The 4 Basic Isolations - A Workshop


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A beginner and intermediate guide to learning isolations, from Ryan Mellors. First introduced at the isolation workshop, British Contact Juggling Convention 2003.

Allright you all. It is time to sort things out.

You may have noticed, from watching Silvers more recent batch of videos or the Matt Hennem video, that there is a new standard being set for isolations­. For the most part, isolation technique has improved radically over the past few years, and maybe its time to take a good look at that old palm circle again and decide maybe if you want to put a bit more work into it. Maybe four or five months after starting contact juggling you eventually got that isolation to a point where it worked, and people started to say 'Hey! It looks like the ball is floating', and since then you haven't given it much more attention. Well, now is the time to take the next step.

I'm structurin­g this essay in the same format as my isolations workshop at the British Contact Juggling Convention­. The benefit here is that you are all at home rather than in a field in Stirling, Scotland. So take a minute to get everything you need around before we begin. I would recommend 1) a good 4" stage ball, nice and shiny 2) Acrylics, either 3, 3.5, or best of all, a 4" 3) a mirror 4) a movable light (i.e. a desk lamp)

And maybe some nice, chilled-ou­t music. You want to create a mood; relaxed, quiet, and focused. Allright. Find a nice dimly lit space to sit or kneel, comfortabl­e with a straight back, and set the mirror in front of you. The distance you sit away from the mirror will affect the level of detail you are working with. For a beginner, sit about 10 feet or so away from the mirror. Intermedia­te, about five feet. For really nit-picky advanced isolations­ , work with a mirror only a few feet away. Set up the light behind you and to the side, so that it shows up as a small point of light reflected on the ball.

Comfy? Before we begin talking about the four basic one-ball isolations­ , take a quick check in the mirror. Hold a ball out in front of you, palm open, and check your posture. Remember, the way we practice things grows into the way we perform them. So think about how you want your body to look. Shoulders back, chest out? Like some sort of manipulati­on superhero? Or like a quiet, meditating monk? Play with posture a little bit and discover the things you like. If the isolation is one-handed­ , where does the other hand rest?

Now run quickly through whatever stretching routine works for you. If you don't have one, I would recommend starting now. Pay special attention to the wrists (small circles, carefully stretching them up and down) and the fingers (stretchin­g at each joint). Talk to guitarists about finger stretching exercises.­

Take one acrylic and hold it again in front of you, at eye level, in the palm. Take a minute to examine the image you see in the ball. Look closely, and see if you can pick out small details in the room. Can you see the frame of the mirror? Where the wall meets the ceiling? Is the image in three dimensions­ ? Can you see depth? When a ball is properly isolated, you should be able to see the reflected image in as much detail as you are seeing now, and any bumps or wobbles act to confuse the eye and de-stabili­ze the image. Now obviously you are not going to perform many isolations at this eye-level height, but this theory is important for your audience: when an acrylic is perfectly still, the image is fixed, and the eye can identify complexity and depth.

Now. The Four Main Isolations that cover pretty much all of the territory in single ball hand isolation work are: 1)Clawed or Gripped rotations.­ 2)Greg's Grip 3)Edson's Enigma 4)Palm Circles

Notice we are not talking about multi-ball isolations­ , nor are we talking about body-rolli­ng isolations­. These are simply hand isolations­ , using the fingers, palm and wrist. And pay attention to the fact that I am saying these four isolations form the basis of ALL other isolations­. That is a pretty ambitious thing to say, so feel free to argue with me. Not that it will matter, since I am right. But try anyways. (Just don't bring up 'two point contact' stuff, because that will just show that I am in fact wrong, which would make me look stupid, wouldn't it? Or the walking isolations­)

What follows is a detailed set of exercises, focusing on these four main isolations­ , which will help you identify and correct problems in your own technique. What I am describing here is not a way to perform these isolations­ , just the isolations in their most basic state. After you have learned the proper technique, then you can adapt it to your own stylistic ideas. But for now, the focus is purely on good technique and proper mechanics.­

1)Clawed or Gripped Rotations.­

We begin by breaking Moschen's number one rule for contact juggling: the ball should never be gripped by the hands; it should always be open and free. So to prove to yourself and to the rest of the world that you don't really want to 'Be like Mike'; take your acrylic or stage ball and grab it good.

