Only five percent of the professional jugglers around the world are women. Erin Stephens of Durango is one of that rare breed.
Stephens’ talents and those of a host of other performers will be on display at the first-ever Durango Juggle Fest Oct. 15-17.
So prepare to be in awe as people magically flip objects, flip each other, and flip themselves through the air.
“We will have jugglers, unicyclists, poi spinners, acrobats, contact jugglers, acro-balancers, object manipulators, and circus freaks of all kinds,” said Stephens.
for the uninitiated, poi spinners whirl balls on strings, contact jugglers roll objects on their bodies, and acro-balance is a form of gymnastics featuring breathtaking feats of balance.
Stephens will be performing in the public show Saturday, Oct. 16, along with a number of International Jugglers Association award winners and talent from around the United States and Canada, including members of the local Salt Fire Circus troupe.
Stephens was 11 when she got involved in an after-school program that featured a juggler teaching his art to the kids. He told Stephens she had real potential.
“I was so excited, I went home that night and practiced for four hours,” recalled Stephens, now 29. “Then my brother crushed one of my Styrofoam balls and I cried and cried.” The next day her mom bought her three bouncy balls and Stephens spent the next four years practicing with those.
“I had no coach or teacher at that time, and my only goal was to see how long I could go before I dropped a ball,” she said.
When she was 14, Stephens’ whole perspective shifted drastically when she saw a man at a park juggling with four clubs. “I never knew a person could juggle with more than three items or with something different than balls,” she said. So she expanded beyond her three bouncy balls – she now juggles with as many as seven items.
Stephens began working with a coach and by age 15 she was performing at festivals.
To share her enthusiasm, Stephens started a club at her high school. Members met at lunchtime and Stephens taught the aspiring performers.
“It was great to provide an alternative to the traditional sports, music, and theatre that most high schools offer.”
Teaching young people to juggle has become a passion for Stephens. During her college years, she had a dream to get similar programs into every school – a goal she is still pursuing.
“We would get kids into the juggling programs who had low self-esteem and low grades, and the juggling, and the enthusiasm they developed for it, changed their lives in all areas,” Stephens said. “Teachers used to thank me because they saw so much improvement in their students.”
Stephens was awarded a performing- arts scholarship to the University of California- Santa Cruz, but three weeks into her freshman year she suffered a life-altering juggling accident. “I was standing on a guy’s shoulders and fell off. I fractured four vertebrae and squished three disks.”
Stephens was in a back brace for three months and it took her two years to get back into juggling. “My back has never fully recovered, but I loved juggling too much to give it up.”
At that time she changed her college focus from performing arts to youth empowerment through circus arts, enabling her once again to working with kids and juggling.
Stephens eventually followed a nanny job from California to Bayfield, Colo., and began training for the New World Juggling Federation Championships. She placed third overall twice – the first year as the only female competing against men, and the next in a newly formed women’s division.
Stephens sustained more injuries, however, and was forced to take a break from performing.
But the call of the bouncy ball was too strong, and after she moved to Durango in 2007, she auditioned for the Salt Fire Circus, and has done three different shows for them since.
She was recently elected to the board of the International Jugglers Association and is a proud member of the Fort Lewis Juggling Club, which in conjunction with the Salt Fire Circus is presenting the Durango Juggle Fest.
“Our goal is to build juggle and circus energy in the Four Corners,” said Stephens.
Besides the much-anticipated public show on Saturday night, the fest will include workshops, shows, games, and open practice space. An invitation is extended to jugglers of all skill levels.
The fest will also host a rather large local community of unicyclists and will include a mountain unicycle ride.
Whether you’ve been wanting to learn for years, enjoy juggling as a hobby, or are a professional circus performer, this festival has the potential to educate and inspire you – and possibly, like Stephens, turn you into an aficionado.