Juggler gets by with one hand at State Fair

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2013 

— Being a one-handed juggler is kind of like being a three-wheeled race car, unless you’re Dale Jones, who can keep five balls in the air with his left hand and bounce a sixth off his knee, all while standing on one leg, balancing a tennis racket on his toes and blowing a fanfare on a bugle.

His right hand dangles at his side, fingers curled. It acts like a silent partner in Jones’ act, defying doubters who say you can’t do tricks with a broken flipper.

“I was the first one-handed juggler in the world,” said Jones, 57, drawing a crowd under Dorton Arena at the N.C. State Fair. “Now there are others, but I had a hand in teaching them. No pun intended.”

For 38 years, Jones has turned childhood misfortune into a comedy routine – now playing three times a day at the State Fair, four on weekends.

When he was 8, he fell off a set of monkey bars and landed with his right hand behind his back. The blood clotted around the break, leading to infections in the muscles and tendons, leaving the hand mostly motionless.

“I had 25 operations to give me this,” Jones said, slightly wiggling two fingers, the limit of his hand’s mobility.

But he soon discovered that in his hometown of St. Louis in the early 1960s you could impress girls as a juggler. Motivation set in hard. He learned it not only with a single hand, but as an unnatural lefty.

“I fell in love with it so much that I literally used to wake up on the floor with my juggling props around me,” he said. “I would never have been a juggler without my arm being bad. It wouldn’t have been exciting to me.”

As a traveling juggler, Jones plays state fairs, festivals, cruise ships and corporate parties, sharing the stage with the likes of Ray Stevens and Marie Osmond and winning kudos from the International Jugglers Association.

Part of the reason for his success is his signature move designed for a one-handed juggler: the bounce multiplex.

Using his right knee and foot as bounce partners, he can alternate tricks on the right while juggling normally with his left. He throws in tennis rackets, hand puppets, a unicycle and a head of lettuce as props, comically taking bites out of the airborne vegetable.

“Big giant show in five minutes!” he announces to fairgoers. “You don’t want to miss it! This guy is … pretty good. Later we’re going to be giving away money. Not a lot of money. There’s going to be a lot of people here. Probably about 10 people. I’ve been doing this act for over a week. It’s really good.”

He asks the audience to pick an animal for him to make out of a balloon, and when a smart aleck boy cried “porcupine,” he shot back, “Now I know why some animals eat their young.”

It’s a juggling act in more ways than one. Performing in the middle of the State Fair, there’s always competition from the corn dog stand or the weight-guesser or the guy rolling past on the Wacky Wheeler. Let one joke fall flat and the crowd wanders off to eat a fried Oreo.

So Jones moves fast, working a half-dozen routines into a 20-minute show. At the end, the porcupine kid offered him a dollar tip, which he politely declined. Then an older man in a cowboy hat and ponytail tried to give him a peach as a parting gesture, which Jones also turned down with a smile. He kept them laughing for the whole show, which was reward enough.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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