Austin Juggler Finds the Meaning of Life Up in the Air
By Aaron Schnautz
David Nayer remembers his introduction to juggling: His father was hosting a dinner for friends and, needing to kill some time, picked up three balls and tossed them between his hands to entertain his guests.
It quickly piqued the teen’s interest. Soon, three balls weren’t enough for him. In fact, tossing them in the air wouldn’t be enough, either.
More than four decades later, the 55-year-old empathy coach and Austin resident of 21 years has become one of the most impressive jugglers in the world. His current setup, which he’s been practicing for 10 months, is much more challenging than his father’s party trick.
Nayer begins with a board about as long as his feet and as wide as his shoulders, balanced on a section of white PVC pipe 8 inches in diameter. It took him six months to become comfortable balancing on the rola bola, as it’s called, before he even considered picking up a ball.
He eases onto the board and compiles the information swirling through his head: the infinitesimal adjustments needed to stay balanced and upright, the millimeter mark on the tile floor that serves as his target, the seven balls gripped between his fingers and the path each should take to travel safely to the other hand. He takes a final breath to clear his mind.
He throws the first ball to the ground, and chaos erupts.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, Nayer’s intent is to throw down all of the balls, catching them in the other hand as they bounce before quickly releasing them again. Force-bounce juggling wasn’t the first style he learned, but he quickly fell in love with it.
Nayer, whose father was a diplomat for the U.S. State Department, was born in Uruguay and also lived in Ecuador and Bangladesh — his first language was Bengali — before his family moved to Maryland when he was 6. They moved again a year later when his father accepted an administrative position at the University of Chicago, where Nayer spent his formative years as a juggler.
At the UC-affiliated Laboratory School, where many faculty and staff send their children, he tried out for the soccer team but was relegated to fetching balls and providing water at practice. He quickly grew tired of that, finding more enjoyment assisting the girls’ field hockey practice.
“A field hockey ball is a lovely ball to juggle,” Nayer said.
As a 14-year-old taking undergraduate courses, he helped to start a juggling club at the university. He met Paul Bachman, a legend in juggling circles, who introduced him to bounce juggling and would become his first mentor.
The club also taught him how to be a performer. He estimates that he gave more than 6,000 street performances to earn enough money to pay for his schooling, which included a year in India studying linguistics.
“It’s an outlet for his creativity,” said Elly van Laar, his wife of seven years and occasional juggling partner. “It offers him a path for excellence and mastery.”
Nayer spends his Tuesday afternoons mastering his craft at the Austin Recreation Center, one of his three intense weekly practices. He loads a large duffle bag with 30 balls of assorted colored marble designs, his balancing board and PVC pipes. Each practice is tailored to techniques he wants to improve or records he wants to attempt.
With an even tile floor, the recreation center is an ideal location. The 5-foot gap between the double set of front doors and the dance studio contains his balls when they inevitably scatter in all directions. That significantly cuts down the time spent chasing runaway balls through the lobby.
The windows in front of him provide ample natural light, allowing him to see each ball clearly. He records most of his training sessions on his smartphone, attaching it to a tripod with rubber bands. Nayer claims to have set or reset 89 juggling records, many of them filmed at the recreation center.
The videos are uploaded to YouTube and verified on Juggle Wiki, an online database for jugglers to connect and share their craft. He has set the mark for force-bounce juggling: he holds world records for five, six and seven balls, with similar records on the rola bola.
“We see David every week working long hours to better his skill,” said Steve Wiswell, who befriended Nayer at weekly Texas Juggling Society meetings more than a decade ago. “It’s easy to get jaded, but any time a visitor or outside juggler shows up, you see them stop in their tracks and stare at the record-holding technicians.”
Nayer loves sharing his craft with novices and experts alike.
Bronkar Lee met Nayer six years ago while teaching a workshop on rhythmic juggling at a conference in Austin. Lee is the kind of juggler you could expect to see on talent competition shows – he describes himself as the world’s only rhythmic juggling beatboxer, performed for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” and appeared in a 2016 Super Bowl commercial for Advil.
Nayer approached him after that workshop with some pointers, and they spent the next two hours practicing, learning from each other and building a friendship.
“He’s one of the few guys in the world who has the discipline of his craft and the ability to communicate and coach,” Lee said of his mentor. “He helped me set a few of my own world records.”
After more than 20,000 hours of practice over the past 42 years, Nayer shows no signs of stopping.
He’s acutely aware of how he cares for his body, from his sleep schedule to his diet and physical strength. He credits juggling for keeping him young and spry, much like another Texas legend who performed longer and better than most of his counterparts.
“You could say,” Nayer remarked, “I’m a little bit like the Nolan Ryan of juggling.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to change the size of the PVC pipe Nayer uses; that he throws balls to the ground, instead of dropping them; and that he was born in Uruguay but is a native of the U.S.