It’s almost midnight at the newly renovated U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the jugglers are still juggling down in the Grand Ballroom. Pins, rings, hoops, beanbags and who knows what else are tossed through the air and kept in a swirl of perpetual motion. It’s like the Ringling Bros. meets Cirque du Soleil down here, only everyone’s dressed more like they’re at a techie hackathon than working a floorshow at the Bellagio.
But they can save the spangled, skintight stage wear for the paying customers. The attendees at the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA) Festival have come from all over the world to hone their craft, crack the code and experiment. They are among friends here.
“I like it here at midnight,” Laura Ernst, who only came from as far away as Des Moines, told me. “People start working on crazy new things. We’ve had as many as 50 jugglers all working together before.”
Ernst performs at country fairs around the Midwest and says that some of the things she’s developed at previous IJA Festivals during these late-hour sessions have ended up in her act.
Ernst’s style involves more “flow movement” than traditional “straight-up-and-down” juggling. When I asked her to explain flow movement to me, she says, “more hippies,” and we leave it at that. The word “hippies” somehow explains everything.
If things were crazy just before midnight, they’re even crazier after it when something called “Renegade” begins in one of the Cellular Center’s larger, second-floor conference rooms.
Renegade is like the Thunderdome of the IJA Festival only without the bloodshed. Renegade is where the jugglers let it all hang out, as if they weren’t already.
Renegade begins with a guy doing a hellacious juggling display while skipping rope and telling us what he really thinks of Cirque du Soleil. The blunt shoptalk gets big laughs from the rowdy jugglers in the audience. Many of them have been there, and there in this case must be Vegas.
The Cirque du Soleil confessions were followed by some weirdness with finger puppets. There were also some attempts at karaoke and improv comedy, but just as things are really about to go off the rails, somebody picks up some pins and starts juggling again. Order is restored. The train is back on track—kind of.
Unlike other conventions, the hotel bar at the attached DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex was empty during the IJA Festival, because the IJA Festival goes all night long. For Renegade, a minibar was set up on the second floor, bringing the booze to where the crowd is.
By the time a guy with a mustache is spinning plates on the stage like it’s the Johnny Carson show in the 1970s, I’ve had a few too many. When one of the emcees does a callback to the 1997 IJA Festival, I shouted “1997!” in response. Some older men sitting down the aisle from me shot me stern looks worthy of a Grant Wood portrait. The IJA Festival may be the weirdest thing I’ve been to in a career of going to weird things, but I’m still in Iowa, where quiet stoicism reigns.
Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit in—even when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.