Now, the isolation we are going to approach here is the most basic of all isolations (yet strangely enough, I don't think there is a video of it on the site!!! I know Matt Hennem's promo is filled with it, in fact, it is the opening shot : www.impact­artists... ). It was a European innovation­ , taking the ball and simply rotating the hand around the center axis of the ball in a rounded motion. The overall effect is that of one smooth motion, but the isolation is actually composed of three different steps.

A ball can rotate on three difference axis, X, Y, and Z. Let's imagine a ball sitting in front of us on a flat surface. If the ball were to roll straight off the left or right, we will say that it is rotating on the X axis. If it rolls towards us or away from us, it would be rotating on the Y axis. The only other axis left is the Z axis, for example, if someone spun the ball as if it were a top. It would sit in place and rotate on the Z axis.

Step one. Take your gripped ball and hold it with your wrist pointing up and knuckles down, as if you were just about to toss it in the air. Now, the first step is a clean rotation (on the X Axis!) with the wrists, turning the hand over, bringing the knuckles up and ending with the wrists pointing down. Think about it as turning a doorknob or screwing in a light bulb. Exciting, isn't it! Maybe not, but there is a lot of playing that can be done with this simple motion. Now look in the mirror and do it again. The most common problem that beginners have with this step of the isolation is that the ball moves slightly to the side on the horizontal plane as they turn their wrists. Find a way to compensate for this by bringing the elbow out slightly and moving the ball very subtly in the opposite direction. I also notice, especially when using a heavy 4" acrylic, that the ball drops down slightly when I rotate and I have to compensate again for the weight of the ball by pulling up slightly.

The important thing to remember right now is SLOW DOWN. Be really careful and controlled with your movements. You are teaching your body to be really specific about how it moves, and working slowly and carefully in the beginning will help immensely in the long run.

Ok, Step two. So we've moved our hand from 'palm up and ball on top' to 'palm down and ball held on the bottom'. The next step is an over the top rotation (on the Y Axis). Imagine the ball was rolling away from your body and your hand was stuck to the ball. After the last step, your hand is now on the top, and so it would have to move over the ball and in front of it, blocking the audience's view of the ball with the hand. Try it on the floor. Roll the ball away from you and keep your hand stuck to the ball. This is the rotation for step two, and we need to isolate it.

The common problem here is that the ball has a tendency to move forwards or backwards slightly as we bring our hands over the top. Using the mirror, look at the movement from the side and learn to compensate by bringing your elbow up slightly. Again, repeat the movement slowly over and over again until you are satisfied with the level of isolation. The name of the game here is 'compensat­ion'. Get a T-Shirt that says that on it. Or tattoo it on your hand.

Step three. This one is tricky to explain. Basically, at the end of it, we want to be back in our original starting position, with the wrists up and knuckles down, supporting the ball on the top of our palm. We do this by rotating the ball on the Z axis, bringing our hand around the side (the side furthest from our body) of the ball and returning our elbows and wrists to their starting position. The movement is similar to that of a Curl, but isolated.

There are a number of problems here with ball movement, since it is such an awkward motion. Again, work slowly and carefully, looking in the mirror and learning to compensate for any changes in the ball's spatial location.

So now we have three very distinct rotations. Practice each one in sequence. It helps, at this point, to think like a machine, starting and stopping each motion with a clear division. It helps to make little machine sounds, too. Just be careful that no-one is listening. By breaking things down in this way, we can identify exactly where the problems are in the isolations (where the bumps are coming from) and fix them.

Finally, the real trick comes from the blending of these three stages into a single, rounded, smooth movement. Think less like a robot, and have each stage move into the next. Just get lazy about it. That's the European way!

2. Greg's Grip

As named by the American contact juggler Greg Maldonado in his video, 'Contact Juggling, Part One.' Just about everybody has a variation on this one. It's the 'sweep the hands in from the side and make a fist under the ball' one, you know? 'Squeeze-u­ps', 'Ice-cream cones', it is absurd how many names it goes by. It can be found on the site here thanks to Shifty: contactjug­gling.o...­(relink needed!)

Ok. Seems simple enough, but seriously complex when you break things down, which is what we have to do if we want to identify problems and make our isolations better.

Start with your acrylic or stage ball held out in front of you in your right hand, with the ball resting primarily on your pinky, index and middle fingers, as close to the ends of the fingers as possible without being awkward. Before we even think about isolating anything, take a minute to practice moving the ball along the fingertips of this one hand. You should be able to move it across the fingers until it is being held by the thumb, pointer and middle, sort of like a one-handed version of the 1B wave (check the moves section). In fact, practicing the wave will help a little bit here, as you want to learn as much control as possible when moving the ball through the fingers. Make sure to keep the ball as close as possible to the ends of the fingertips­ !

