Siteswap: The Language of Jugglers

Have you ever heard somebody talking in a language that is foreign to you?

Perhaps you have gone oversees and are thankful for the translators you had with you. It’s always been a desire of mine to speak in many languages, but sadly I am only fluent in English. Usually, when I hear other languages it takes about a half hour before my brain starts going numb … mostly because I don’t understand what is being said. But no matter what the language, they all do the same thing. They help us to communicate. Where would we be without language? I would like to introduce you to a language that you don’t need the gift of speaking in tongues to learn and to learn quickly. It’s the language of jugglers called “Siteswap.”

Siteswap is a language for jugglers created in the 80s back when the juggling communities began advancing in technical ability. Up until then, you had to say things like, “One of the balls goes high and another one goes low, then you throw some in the middle.” Really?? How high? How low?? Many people took the challenge of designing ways to describe juggling patterns, but they were technically challenging and hard for the average person to grasp … like “Ladder Diagrams.” Every time I look at one I stare off in the distance in confusion! I bet, if you Google “Juggling Ladder Diagram,” it won’t take long for one of your eyes to start twitching.

Others have tried to draw out juggling patterns in step-by-step cartoon like pictures in books. When I got my first juggling book, I could sort of make sense out of a few of the patterns, but not many. And there are names of patterns like Mills Mess, Burkes Burrage, Takes Outs, the Cascade, the Fountain, Chops, Clawing, the Shower, the Half Shower and many more. If you have never seen these in a video or demonstrated in real life, by a person, they mean nothing. These names are a part of the juggler’s language for sure, but they aren’t Siteswap. Siteswap is in a category all by itself and I will never forget the first time I was exposed to it.

I remember it well. My dad and I drove out to Las Vegas so that I could attend my very first juggling training camp, put on by the World Juggling Federation. Back then I never heard of Siteswap, and when I got around the other jugglers I heard them saying a bunch of numbers and when I asked what they were saying, they asked me if I had ever heard of Siteswap. I responded with, “Siteswap???”

So they all excitedly taught me the language. It’s easy to grasp and it’s all in numbers. For instance, an easy Siteswap is called, “333.” 333 is the basic 3 object juggling pattern. More complex Siteswaps would be 97531, or 744, or (6X,4). Confused yet?? To understand these patterns, all you need to know is what the numbers mean.

The numbers communicate two pieces of information. #1: How high to throw an object, and #2: To make a crossing throw or a non-crossing throw. Odd numbers cross from left to right or right to left, and even numbers are thrown and caught by the same hand. Each number is based on the standard juggling pattern for that number. For instance, if I am juggling 3 balls in the standard 3-ball juggling pattern, at 3-ball standard height, then every throw will cross from right to left, or left to right, and will only go as high as my chin. If I am juggling 4 balls in the standard 4-ball juggling pattern, at standard height for 4 balls, then none of the throws will cross, and be thrown a few inches above the top of my head. If I am juggling 5 balls at standard height for a 5-ball pattern, then every throw will cross from left to right or right to left and go about a few feet above my head. The bigger the number, the higher the throw. The smaller the number, the lower the throw. That’s the basic idea in a nutshell. So all you would have to do from there is learn how high a standard 3-ball height is, and 4-ball height, 5-ball height and so on.

But wait, there is more. Let’s go back to our very easy juggling pattern 333. 333 is the standard 3 ball juggling pattern without anything fancy in it. In the above paragraph I taught what each individual number all by itself means. But, looking at the entire Siteswap you can figure out how many objects you need. Let’s look at the Siteswap 333. Simply add the 3s together. 3+3+3=9. Then divide 9 by the number of numbers in the Siteswap and you get 3. So you need 3 balls to juggle a 333. How many objects do you need to juggle 534? 5+4+3=12. 12 divided by 3 is 4. So you need 4 objects to juggle a 534 pattern. Let’s do a harder one. How many objects do you need to juggle 97531? 9+7+5+3+1=25. Divide 25 by 5, because there are 5 numbers in the Siteswap, and you get the number 5. You need 5 objects in order to juggle a 97531 Siteswap.

By now, you may be wondering about 2, 1, and 0. Well that’s where Siteswap can get harder to understand in an article. I am planning to do a workshop on Siteswap at this year’s FCM convention so if this article has intrigued you and you are planning on coming to FCM be sure to come check it out. Now that you have learned a new language, you are bilingual. Happy Siteswapping!

By LaMar Yoder,

Stack of FCM Magazines

This article originally appeared in The Voice of FCM, vol. 62 num. 3.

Members of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians have access an online library containing over 50 years of FCM magazines filled with articles on sharing the Gospel using magic and other visual arts.