The First Five
These are the ever-so-important first five steps to learning how to Contact Juggle. All of the following was written by the famous Ferret, and many have learned from this guide.
 STEP 1 - The Cradle
Since I will be explaining this to you via text, I will have to be rather detailed in my explanation. And yes, I can be "long winded" sometimes. But please bear in mind that there are many people out there that may need that detailed mental picture, whereas others my not, but I would be remiss in my teaching skills if I didn't provide those individuals with that detailed explanation. So let's begin.
Bring your "strong" hand out in front of you, where ever is comfortable for you (about the level where your chest meets your stomach is what I would recommend), palm down, fingers and thumb extended and spread slightly from each other, forearm parallel to the ground. Position your hand so that your fingers are pointing directly opposite of the direction that your elbow is pointing. In other words, keep your wrist straight. As for the direction of your thumb, whatever you choose is fine; we will get into that later. You may note in some of my still photos that I'm not really a purist when it comes to holding my fingers in that rigid "karate chop" position. By all means, you should learn that position, as some tricks look better done in that style. But right now, what ever works for you is what's best to do.
Now, holding that position, tense your whole hand and forearm. In so doing, you should cause the tips of your fingers to rise to the same level as your wrist bone. Your knuckles should be lower than the finger tips and the back of your hand, if possible. Now, lower your middle finger slightly below your index and ring fingers. Still keeping your hand and fingers stiff, place a sphere onto the back of your hand, letting it rest on this "Three-finger, spread" position.
This position is predominantly referred to as "The Cradle"
Hold the sphere in this position...
Just stand, or sit, or whatever; get used to the ball; the weight of it; take notice of the way you have to tilt your arm to keep the sphere from falling. You can expect to be a little wobbly at first. I don't remember seeing anyone who wasn't for their first minute.
When you can hold the ball steady, try walking around. Just a quick note here: depending on the ball you're using, wearing good shoes at this point is a wise move indeed!
When you find this to be easy, try doing something more difficult -- phone a friend with your other hand, while still "cradling" the ball. When your friend picks up, tell them what you're doing. More than likely, they will think that you've finally gone off the deep end and will cut the phone call short, letting you get back to the task at hand.
When I was at this stage, I remember trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with one hand. Trust me on this one, you don't want to go there!
Now try the same thing with your weak hand. And yes, you will need to put more time in there than you do with your good side.
This accomplishes two things:
1) It strengthens the muscles in your hands and forearms, preparing you for future practice sessions
2) It develops your sense of feeling. Not only how the ball feels on your hand in a static position (standing very still), but how centripetal force will alter that feeling, like when you turn quickly with the ball in the 'cradle'.
All in all, you're increasing your ability to feel the ball as if it were a natural extension of your hand.
 STEP 2 - Tossing
Now that you can walk around and do things while "holding" the ball on your hand, let's try "losing contact" with the ball. (This is not to be confused with "losing control" of the ball!)
Once again, hold the ball in the "cradle" position. By now you should be good enough at that, so let's start focusing on the visual aspect to your audience. Bring the ball to about chest level, elbow held high (almost to shoulder level), and your forearm running parallel to the plane of your chest. Try to hold a good "box" shape so that your chest and upper arm form a 90 degree angle, and your upper arm and forearm form a 90 degree angle as well.
Now "springboard" the ball up into the air.
WARNING: The author Does Not condone or recommend doing this trick anywhere near bare feet, small children, or glass products. And if there's an aquarium in the same room as you, YOU NEED TO BE IN ANOTHER ROOM!!! Overhead fans can, however, be amusing, but don't tell anyone I said that.
When you first throw the ball up from the back of your hand, don't throw it too high -- just nice, easy pushes. You want the ball to clear maybe only 4 or 5 inches at first because, remember, you have to catch it in the cradle position when it comes back down.
If you find the ball bouncing when it hits your hand, then you're holding your shoulder too stiff.
While still keeping your fingers, wrist, and elbow stiff, relax your shoulder more, and as the weight of the ball hits your hand, ease it down gently to the original "box" shape position.
If you're catching the ball, but you're wavering around a lot before you steady it up, then you need to focus more on your "Three Finger Spread/Cradle" position, from STEP 1.
Working well so far? OK, now try throwing it a little higher till you can consistently catch them in the "cradle" from about head height.
This is all the height you'll need to be good at to go on to STEP 3.
If you want to throw it higher, go ahead; it's good practice for the unconventional "flyaways" that will come later. (Even as I wring my hands in anticipation of bending your minds with those tricks, I will exercise some self control here and continue.)
So now that you're getting better and better at this, let me ask you something: Have you been working your weak hand as well?
Good! Now let's get back to the "contact" thing.
If you haven't already started to follow the ball up with your hand after you toss it up, then let's give that a shot.
Try to stay about an inch below the ball until it apexes and comes back to rest in the cradle. This will require a little more up and down movement of your shoulder, but more importantly, you must bend at the wrist to keep your palm parallel to the ground when your hand is up by your head.