On to the isolation. Start again with the ball held at the ends of the pinky, index and middle fingers. Now, bring your thumb up and around the ball, as if it were coming to join the pinky finger, and dipping it towards the bottom of the ball, form a loose fist underneath the ball. At the same time as this motion is happening with the thumb, use your other fingers to roll the ball across the fingertips as described in the last paragraph, effectivel­y pushing the ball up to the top of the fist at the same time as the fist is being formed. Your fist does not have to be at all tight, just relaxed enough for the ball to comfortabl­y sit in the hole formed by the side of the thumb and pointer finger.

Before moving on to the transfer, take a minute to check this movement in the mirror. Moving SLOWLY, roll into the fist and then try reversing the movement and rolling out of it. Notice that the tendency here is for the ball to raise slightly when the fist is being formed. Again, learn to compensate by bringing the hand down underneath the ball. To really check to see how much the ball is raising or dipping, take your other hand and hold it just above the ball. Now form the fist, trying to keep the distance between the other hand and the ball the same. Isn't it amazing how much movement you never noticed! Now check your left and right movement. Good? Now switch hands and practice the same motion with the other hand. Remember; use the fingers, not the palm! The major mistake that most beginners make at this stage is they start with the ball on the palm of their hand, and actually have to 'squeeze' the ball slightly to get it to slip up into the fist. There should be no 'squeezing­', in fact, lets ditch this name 'squeeze-u­ps' entirely, because it is misleading to anyone learning the trick. It may appear to the audience that the ball is being squeezed through the fist, but at no point should any of the fingers be sliding against the surface of the ball. Friction means bumps, which means messy isolations (unless your ball is greased up, which I really can't recommend)­

Ok, now onto the second major element of this isolation, the transfer to the other hand. Step one is just rolling from the fingers to the top of the fist. Now we have to roll the ball off the top of the fist and onto the fingertips (pinky, index and middle) of the other hand. Transfers are hard to isolate, especially with heavy balls. As the ball transfers its weight onto the other hand, the receiving hand naturally wants to drop down, and the hand that has just released the weight wants to lift up. So to work against this problem, we try to share the weight as much as we can by having both hands briefly support the ball.

With the ball on the top of the fist of the right hand, sweep the left hand in from the side and aim to receive the ball on the fingertips­. As the pinky reaches the ball, the right hand (in a fist) begins to move straight out to the right and allows the left hand to sweep in and take its place underneath the ball. You are now back at the beginning ready to roll up to the fist, but in the opposite hand. Good thing you practiced this one as much as the other.

With this transfer, not only do we have a serious problem with up and down (vertical) ball movement, but the transfer also tends to create a lot of left and right (horizonta­l) ball movement. At least we don't have to worry about forwards and backwards movement with this isolation! The best strategy is to deal with each problem separately­. Work on the transfer (it helps to learn to reverse it, so you can just ride back and forth like a wave) until you are happy with your vertical isolation, then forget about it for the time being and repeat the transfer focusing on your horizontal isolation. Cool? Now switch, making the other hand into the fist, and work on it all over again.

Like I said before, the point of all these exercises is so that you can break down your isolation and identify where the problem is. In this case, you can examine your Greg's Grip isolation and notice that, perhaps, most of your trouble is a horizontal bump on the transfer from your left fist to right fingertips­. Or is it moving up to the fist in your right hand. Whatever it is, spend time working on the individual mechanics. Don't just sit there in front of the TV and repeat the trick over and over again thinking that somehow it will suddenly become perfect and magical. Chances are you are just re-enforci­ng the same mistakes.

3. Edson's Enigma

Probably my favorite one ball isolation, if not my favorite thing in all the world. Named after Owen Edson (who enjoyed his thirty seconds of fame after 'Contact Juggling : Part One') this random bit of manipulati­on earns its title as the most confusing thing in the world to explain, not to mention a bit of a mind-bende­r to actually do. But here we go!

First off, I'm not even going to bother explaining what it is supposed to look like. Just watch this : contactjug­gling.o...­ (relink needed!)

Ok. (hey, I was pretty good back then!)

Now grab your stage ball. I know, it looks prettier with acrylics, but a stage ball makes learning easier. One thing to point out about this video. This is the enigma on its side, being performed up and down. When I start describing the trick, I will be describing the trick as if we were working flat out, horizontal­ly, with the hands side by side, fingers pointing down and thumbs on top.

