A knack for juggling: Kennewick girl considered among world's best young jugglers

KENNEWICK -- Rachel Leshikar was taking a break from a bike ride in a Richland park several years ago when she noticed a professional juggler.

After a few pointers, the 8-year-old was tossing three balls into the air and keeping them in continuous movement.

It instantly sparked a new passion for the Kennewick girl, but it also captured the attention of instructor Bill Barr of Richland, who right away "could tell she was different."

Now 12, Rachel is considered by Barr to be one of the "best young female jugglers in the world."

The two have traveled around the Northwest and even across the country to perform their juggling act. But while Rachel may enjoy taking to the stage to share the sport with others, she is more comfortable in a small room at the Richland Community Center joined by fellow jugglers of all levels.

"Usually I have to practice by myself, which is not as fun," she said. "I like being here where we can teach tricks and learn tricks."

She's talking about a Richland Parks and Recreation class called "The Art of Juggling." It is taught Sunday afternoons by Barr, who encourages participants of all ages and skill sets.

"One of the great things about juggling is it's not gender divided and definitely not generation divided," he said.

Never picked up a ball to juggle? Barr believes that with "a lot of positive reinforcement" and reminders to have fun, anyone can learn.

Though the class is already in session, Barr said people are welcome to join any time.

A recent session included a family that comes out weekly to spend time together, some newcomers and more than a half-dozen regulars.

Jugglers get tips from Barr as he motivates them to keep trying.

"Oh, you got it. It's right there, it's right there," he tells one juggler.

"Concentrate on what you're doing," he says to another.

One rule of the class, particularly during the final half-hour performance, that Barr has set is, "You can't stop on a drop. Always end with success."

Barr, 62, has been juggling for 51 years. After teaching himself to juggle, he recalls tormenting his mother by juggling eggs in the kitchen.

He was about 24 when he figured out how to juggle four items while walking through a grocery store with an apple and an orange in each hand. And four years later, he got a handle on juggling clubs.

"There's always been in my life a kind of juxtaposition between intellectualism and study and between physical activity," he said. "I had just gotten out of nursing school and spent a period of time just intensely engaged in intellectual activity. Right after that, I wanted to get back into something more physical."

His first juggling act was in a Berkeley, Calif., coffeehouse, followed by nightclubs, fundraisers and other gatherings.

He also performed with a vaudeville group and soon learned to juggle baseball bats, gloves, basketballs, golf clubs and tennis rackets.

In 1977, he attended his first convention of the International Jugglers' Association.

"That was a life-changing experience. It was just unbelievable," Barr said. "Juggling conventions are the most fun, creative conventions I've ever been to in my life."

Barr went on to twice serve as president of the association and currently is director of the annual event's benefit show.

Whether he was working as a nurse or a college instructor, Barr said juggling has always been a constant in his life. Today, he spends his time writing for Juggle magazine and creating new routines set to music.

"Recent studies show that it's good for your brain, it's good for your peripheral vision. The real mental development part of juggling is learning new tricks and how to perform a trick," he said.

The first step for any new juggler -- even those as young as age 2 -- is to get the balls in their hands right away, Barr said. Then they must practice throwing and catching the balls over and over and over.

Juggling doesn't so much require muscles as it does using rhythm and flow, so the key to success is to relax, he said. Participants also must learn to use their peripheral vision, to recognize patterns and teamwork.

At the Richland community class, Marilyn and Todd Allen of Richland return weekly with daughters Libby and Lucy. They first joined three years ago after seeing Barr perform at the Ye Merrie Greenwood Renaissance Faire in Howard Amon Park.

The Sunday session gives the Allens a chance to step away from housework and homework and just play.

"We look forward to it. It's a family thing for us to come and juggle and unicycle," said Todd Allen. "And it's just an afternoon together."

Caroline and Doug Hoffman moved to Richland from Oahu a year ago. They met Barr while walking their dog in the park and sons Noah, 10, and Matthew, 9, quickly took an interest in juggling.

The family went to the Portland Juggling Festival last summer, where they bought two unicycles for the boys, and last fall they registered in Barr's class. Daughter Kaili, 13, also comes along to the classes but isn't so big on juggling.

"(Bill) is very infectious with the things that he loves," said Caroline Hoffman. "You listen to him and he's really encouraging, and the enthusiasm makes you want to learn."

Rachel, a seventh-grader at Highlands Middle School in Kennewick, has taught her dad and younger sister to juggle and typically practices on weekends with Barr. Her father, Greg Leshikar, said it was easy for Rachel to pick up because she has good hand-eye coordination.

"I was so young, and I was getting it so fast. It's a fun talent to have," said Rachel, who also is a softball pitcher and a point guard on her basketball team.

Rachel was 10 when she and Barr took center stage at the 2008 International Jugglers' Association in Lexington, Ky.

"It's hard to be first act in the opening show with jugglers because they know all your tricks, but if you're young and cute it helps," she said with a big smile.

Now she can juggle six balls, but her specialty is passing clubs. Rachel also has juggled apples, oranges and butter knives.

"I can't do six balls," Barr said. "She's a better juggler than me by far."

* Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com