Master comps. These competitions are much more serious with pages of formal rules and regulations and panels of judges with strict judging criteria. They also offer significant sums in prize money.

The question is are these sorts of competitions good for their disciplines or do they threaten to undermine some of the things we value most about them?

Francis Brunn (1922 – 2004), the first man to juggle 10 rings, was famously anti-competition: “Circus competitions are a load of nonsense. You can’t compare different acts with one another” (Kaskade, Summer 1996). “Juggling is an art form. It is not a thing of doing tricks or juggling so many. There has to be more to it. It is a way of saying something and being involved in what you are doing” (IJA Newsletter, May 1981).Francis Brunn

However, Francis Brunn also expressed concerns about the juggling world that these competitions hope to remedy. Television, he thought, was killing off the talented performer and replacing them with “junk”. The public was losing interest in juggling and other variety acts in favour of the “mass production” of television.

Competitions like the WJF and Flame Master both list reinvigorating the public’s interest as one of their aims:

“The World Juggling Federation was founded in 2000 out of a desire to expand public awareness of juggling as a sport” and to improve the reputation of juggling in the mind of the public (

Flame Master hopes “to increase enthusiasm for fire dancing as both a sport and an art [and] to increase the visibility of, and respect for, fire-dancers in the world at large” (FM Championship Rules).

So, by adding the excitement of a competition perhaps such events can rekindle the fickle public’s interest in these disciplines. After all, no one really cared about ballroom dancing until shows like Strictly were broadcast (ok, that’s an exaggeration but you know what I mean). What the public want is a story and competitions can provide that narrative.

An objection to this might be that it belittles these disciplines to a soap opera with the audience interested in the “drama” rather than the skill. This might be true, but some people will genuinely be inspired to take up the skill (look at the explosion in ballroom dancing) and this can only be good for the discipline and its industry.

FM and the WJF share another objective, namely to improve the skill level within their chosen areas by encouraging and rewarding excellence and by inspiring performers (or should that be athletes?) and creating role models for younger people.

Mark Bakalor, the WJF’s marketing director, in an interview on the Internet Juggling Database (IJDB) in 2004 said “Without purpose, the current juggling skill levels will idle. With a purpose, competitors will train year after year to become better, knowing that they will be able to show their progress to the world and advance the sport.”

According to the WJF “the junior level competitors of 2010 exceeded the skill level of the advanced competitors of 2004.”

Stick that on your mouthpiece and bounce it Mr Brunn!

But not so fast. There is certainly a strong argument for competition increasing skill levels. Look at world class rhythmic gymnasts and baton twirlers; they use similar props to many object manipulators and their skill levels are extremely high. The prestige, not to mention the prize money, serves to motivate such athletes and offers the chance, at least to the most successful, of increased training time, professional coaches and facilities.

But how much difference does competition really make. It’s hard to say for certain but from my personal experience I know of contact staffers and hoopers that can rival such world class athletes in skills with the prop, if not their flexibility and acrobatics. And look at Francis Brunn himself – he wasn’t motivated by competition and has there been a greater juggler/object manipulator in the last 100 years (perhaps ever)?

Competition, as we’ve seen, can increase the popularity of a discipline by motivating new people to take it up. But does it motivate these people for the right reasons? Of course, everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do but circus and manipulation arts have a large non-materialistic element to them and a focus on beating no one but yourself. These things help to make the community as friendly and accepting as it is. Are we jeopardising this by giving the impression the purpose of these disciplines is to make money by beating your inferiors along the way?

I’m not sure about the last point but I do think that one of the great advantages of the circus arts is their non-competitive element. There aren’t all that many physical activities that don’t have competition at their heart and this can seriously put off people who aren’t naturally athletic or competitive. Children can be discouraged from exercise at a very young age if all they do is lose. Juggling, hooping or spinning poi can give people the chance to experience the joys and benefits of exercise without worrying about being beaten every time.Hula hooping is non-competitive

I fear that if competition becomes integral to these activities it will alienate a lot of the people who benefit from it the most. I know quite a few sport-adverse computer programmers and mathematicians who might be considerably less fit were they not jugglers!

Another common complaint levied against juggling competitions is that they stifle creativity and homogenise the discipline by forcing people to conform to the competition’s criteria. Here’s what Mark Bakalor of the WJF had to say in response to this in 2004:

“There is plenty of room for creativity in our competitions. Nobody has to do anything that's ever been done before. If you have a unique move, or a routine full of entirely unique technical juggling moves, you are more than welcome to submit them for evaluation of a difficulty rating.”

It’s great the WJF caters for this sort of “innovative” creativity, i.e. coming up with new moves, but competition also encourages secrecy about these new moves. People inventing (I prefer discovering) new moves feel ownership over them (something I don’t agree with) and do all in their power to keep them from falling into the hands of others. To me, this is counterproductive to the discipline as a whole; development is hampered by people not willing to share knowledge. Imagine if MCP had had this attitude – contact staff would not exist in the form it does now, there probably wouldn’t even be a division for it in the Flame Master Fest!

Does competition threaten creativity?But innovative creativity is not the only type of creativity. What about personal expression, style and emotion that can be, and often is, a big part of what we find enjoyable and valuable in performances (and freestyle) juggling or spinning. This is a form of creativity too and the WJF certainly doesn’t mark competitors on such subjective criteria. Mark Bakalor again: “If you want to be creative with other styles of juggling… you [can] keep doing them in other existing venues.”

FM, on the other hand, does try to incorporate such elements in their scoring system with 40% of each competitor’s mark being awarded for non-technical considerations such as entertainment level, theatrical framing and “qualities of charm, warmth, confidence, appeal, audience connection and charisma that support the performer’s stage persona.”

While it’s admirable of FM to try to include these elements in their scoring, and reflects their view of fire dancing as an art, it can compromise the fair scoring of a competition. To quote Brunn again: “You can’t compare different acts with one another”. Subjective factors like how entertaining you find an act can’t be formulated into objective scoring criteria. That’s why stand-up comedy never made it as an Olympic sport!

Having such things on the score card also makes favouritism and bias in the judging hard to police (not that I think for a minute the FM judges will be anything but impartial). While I like what FM is trying to do, I think it is doomed, especially if the competition gets bigger and more prestigious. Having objective scoring criteria, essential for fair competition, necessarily proscribes such subjective, creative factors.


Having just critiqued competition in juggling and object manipulation you might be surprised to hear that I’m not totally against it. I think it does help to promote these arts and does help to raise the bar in terms of what can be done with these props.

I have a sporting background and if I had the funds I may well have competed in FM this year.

However, I think it’s important that competition doesn’t come to dominate these art forms for all the reasons listed above. Having a sporting element can be advantageous to the discipline as a whole but it should be kept in its place, otherwise we put at risk some of the best reasons to take up these activities and many of the benefits of them. That wouldn’t just harm the non-competitive side but would seriously damage the sport as well. As Mark Bakalor said, sport should be “adding to juggling, not taking away”.