When you reach the point where you can juussst keep the ball above the backs of your fingers but still have it in mid air up to its peak height, give yourself a round of applause (or give yourself a round of Whatever You're Drinking), 'cause you get to go on to steps 3 & 4, in which you finally get to learn a trick!
 STEP 3 - Palm Catches
Well I'm sure that all of you skipped right to this step after reading steps 1 & 2, and saying to yourself, "Geeez, throw the ball up and catch it on the back of my hand? That's easy!" I did the same thing, at first.
But I did go back to those first two steps later, to help correct some problems that I could see were beginning to form. You may not have that same set of problems, but believe me when I say that the exercises in steps 1 & 2 are Important! And by doing those exercises, you will only help yourself out in the long run.
Now for the tough part.
Not for you... for me! Explaining this with no pictures is not going to be easy, but here we go.
You've gotten pretty good at throwing the ball up and down in a straight vertical line to the back of your hand (the cradle), and in the process I'm sure that you have also gotten pretty good at throwing the ball up in a Not so straight vertical line to the back of your hand, into some cabinetry, onto the floor after a desperate attempt to save it with your foot and thus causing it to go under the couch...
Yes, I've been there as well. But I digress.
Now what I want you to do is, from the cradle, throw the ball up in a gentle arc to your outside, following the ball with your fingertips. As it reaches its apex, your forearm should be vertical and your upper arm should be almost horizontal as if you were about to arm wrestle a friend on a taller than normal table.
Let the ball continue through its arc, following it all the while, until you catch it in your palm. Your arm should now look like you're almost Finished arm wrestling your friend, and you're losing!
This position is commonly referred to as "The Palm!" Why they called it that, I have not a clue. I ranted and raved, I begged and pleaded, but the juggling community just Would... Not... Budge. So I guess we're all gonna call it "The Palm!"
In getting to this position, you have to focus on two things:
1) Is your hand following the ball just under its arc, so that your fingers are never more than an inch or two away from the ball during its flight?
2) Is your elbow staying pretty much in the same place? The movement of your arm should mimic that of a windshield wiper on a car. Much (if not all) of the work here should be done by rotating your shoulder, or "rotary cuff". You will have to bend the wrist back a bit to "palm" the ball, but the more limber your shoulder, the less wrist needs to be used. And the better the visual to your audience.
3) OK, 3 things -- You have to catch the ball!
Now from this position ...drumroll..."The Palm!"...big fanfare..., throw it back to the cradle.
Try to follow the same path that the ball on its way to "The Palm" traveled, only in reverse. Try to do the same movement in reverse with your hand and arm as well. (Unless of course that first toss to the palm just plain sucked, in which case I don't recommend trying to do that backwards!)
Just nice, easy arcs, back and forth, back and forth, cradle to palm, palm to cradle. You want the ball to go to about the height of your forehead, and your hand should pass in front of your face.
Working? Good, now let's learn that trick!
 STEP 4 - Contact
So now you're tossin' the ball back and forth, palm to cradle, and you're following closely with your fingers. And you're doing pretty good! Back to that annoying question again.
Are you doing pretty good with BOTH hands?
Very well. Now back to the "Contact" thing. This is, after all, "Contact Juggling".
As you throw the ball back and forth, begin to slow down the explosiveness of your launch. By that, I mean don't "flick" the ball off your hand and into the air as much; let the momentum of your hand's movement at the beginning *push* the ball up your fingers to the tips, where it will then become "airborne". Follow though, like you had been doing in step 3, and catch the ball in the position you are moving towards (palm or cradle). Do you see where this is going? I thought so.
As you learn to control your launch, or "push speed", you should immediately notice that if you stall your hand movement at the right moment just slightly, the ball will never actually become airborne, and right at the apex of the ball's arc it will merely roll over the tips of your fingers, down the other side, and into the position you were going to catch it in.
When you have reached this point, I want you to stop and really look at how you have accomplished this feat! When the ball grazed over your finger tips, did it:
1) Ride up, and peak between your index and middle fingers, touching both those finger tips at the same time?
2) Ride up between your middle and ring fingers and touch both those finger tips at the same time?
3) Stay in contact with all three fingers, index, middle, and ring, and roll right over the tip of just your middle finger at the ball's peak height?
Whichever way you accomplished this, is the way that is apparently the most comfortable for you.
DON'T CHANGE IT!!! ..................YET!
Remember the statement in step 1 about whatever works for you?
I want you to stay with that right now. Why? Because it's working for you! Learning this art form is not that easy, and if something is working for you, then you are much more apt to continue to learn. Other contact jugglers may or may not agree with me on this. But I do consider this to be an Art, not a science, and I don't think that Picasso would have told Rembrandt, "Yo Dude, your brush stroke's all wrong!" Yes, there are certain paths of learning this art that need to be followed. But stepping off that path for a little bit is not a Bad Thing, and sometimes blazing your own trail can be fun. You can always come back to that trail when the mood takes you. Having said all that, I do highly recommend one Hard and Fast Rule, and I know you're sick of hearing it, but... Learn Everything with Both Hands!
