Jumbo Jugglers spin fire, form community around object manipulation

The Jumbo Jugglers hosted WOMBAT from March 31 to April 2 this year. Courtesy Saurav Acharya / Jumbo Jugglers

If you thought fire-bending was impossible, think again. The Jumbo Jugglers is a student group dedicated to providing an outlet for people of any background to learn the skills of object manipulation, including spinning flaming objects.

Object manipulation is an overarching term that encompasses a wide array of actions, according to Ruth Meadow-MacLeod, a fourth-year Tufts-SMFA dual-degree student on the Jumbo Jugglers’ executive board.

“Object manipulation is an umbrella term that covers juggling and just about any performance or circus-type thing that involves an object,” Meadow-MacLeod said, giving examples including box juggling, which uses cardboard boxes, and card and magic tricks.

Senior Erik Poppleton, who is also on the Jumbo Jugglers’ executive board, said that the most common types of object manipulation are poi, which is a ball on a string, and staff.

“The whole idea [of poi] is that you can move them around your body and keep them from tangling, and there are a lot of really cool patterns. Some poi have LED lights, and others are just acrylic balls,” he explained.

Traditionally, the staff is held in two hands and spun very quickly — a form that derives from martial arts traditions — but the Jumbo Jugglers tend to practice contact staff.

“Contact is when you try not to touch the staff with your hands,” Poppleton said. “You roll it around your body without grabbing it. It is almost magical to watch.”

The Jumbo Jugglers grew out of another object manipulation community called Medford Spinjam, according to Poppleton. The group was founded in 2011 by several Tufts undergraduate and graduate students.

“They started the club as a vehicle to get a fire permit in order to spin fire in public. This involved speaking with the fire marshals and the Tufts legal department,” Poppleton said. “The club has slowly grown since then, and [we] are about 20 people, with five members on [the executive] board.”

The Jumbo Jugglers continue to hold weekly Medford Spinjam sessions on Thursdays, according to Meadow-MacLeod.

“We spin every Thursday night on the Rez Quad if it’s nice or the hanger by Granoff [Music Center],” she said. “When it is nice outside, a lot of people see us outside spinning fire.”

Meadow-MacLeod said that anyone from any background is welcome to come watch and learn.

“Nobody needs previous experience to come join. None of us had any previous experience when we started, [and] I’m never going to stop. We are definitely going to be doing it, and [after graduation], I’ll still be coming back every Thursday,” Meadow-MacLeod said.

The Jumbo Jugglers have evolved into something much more than just a group holding weekly meetings, however. Poppleton said that they are involved in many local community events.

“We occasionally perform and teach juggling at schools around here for free. Last year, we worked with Tufts Community Day, a big festival in October, where we joined their parade,” he said.

Each year, the Jumbo Jugglers put on a three-day festival called WOMBAT, which includes a variety of workshops for all skill levels in different forms of object manipulation as well as an evening performance.

“We get a whole bunch of people to teach and perform various object manipulation and who come from all around the country,” Poppleton said, adding that performers and teachers go through an application process.

Poppleton said that the performers are of higher caliber and skill than the Jumbo Jugglers themselves, although alumni have performed at WOMBAT.

“People arrive in the morning and class is all day,” Meadow-MacLeod said. “A number of classes happen at the same time, teaching all types of object manipulation. This year we had somewhere around 100 people. The whole event is free, with recommended donations. For Tufts students, they can just show up, but for others they need to register online.”

The Jumbo Jugglers and WOMBAT are part of a larger juggling community in Massachusetts. Poppleton noted that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Juggling Club holds a spinjam every Monday called Boston Spinjam. It also hosts a festival called JuggleMIT.

Meadow-MacLeod emphasized that there are also many non-school-affiliated festivals.

“The ones that are not affiliated with a school are often in the woods for a weekend,” Meadow-MacLeod said. “There is a standard formula for these festivals. Most consist of workshops and performances, and then a burn, which is spinning fire.”

At a burn, people spin fire using complicated object manipulation techniques, giving the illusion of fire-bending.

First-year Henry Zumbrunnen said that his favorite thing about joining the Jumbo Jugglers is that he gets to spin fire. He described the club as having a fun atmosphere where he can relax.

I would say that we are a group of people who enjoy doing some silly, fun, cool and fire-related things in our free time,” Zumbrunnen said. “I’ve found it to be a wonderful way to relieve stress and a very welcoming group.”

Zumbrunnen emphasized that many of the people who go to the Jumbo Jugglers’ spinjams are learning object manipulation for the first time themselves, and there is no pressure to excel right away.

“We’ve all been bad at [or] new to [object manipulation techniques], so there is absolutely no judgement for people not knowing how to do things, especially since they’re so off the beaten path,” he said.

Poppleton added that the Jumbo Jugglers is distinct from many other communities at Tufts because its members decide what they want to learn and “make it happen.”

“The biggest difference is that the Jumbo Jugglers is a skillshare. Every other club I’ve been a part of has been a group of people who were told what to do by the leadership. The Jumbo Jugglers are much more of a choose-your-own-adventure,” Poppleton said.

The Jumbo Jugglers has already established itself on campus and in the greater community, but the group hopes to grow further.

“We would really like to expand our reach within Tufts,” Poppleton said. “Right now we’re quite well known within the New England spinner community, but a lot of people at Tufts don’t even notice we exist, despite lighting things on fire on a weekly basis.”