Dave Finnigan – My juggling guru

“He’s cheapened the art”, “His products are mediocre”, “How dare he share our skills with everyone” argued the detractors of Dave’s controversial movement to popularise juggling. Who ever knew that professional and expert jugglers would feel threatened by an academic novice juggler on a mission to spread the joy of juggling with the world? Known as Professor Confidence his Jugglebug Company was the unstoppable foundation for the juggling revolution. With his catch phrase “Juggling is our cover we really teach success!” he was the person who introduced juggling to the masses. In the 1970’s the art was ready to break free from the domain of professionals it just needed one person to bring it all together with business, teaching, preaching and fun skills…….. and Dave was the man………an executive visionary educator who became my mentor the moment I met him.

It was 1985, early in my juggling life, and he became a huge influence on my new passion for learning and teaching circus skills. Thanks to him I began to form a philosophy, a purpose and a methodology that led me from teaching juggling skills to the creation of the HICCUP circus and then the S.P.A.C.E. community centre in Hawaii.

Dave was perhaps the last person you’d expect to embark on this mission but he was definitely the best man for the job. He didn’t learn to juggle until he was 34. At the time, he had degrees from Cornell and Berkeley, with ten years of experience as an international consultant on health and population planning. He’d been a globetrotter, worked in half-dozen Asian nations, was about to get his doctorate and was considering multiple job offers.

According to the legend “his cerebral palsied son, Davey, made him learn to juggle. He spent two days in the woods, taking eight hours to learn a cascade. When he came out it was like Moses coming down from the mountain. Finnigan had received The Word.” Bang! He ditched his doctoral dissertation, said good-bye to advising governments and took his message to the streets, parks and schools. His vision was to share the same feeling of accomplishment and self-worth that juggling had brought him.

In formulating his plan to take the juggling to the masses, Dave said it was “a program that people didn’t see they needed or wanted but one that could have a major impact”. He devised ways to get equipment into students hands and ways to stimulate the desire to juggle. Instruction became his key to creating a huge juggling movement.

His motivation was not fame and fortune but “the thrill of seeing the smile on the face of a student as they break through to a sustained cascade with a whoop of triumph.” He believed that juggling is valuable, even necessary, in a world gone mad with hate and fear and lust for things and sex and power. “It represents virtues that I hold dear, like creativity and silliness and perseverance and communication and not taking yourself too seriously.”

My lessons as a professional teacher showed me the wisdom in Dave’s brilliant ideas for teaching juggling. I became one of around fifty jugglers that Dave trained to present his ‘Juggling for Success’ program. He showed us “It’s all a matter of learning theory. You break the pattern down into the smallest possible steps and you build it up again step by step.” As I taught more new jugglers myself I adapted his program to create what worked best in our culture and adopted some of his classic stock phrases like, “A dropped ball is a sign of progress because you are on the leading edge of your capability, taking a risk. A touch is as good as a catch.” So many kids and older ‘kids-at-heart’ benefited in Hawaii that the Big Island may have had the highest ratio of jugglers of any County anywhere.

His Jugglebug company, which mass-produced props with detailed instructions marketed as widely as possible, was eventually sold to a national school supply conglomeration. Set free from production and distribution Dave created the ‘Juggling for Success’ school program and set off touring the world with his family. Travelling in their tour bus home they visited over 2,000 public schools in 41 states and 12 countries and taught over 1,000,000 kids, teachers and parents to juggle using slow moving nylon scarves.

During this period Dave was a rock star! He sold over a million copies of his four books – The Joy of Juggling, The Complete Juggler, Juggling from Start to Star and, one of my favourites, the Zen of Juggling. He also composed and recorded 38 instructional juggling songs, created two video series – Juggletime and Juggling Step by Step and went on to win a Parents Choice Award and eleven other national awards for the Juggletime video series. Phew! That man can manifest a vision.  

In our ‘Juggling for Success’ programs we emphasize peer to peer teaching, group activity, working together, loads of positive reinforcement, perseverance and eventually reaching the goal. Dave’s model was for kids getting involved in the teaching and evaluation process learning loads more than if they were taught only by a teacher. Discipline and regular practice are natural outcomes of this process which invokes the spirit of a group of friends learning to play a game together like skateboard, frisbee, hacky-sack or football.

Dave claimed, and I found this to be true with my HICCUP kids, juggling improves reflexes and eye-hand coordination, and those that understand the step-by-step learning system how other skills are acquired and how good that feels, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They tend to have more confidence learning new subjects and acquiring new skills. They accept challenges with an acceptance of risk-taking that can give young jugglers a definite advantage. We both saw that when kids can get up and perform their self-esteem soars bringing a realisation of self-worth and nothing brings this home to kids better than praise and applause from peers and adults. 

Juggling was the thread that connected our HICCUP group by improved communications through cooperative work on group tasks, by sharing skills, and by monitoring each other’s progress. Our young ‘stars’ quickly realised the attention they received from peers, family and friends when they ‘show off’ their skills gained them admiration, respect and way to contribute to their community.

Political activism has always been a part of Dave’s mission and when I organised Jugglers For Peace tours to Nicaragua he was a huge supporter donating loads of equipment. We shared a mutual admiration for the sacrifice made by Ben Linder a fellow juggler who was assassinated by Reagans ‘contras’ in 1987. Dave named his second son after Ben.

Dave’s life growing up as a ‘nature lover’ is now also playing a role in the education of young people and parents. He started with fishing and clamming in Cape Cod every summer then went on to crabbing and birdwatching. Later as a scoutmaster, while serving in the U.S.Army, he took his troop camping and skiing in the Swiss Alps. Meanwhile, I was travelling a similar path as a passionate scout also camping and hiking and learning about the wonders of nature.

By 2007 Dave had grown concerned about the ‘existential crisis’ global warming and climate change and decided to switch his focus from juggling. He quickly learned all he could on the topic, trained with Al Gore and modified his slide show to reduce the gloom and doom and emphasize solutions. He joined protests and spoke at public events to promote climate action.

He also started visiting schools with a new program called Climate Change is Elementary but his travels around the country were cut short when the needs of his son Davy required him to stay at home in Celebration, Florida.

Not all of Dave’s life is education and political action. He’s always found time for his family and for his great passion of dancing. His octogenarian feet still attract the beauties!

At 80 years old Dave is just as passionate about working with elementary students and their parents and teachers. He’s written a book called ‘Green Actioneers’ and in April 2022 is starting a new program motivating them to create sustainability checklists and promises to implement specific actions to reduce their carbon and water footprints.

His book describes how “the carbon that is in the atmosphere already is sufficient to take us past a tipping point to a new climate reality. We must do what we can to slow the transformation of the planet and slow the rise of the oceans and the loss of seashore. We cannot at this point reverse the process. Humans are adaptable and ingenious, so we need to learn to adapt and we must solve the biggest near-term issues.” Now, although Dave cannot in good conscience travel like before, he’s found a way to help people learn to reduce their own carbon and water footprints. Of course juggling is very much a part of every program and every talk he delivers. Beneath Dave’s mainstream appearance there lies a renegade heart.

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

6 thoughts on “Dave Finnigan – My juggling guru

  1. Very nice post Mr. Ellis. His book are so well written too. I always use his books when I teach too. His books will live forever!

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  2. He has inspired me to teach juggling to all my third graders. I taught his kids gymnastics but he taught me how to help others succeed.

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  3. Great article and tribute to Dave. I had many wonderful dances with Dave at conventions where he was presenting juggling workshops and I was presenting dance sessions.

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