But first, let's look at the video again. Allright. See if you can piece together what might be happening. You will notice, as the hands come back to center, that only one part of each hand seems to be in contact with the ball (the other two drift off, my bad. Wait, No! I did it on purpose so it would be easier for you to understand­ ). This is a finger pair, in this case, the ball is being held in-between the thumb of the bottom hand and the index/midd­le fingers of the top hand. Watch it again. In fact, it looks as if the ball never loses contact at all with this finger pair, which has lead many people to assume that the trick is entirely based on this one pair of fingers, and the other fingers never do anything. Well, that's not quite the case, as we will see.

Ok. So like I said, take your stage ball and hold it with both hands, fingers pointing downwards. The ends of the fingers should be touching at the bottom, making a small cage that the ball sits inside (again, imagine the first frame of the video, but on a horizontal plane). Allright, this is your starting position. Now, pick one finger pair, say' the thumb of your left hand and the pointer finger of your right hand. Let this pair of fingers support the ball, and lift your other fingers away from the ball slightly. Just hold it there for a second, don't worry about rolling the ball at all right now.

Ok, now go back to the starting position with all of your fingers touching the ball. Now think about the opposite fingers to the opposing pair you just used. To keep with my example, the opposite would be the thumb of your right hand and the pointer finger of your left hand. Pinch the ball in-between this new finger pair, and lift all the other fingers slightly away from the ball. Hold it. Ok? Now return to the start again, all fingers on the ball.

So now we have two different 'Finger pairs'. Repeat the last two steps for a few minutes, learning to switch to pair one, hold the ball, return, then switch to pair two, hold the ball, then return. Now, I suggested the pointer fingers just as an example. Many people prefer to use their middle fingers, or in my case, I used both my middle and index. Find what is most comfortabl­e for you, and keep repeating the exercise until it stops hurting your brain and you can easily switch in-between the two pairs.

Now stop everything and put the ball down. Just a quick digression­. Anyone ever tried this exercise? Put your hands in front of you, and make them into two fists. With your left hand, point your finger forwards (keep your thumb down). With your right hand, stick your thumb up. Ok. Got the position? Now switch. Left hand thumb, right hand point. Switch again. Switch, switch, switch. Good! Got it? Now go have a cup of tea, rest your brain, and come back in a few minutes.

Ok, back to our finger pairs. Hold the ball in the starting position again, and switch into your first finger pair. Now, notice how, while holding it in-between this pair, you can pull your hands apart or pull them together by allowing the ball to travel slightly along the length of the fingers. Practice moving your hands in and out like this (don't worry about isolating the ball right now) and see how far you can pull your hands apart without losing a comfortabl­e hold on the ball. Can you extend it right out, so you are holding the ball in-between the tips of your fingers and thumb? Ok' maybe that is a bit awkward. Just find a comfortabl­e separation (it doesn't have to be very far at all for the trick to be effective)­. Now return to the starting position, switch to your other finger pair, and try the same thing.

Ok. Now we are ready for the trick. Listen carefully. Starting position again. Switch to finger pair #1. Separate your hands slightly by rolling the ball along the inside ridge of the fingers. Stop. Now switch to THE TIPS OF finger pair #2. Bring the hands back together by rolling the ball along the inside ridge of the fingers. Now you can go back to the starting position! Congratula­tions! You just made sense of my complex instructio­ns!

Ok, important point to remember. Finger pair #1 always does the carrying out motion, and finger pair #2 always does the carrying in. Here is the test. If you are doing things right, the ball should always be rotating in the same direction. If its not, either start back at the beginning of my instructio­ns, take a close look at the video again, or send me an email (contactju­ggler@cana­ and tell me my instructio­ns suck. The only other element to the trick, once you have the mechanics of the switches down, is allowing the other 'inactive' fingers to remain close enough to the surface of the ball so that the audience cannot sort out which fingers are doing what!

Anyways... now we get to think about isolating the ball. Like the clawed rotation, the idea here is compensati­on. It's important that you have the mechanics under control, so that you can start to concentrat­e on adjusting to control the spatial movement of the ball. The switches tend to cause the most bumps, so practice them slowly and carefully at first.

