The Joys of Juggling (VIDEO)
Jen Slaw ’00 Keeps Balls, Knives—Even Hair Dryers—in the Air
With a winning grin, a tilt of her head and a sambalike slither, Jen Slaw ’00 moves around Central Park catching smiles as easily as she catches her three spinning yellow balls. Tourists swivel their heads and point.
The engineer turned professional juggler strolls from the park to West 72nd Street, gathering more smiles and comments while huggling—reaching her arms around a woman she’s just met and juggling three balls behind the woman’s back. A sanitation worker sidles up to tell Slaw how cool this is.
She’s a juggler on a mission this April day—it’s the month for her “30-day huggling challenge—spreading as much huggling joy as I can,” she says. Slaw also is eager to talk about an upcoming career landmark, the mid-May Philadelphia debut of her juggling play.
First performed in New York in February, Perfect Catch, which she wrote and performs with juggling partner Michael Karas, is a one-hour, one-act show. Billed as a “throwmantic comedy,” Perfect Catch follows the evolution of a young man and woman from workplace adversaries to a loving couple—juggling prosaic items such as toothbrushes and hair dryers as well as the more theatrical balls, rings, and clubs.
“I’m always working on advancing the numbers. I’m working on juggling six balls, but Perfect Catch is the thing I am most proud of—using juggling to tell a story,” says Slaw.
With Perfect Catch, she’s not dropped the ball. As New York entertainment blogger Alix Cohen wrote, “Perfect Catch may be the first real story told in juggling, the forward guard of an entirely new and captivating approach to the craft. These are actors playing characters, thespians in the true sense of the word.”
Slaw has been juggling for most of her life—after a middle-school teacher in Drexel Hill, Pa., introduced her to the circus arts as a club activity. Having gravitated to math and science in high school (not atypical for jugglers, who tend to be male and science oriented, she says), she came to Swarthmore for the engineering program. She juggled through college, doing gigs on weekends to earn pocket change, and pursued a second major in art.
At Swarthmore, she says, “I learned to think creatively and solve problems and to think divergently. I use this every day while running my own business.”
Slaw was a full-time engineer for a few years after graduation, but she felt unfulfilled—“just plugging numbers into equations.”
In 2004, she became a part-time engineer so she could juggle more. Three years later, she gave up engineering. The reaction of her Swarthmore friends, she says, was “supportive. They said, ‘It’s inspiring to see what you’ve done.’ ”
As a juggler, her days are anything but predictable. She could be teaching elementary or middle-school students circus arts through her role as executive director of the nonprofit Juggling Life, which aims to empower underprivileged children. She loves to hear kids say, “Juggling makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Teaching senior citizens to juggle as part of a wellness program or sharing the team-building and goal-setting benefits of juggling with a corporate group could occupy her time. She could be performing at a party or on a rare day, giving a TEDx talk or appearing, wearing a pink polka-dot costume and juggling while sitting down, on the Late Show with David Letterman, as she did in December.
“That was nerve-racking,” she says. “I never imagined I’d be on stage next to Dave juggling.”
No matter the purpose, audience, or venue, says Slaw, “What I love most is feeling the connection to other people. I didn’t feel that as an engineer. If I can inspire someone else to think creatively, then I’ve achieved my goal.”