It's time for you to go and practice what you just learned to do. Most of us CJers refer to this first trick as either a "one handed butterfly" or a "single windshield wiper". Actually, since most of us learned apart from each other, we all have different names for these tricks. I call this one Tammy, but then again, I'm weird like that. We are, at this time, trying to put together a set of names that we all agree on. (I don't think Tammy's going to get many votes. Oh well, no biggie.) For some very good visual explanations of this trick, I highly recommend watching the videos in the "1 ball tutorials" area of this site, under "Butterfly".
Congratulations on getting to this point, considered by many to be one of the hardest steps in your training! But then again, the first step in any endeavor usually is. Reaching this point should impart to you one very important lesson: You CAN do this! And that should fuel the fire for you to continue. Not to jump up on a soap box here, but I don't believe in the word "Can't!" You can do anything you set you mind to. During my shows at the faires, I will often hear a child's mother or father (usually the father) say to their child, "Bet you couldn't do that, Billy." I find this Very Sad! Not to mention aggravating, and I really want to Slap "dad" upside the head. But, because I'm an employee, and dad's the customer, I'm not allowed to even contradict him. For those of you who have children, Please don't do that!
I'll stop preaching now.
There's much more ahead of you to discover in this field. And remember, there are Five Steps to my way of teaching, so I'm not quite finished with you yet!
Oh, and BTW, you know I was kidding about the "Tammy" thing.
 STEP 5 - Muscle Memory
Alright, now comes the really tough part. You're not going to like it, at least not at first, but these are my steps to teaching this art, and I fully believe that you will not only benefit from this last step, but you will advance quicker in learning future tricks. I also recommend this exercise to the more advanced CJers in the group.
Go back to holding the ball in cradle position, AND CLOSE YOUR EYES!
Focus on how the ball FEELS on the back of your hand. Whether you realize it or not, you have already been concentrating, in part, on the feeling of the movements as you practiced the first four steps. In steps 2 and 3 the ball was leaving contact with your hand, so you couldn't feel the ball itself, but you could feel the way your hand and arm were moving, and you were subconsciously developing muscle memory, the feeling that your hand and arm were in the right spot. You were also (and this is just an assumption on my part) using your eyes to react to the ball's movements.
Take away your sense of sight and you will begin to heighten your sense of touch and feeling, a much faster sense. Please don't get me wrong -- the human eye is truly a wonder of nature; I still don't think that technology has developed any camera that can work as well, all around, as our own eyes. But light, the medium that our eyes work in, moves at a much slower speed than the electrical impulses in your body, known as nerves and nerve endings. If the ball is rolling down your arm and it starts to roll in a direction that you had not planned on (let's say off the outside of your forearm, instead of to your elbow), by the time the light travels from the ball to your eyes, and your brain receives and processes that information and then sends a signal to the muscles in your arm to correct your position, the ball will be past the point of saving. If, however, you FEEL the ball begin to place a little more pressure on one side of your forearm than the other side, the nerve endings in your skin will send that message to your brain A LOT faster and you will find that your reaction time will greatly reduce, and the speed in which you can correct a slight mistake will greatly increase.
Your fluidity with the ball will be enhanced, and you will know before the execution of a trick whether the ball is in the best spot to smoothly complete that move. Because you can FEEL IT!
Getting back to the muscle memory thing. If you go into the Forums, under "Combining Toss and Contact Juggling" you will find my description of "flyaways" -- moves where the ball leaves contact with your body. By practicing certain flyaways over and over, you will develop muscle memory, and even though you can not feel the ball in flight, you can feel whether or not the execution is correct and still pull off the trick, because that memory told you where the ball was going to be a second later and you already had your hand, arm, shoulder, or whatever in the right spot to catch it.
Try this: Close your eyes and toss the ball from one hand to the other.
Did you catch it?
That's muscle memory. And it to falls into the category of feeling the movement as opposed to reacting to what you see.
The last benefit that this "touch and feeling" skill imparts is this: When ever you perform, whether it be for your Mom and Dad, your buddies at a school party, or a captive audience of 500 or more, your ability to not watch the ball will convey to that audience a sense of mastery in what you are doing.
That's my First Five Steps! Time for you to go out and practice step 1 and then 4 with your eyes closed. I use a blindfold so I have no way of cheating. Focus on how the ball feels; you WILL notice a difference. And when you can look to your left across a room full of people, while doing a one handed butterfly in your right hand and completely out of your field of vision, pick out a person and give them a wink and a wave with your left hand.
And when they ask you how you could do that, tell them a Ferret told you!
Good luck, and practice often.
And sign the guest page for crying out loud, we do enjoy reading them ya know!