More than once, Matt Baker has dropped his keys and, without really realizing it, found them flying off the side of his foot, into the air...
More than once, Matt Baker has dropped his keys and, without really realizing it, found them flying off the side of his foot, into the air and back into his hands. That’s the kind of move you find second nature when you’ve flown with the footbag crowd for so long.
“I’ve done that with my phone and broke it,” says Baker, co-founder of the Seattle Juggling and Footbag Festival, which turned the Ravenna-Eckstein Community Center on Saturday into a cavalcade of flying arms, legs, clubs and spheres.
The sixth annual event, attended by about 200 people from as far away as California, Idaho and Washington, D.C., is the nation’s largest ongoing gathering for footbaggers and featured many of the world’s best, including five-time freestyle champ Peter Irish and Canadian phenom Jordan Moir.
Among the equally accomplished jugglers was Aaron Gregg, who holds the world record for chain-saw juggling.
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Commonly — and erroneously — known as Hacky Sacks (a trademarked term owned by Wham-O), footbags have been kicking around since the 1970s, and footbaggers would just as soon distance themselves from the Hacky Sack image, anyway.
“We’re trying to shed the stereotype of the stoner-hippie guy,” says Alex Zerbe, one of two footbaggers listed in Guinness World Records. (He did a move called an “eclipse” 27 consecutive times on French television.)
In a carnival-atmosphere gym strewn with clubs, footbags, backpacks and half-empty water bottles, competitors practiced while spectators ooh’d and aah’d.
Lon Smith, tall and lithe, showed a freestyle aplomb that looked like a skillful tap-dancing routine, except that this shot-filled ball of synthetic leather — small, obedient, airborne — miraculously landed atop his twirling feet with every move.
Jim Penske, ranked second in the world, was all speed and scissor-kicks, while Irish, 37 and recently voted the world’s most innovative juggler, showed his knack for integrating the two forms. “He’s borderline Cirque du Soleil with the stuff he does,” says Baker, who has done footbag demonstrations in all 50 states.
Basic moves begin with kicking the bag off the insides or outsides of your feet, or doing the same from behind your other leg. The difficulty spirals from there — 360-degree spins; legs circling the bag in midair, once, twice, before coming back underneath to catch the bag again; kicking the bag from behind with the inside of the foot, up and over one’s head and then catching it with the opposite foot.
“The goal is to string together as many tricks in a row as you can,” Baker says.
Some moves are so quick you can barely tell what’s happening. “It’s hard to train your eyes,” says Sunny Freeman-Genz, 35, one of very few female footbaggers. “That’s why the names really help.”
She eyes one freestyle competitor, putting names to the Scarecrow-of-Oz-like dance as well as she can keep up: “That’s a Ducking Clipper,” she says. “That was a Quantum Butterfly. There’s a Paradox Mirage. That’s a Ripwalk. Whoa — that was a Barraging Butterfly.”
The constantly evolving repertoire is being driven by the scene’s teenagers. “We’re old-school at this point,” Zerbe says.
The old-schoolers comforted themselves in the knowledge that their sport is on the rise. They discussed Smith’s Fred Astaire grace, featured in a recent Modest Mouse video. “Dude, the whole thing stars Lon,” Irish told Zerbe.
“It’s about being invisible,” Baker added. “Everybody’s ignoring him, and he’s doing this amazing thing.”
Kind of like footbag itself. But not anymore.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org