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Juggling Women of Tonga

Updated on May 7, 2016
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Ruth Kongaika was born in the Rocky Mountains and has lived most of her life in the South Pacific. She travels, gardens and writes.

Tuitui nuts used for juggling
Tuitui nuts used for juggling

When we lived in Tonga, I was delighted to discover the juggling talents of the women. It is not taught to the boys, but I know some males who can juggle too, including my husband.

In elementary school, instead of learning to jump rope, play jacks or hopscotch, the primary students in Tonga learn how to hiko or juggle. They start very young, about five years of age, and some continue on for the rest of their lives.

During Malaspina's visit to Vavau, Tonga circa 1793. Women perform a variety of dances and games, including hiko (juggling).
During Malaspina's visit to Vavau, Tonga circa 1793. Women perform a variety of dances and games, including hiko (juggling).
Drawing of Egyptians juggling
Drawing of Egyptians juggling

The girls and women sing a song as they juggle three, four, five, some up to seven pieces of fruit, nuts or balls. Some claim that they can juggle even more items, but since they cannot hold them in their hands, they grab them out of a bowl placed near them. The juggling forms a round shower pattern. They usually discharge the nuts from the left hand, catching them in the right hand, and then transfer them to the left again, keeping them all in the air at once.


Most Tongans cannot tell you where the origin of juggling in Tonga began. But there is a myth about it. They say it began in the underworld where a lady, Hikuleo,was the goddess. She was a blind, and would snatch the eyeballs of anyone who approached her in the underworld without permission. She would then put them in a wooden bowl and call her girls to sit in her house and juggle with them.


Tongans are generally superstitious and the Tongan girls never juggle at night because the spirits of from the underworld are coming up and they look around. If they are caught, their eyeballs may be taken to the underworld.


Many Tongan girls have very rapid and accurate hand-eye coordination which they learned from juggling at a young age.

Record Breakers

Wolfgang Schedbeczek reported that the an 8-ball shower by Bruce Sarafian of the USA is the world's best juggler (according to the Guinness book of Records), but he feels that the juggling women of Polynesia probably have him beat.

It is said that Tonga has more jugglers per square mile than any country in the world. Often they have competitions to see who can juggle the longest. As soon as a girl drops a ball, she sits down. The last left standing is the winner.

Women who learned juggling in their youth can remember it even though they have not done it for years. I guess it would be similar to learning a bike and doing it again years later.

Other Cultures that Juggle

Aside from Tongan women, circus clowns and other juggling entertainers, there are a few other cultures that juggle:

Uvea or Wallis Island (north-west of Tonga): Called hapo usually using oranges, also done in time with a little song. They also have competitions juggling up to six oranges at the same time.

Samoa: Called fuaga , up to eight items whilst sitting or standing.

Cook Islands: Called tilitili koua done with immature coconuts (koua) juggled while chanting. Usually only done with three or four small coconuts (since they are larger).

In Southern Cook Islands they juggle other items such as the fruit of the candlenut tree, the seeds of the tamanu tree, or oranges. They are tossed vertically and transferred from one hand to another in anti-clockwise direction accompanied by chants.

Tuamotu: Called pei done in a counter-clockwise rotation - they reverse it to show skill also done to chanting. They weave their balls from plaited coconut leaf (popo). In Tuamotu it is classified as a dance.

Marquesas Islands: Also called pei . Used to teach geneology as they recite their ancestors while doing it. It also gave the mothers a chance to boast of the number of their offspring. They also make their balls out of fau leaves (Hibiscus).

Tahiti: Also called pei , but using stones or limes.


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