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Attendees discover the joys of juggling at Ringling Museum

Filmmaker and juggler Paprika Leaverton hosted a juggling workshop at Ringling Museum alongside the premiere of her film “The Queen’s Influence – The Vanishing Culture of Hiko in Tonga.”

Helsin Pujols experiments with his orange.
Helsin Pujols experiments with his orange.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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At first, 7-year-old Adrienne Miller threw her oranges to the ground in frustration.

Yet, as she walked to lunch inside the the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art with other members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County, suddenly she was tossing fruit through the air. 

She was juggling.

“I just started doing it,” she said. “I was really proud of myself.”

Held in honor of World Circus Day, the public juggling workshop at the museum’s Bayfront Gardens on April 15 was part of a celebration of the global reach of circus arts, said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, curator of circus collections at the museum.

“I love the fact that the museum is holding this special celebration on a day when we know colleagues and artists around the world are also recognizing the special nature of the circus, so it feels like it unites us in this one specific moment,” Posey said.

The workshop, hosted by Colorado juggler and filmmaker Paprika Leaverton, was followed by a free film screening which marked the East Coast premiere of Leaverton’s 2022 documentary “The Queen’s Influence – The Vanishing Culture of Hiko in Tonga,” that afternoon at the Historic Asolo Theater.

Paprika Leaverton offers juggling instruction in the Bayfront Gardens at Ringling Museum.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Leaverton journeyed extensively in the Polynesian country of Tonga to create the film, which explores a culture known as “hiko” in which girls and women juggle tui tui nuts for entertainment and as a pastime. 

The film deals with the influence of Sālote Tupou III, who was Queen of Tonga from 1918 to her death in 1965, on hiko, as well as a decline Leaverton said is taking place in the amount of women practicing hiko.

Leaverton said while juggling worldwide involves about 20% women, in Tonga, the situation is the reverse. 

“There’s that one percent of the men that might try to juggle, but it’s all women’s work. About 100% of the women juggle in Tonga, or at least have tried it,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful, amazing culture.”

Posey said the film and workshop were both tied to the concept of the celebrations.

“Paprika’s recognition of this tradition in Tonga helped us show that when you look around, you can see the circus arts in many unexpected places, and then, the fact that she did this workshop is the icing on top,” Posey said.

The two events were accompanied by family art-making sessions held in the museum’s classrooms as well as a screening of archival footage of the The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, with free admission to the Circus Museum.

The museum has participated in the celebration each year since its founding by the Fédération Mondiale du Cirque in Monaco in 2010.

The community gets hands-on with juggling

Leaverton said the workshop and the film screening were intended for anyone in the community. 

“Juggling is such an uplifting thing for people of all ages,” said Leaverton, who has taught the art extensively, including at schools, at events and internationally. “My goal is to uplift spirits and get people happy, not worrying, and just be in the moment with me and have some fun.”

She said juggling provides physical exercise, helps build grey matter and connect neurons in the brain, helps with ADD and dementia, and uses both sides of the body and therefore both sides of the brain.

Leaverton was joined by Sarasota juggler Gena Shvartsman Cristiani, who was featured in the film and closed out the workshop with an exclusive performance.

Sarasota juggler Gena Schvartsman Cristiani puts on a performance for the workshop attendees.
Photo by Ian Swaby

A fifth-generation circus performer from Russia, Cristiani was a star attraction at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at the age of 13 and has been a recipient of awards including the gold medal at the World Juggling Federation Championships in Las Vegas.

Cristiani said when she first came to the U.S. from Russia, the circus world seemed small, until she began attending circus festivals.

“Once I did, it was really outstanding, because there are hundreds and hundreds, actually thousands of people in America that love juggling, and I found my community there instantly.”

Attendee Linda Gottlieb said the workshop was fun for kids, as it kept them physically engaged in the activity rather than merely watching a performance.

“The kids really liked it. My grandkid went crazy over it,” she said. “It’s nice to be involved rather than listening. Juggling with fruit is a lot of fun, and you can eat it.”

Robert Rogers, volunteer and community relations manager with Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee, said the opportunity was impactful for the kids in the clubs, many of whom have experienced a certain lack of resources. The Ringling has invited the organization to multiple events, he said.

“This has been extraordinary," he said. “This beautiful resource in the community has been incredibly resonant for the kids. Every time they come in, they feel inspired – they feel like they’re much more a part of the community as a whole. They really feel empowered by the experience.”

Seven-year-old Jahmir Brydson of Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee practices juggling an orange.
Photo by Ian Swaby

13-year-old X’zyria Martin, a Boys & Girls Clubs member, said it was helpful to have someone walk her through the steps of juggling.

“When I was little, I kept messing up and I kept messing up, and I just got frustrated, and I stopped,” said she said. 

She said when she found out she would be headed to the Ringling to juggle, she was “actually excited.”

A Tongan tradition gains wider visibility

Leaverton said the hiko culture is slowly vanishing in Tonga. It is largely this subject with which the film is concerned. 

An increase in technology such as phones and computers is leading some children to not pursue hiko, she said, while many Tongans have not carried over the tradition after moving outside the country. She said funding for hiko competitions is beginning to disappear. 

Gena Schvartsman Cristiani holds the mic as Paprika Leaverton offers closing comments on the film.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Meanwhile, she said very little documentation had taken place of hiko, until now.

Leaverton said many older Tongan women to whom she had shown the film were extremely receptive to the subject matter, and that she hopes to screen it for Tongans Tonga, New Zealand and Australia.

She hopes that screenings of the film will raise money in support of hiko, although the film has also taken on the purpose of funding water purity in Tongan villages following the 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami.

"What an honor it is for me to be showing this film at the Ringling," Leaverton said. "Their support has been phenomenal. And of course, it's not my story, but it is about the women of Tonga."

Les Kreisler and his wife Ellen Kreisler said despite traveling briefly to Tonga, they had never heard about hiko.

“Ringling is a jewel,” said Les Kreisler.  “To be there in that theater and see something like this — that’s something special.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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