Mt. Airy Learning Tree has dozens of talented teachers, but Luther Bangert is probably the only one in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mt. Airy Learning Tree has dozens of talented community-based teachers, but Luther Bangert is probably the only one who is in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Bangert, 37, of Germantown, earned a spot in the ultimate guide for record breaking while in Iowa in 2013. Not only did he juggle, keeping balls airborne in perpetual motion, but he swallowed a sword while doing it. His record-breaking time was 11.7 seconds, doubling the previous record. (See YouTube)
Starting Nov. 14, Bangert will be sharing his juggling expertise with anyone who’d like to learn the intricacies of the storied circus art. He is teaching a five-week class in juggling as part of the Mount Airy Learning Tree.
Bangert, who also teaches juggling at the Circadium School of Contemporary Circus and Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, both in Mt. Airy, is a native of Iowa who started out as a juggler and later gravitated toward sword swallowing.
“When I was 18, I was teaching at a Boy Scout camp, and I saw a counselor balance a ladder on his chin and juggle at the same time,” said the graduate of the University of Iowa who majored in philosophy. “I was taken by the balance involved, so I tried to balance a broom on my chin. I started to get obsessed. My father showed me the three-ball (juggling) pattern. I loved it. The magic of juggling for me is like exploring the universe.”
Bangert began juggling in 2005. He started by watching videos on the internet and then met a calculus professor in Iowa City who also was obsessed with juggling. “He showed me a lot of technical stuff,” Bangert said. “So I went to a juggling convention. There were about 100 people in the room, all of them considered the obsessed ones in their hometowns. It is a quirky, friendly community.”
Bangert went to Europe in 2008, where there is a centuries-long tradition of juggling and other circus arts and where Bangert expanded his repertoire. “That trip inspired me to go deeper,” he said. “There was a moment when I thought. ‘I love this, and if there is a way to make a living at this, I will do it.’ It took a few years. I did a lot of street performing while traveling. I try to think as a dancer when I perform. My show, 'Distillations,' is a 30-minute multi-media synthesis of movement and media.”
According to Bangert, when you start out doing one circus act, your contemporaries are bound to show you how to perform others. “That's how the sword-swallowing thing started,” he said. “A friend showed me how to do it, and I thought if I could do that along with the juggling at the same time, that would be pretty cool. I did not want my parents to see it, though. In fact, I told my mom I would not do it.”
Bangert wanted to do something almost no one else could do, so he began sword-swallowing while juggling. He did the sword-swallowing act from 2010 to 2018. “You relax the upper esophagus sphincter,” Bangert said, explaining how the sword-swallowing is done. “You have to train the sphincter to stay open because it is not natural. The body does not want to do that.”
Bangert injured himself twice, scratching his esophageal sphincter – “very irritating,” he said. The second time resulted in recurring acid reflux. “I figured it was not worth it anymore,” he said. “It was just a side show at the end of my juggling act, anyway.”
Bangert left the U.S. in 2010 to study Indian classical music, living in Mysore, Southern India. Then he did street performing in Europe and contemporary circus acts in Europe and Australia. He visited and worked in 20 countries over nine years, then in New York City for four years. He returned to Iowa in 2020 and worked for the post office for about 18 months before he was able to obtain a grant from the Iowa Arts Council to fund a return to performing.
“I needed a job,” Banger said. “Working at the post office is hard. I admire the people who do it.”
Bangert came to Philadelphia in September of last year to take a juggling teaching job at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts in Mt. Airy. “I love it here,” he said. “I feel like I've lived here for years. There is a great circus community here. The performers are all friendly, and most live nearby. I am running into them on the street all the time.”
Bangert taught the MALT juggling course in February and March of this year. “It went really well,” he said. “We had nine students, and a few came back to take more lessons.”
Bangert routinely juggles seven balls at once and at one time juggled eight. He is also an accomplished sitar player and can play operatic arias on a musical saw, which he recently did at a music festival in Turkey. His partner, Lexi, is a linguist who works with refugees teaching English as a second language. “You might say she juggles languages,” Bangert said. “She is not a performer, but she does juggle. In fact, she is my favorite juggler.”
For more information, visit lutherbangert.com or mtairylearningtree.org. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.