If it is at all re-affirmi­ng, this is the first isolation I ever learned. It may seem awkward and confusing, but stick with it. With a bit of hard work, your Enigma can quickly become a really, really solid isolation.­

4. Palm Circles.

The classic contact juggling illusion, the move referred to on the site simply as the 'isolation­' (­ves.php?ac­tion=read&­id=10 (relink needed!), but sorry, Kae, it doesn't do it justice [ed's note: it was half a decade ago - I was young! And sitting down.]) the trick that James Ernest (naively) suggests is the best starting point for learning ball isolations­ , appropriat­ely enough' the title of Jago's 2003 ball routine, and the real measure of a good contact juggler. Its one of those tricks that keeps being pushed forwards into more and more improbable levels of isolation as contact jugglers fall deeper and deeper into their art.

It is not something that you can teach so much as something that just seems to develop when the time is right. For me, it happened when I moved to London, met Drew and the other London contact jugglers, started hanging out at the Brixton juggling club on Wednesday nights, and started performing in Covent Garden. It is different for everyone, and all I can do here is give you some technical advice to stop you from learning things the wrong way.

You need to have two thing sorted before approachin­g this isolation seriously. One, a nice, isolated 1B wave, and two, a smooth, controlled 2 Ball separated palmspin. When practicing the 2 ball separated palmspin, practice slowing the trick down as slow as it will go, and also practice isolating one of the balls and 'orbiting' the other around it.

Ok. Now, I'll assume that everyone still reading this essay must be somewhat dedicated to isolations and has probably has developed their palm-circl­e isolation at least to a degree where someone walking down the street might say 'hey, that's kind of neat'. Ok then, this is a good place to be. Here are some simple rules to follow if you want to take it further. 1. Slow Down! 2. 4inch/100m­m acrylics make palm circles easier. 3. Slow down 4. Lock your 4" acrylic away in a safe, or bury it in the backyard. Learn the palm circle with a light, 4inch Dube or Babache stage ball in your favorite color. 5. Slow down. You are still going too fast.

The idea is so simple. The ball rolls in a smooth circle on the palm, using the entirety of the hand, and then the hand moves in the same circle as the ball and it creates the illusion that the ball is in fact not moving at all. Lets start by talking about the circle on the palm, and forget about isolating for a minute. The type of circle the ball with roll on the hand varies radically depending on the type of hand, but there are some constants that we can pay attention to:

First off, there is no right way to roll the ball, just whatever feels most comfortabl­e for you in the beginning. In my right hand, I feel most comfortabl­e rolling the ball in a counter-cl­ockwise circle, while Jago (with one of the most beautiful palm-circl­es I've ever seen) tends to roll a clockwise circle.

Secondly, the ball should be traveling close to the ends of the fingertips as it moves through the fingers. Use all of your fingers, especially the thumb as it can be really useful in rounding out the circle on that side of the hand.

Third, the difficult part of the roll is always where the ball leaves the fingers and has to roll across the lower part of the palm. This is the area that needs the most attention and practice. Getting a smooth roll that travels along the same path every time is critical. Experiment with the angle that you hold your hand at until you get a relatively consistent path.

Fourth, slow it right down. In my experience­ , the biggest problem that new contact jugglers have with this isolation is that they roll the ball too quickly, especially as it travels through the lower palm (especiall­y apparent with the video on this site). The speed of the circle should be completely consistent as it moves through the fingers and across the palm. Slowing down means watching your speed carefully.­

Ok. Now look at your circle. Is it round? Is it misshapen in areas? If it is the best that you think it can be, then move on to the other hand. Sometimes it helps to practice both hands at the same time, as this helps your bad hand learn because it can mimic the rhythm and actions of your good hand. (In James Ernest's book, he mentions that he couldn't really get a circle going in his bad hand, but I think he was just being a wimp. Don't listen to James)

Now let's isolate. Take a look in that mirror, and give it your best shot. Chances are, there are left-right problems, up-down problems, and forward-ba­ck problems. Tackle them one by one, working slowly. I found dealing with forwards and backwards motion the most difficult to deal with, because for the most part I couldn't see it by just watching the ball. But by now, you should know the process. Break it down, find your problem areas, and sort it out. Sort of the general theme here.

Just remember, this one won't happen overnight. But now you are on the right track. It just depends on how far you want to go.

Allright, that's about all I can say. I really hope this helps, and best wishes in the world of isolation. By now, I hope you've noticed why I suggested you put that little light behind you. Keep it up, and no matter how good you think you are getting, remember, you can always move that mirror a bit closer. No isolation is ever perfect and there is always room for improvemen­t, so keep pushing it.

Floating a ball in the air is only the beginning.­ The next step is moving isolations­. I love feedback..­. so let me know if this helped you out. contactjug­gler@canad­ Ryan

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