Ball culture realness

He didn’t quite get to writing his King Lear but Gary Ryan did learn some impressive skills during lockdown

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I am juggling three rolled-up socks while a Guinness World Record holder reassures me: “I believe in you.” Yesterday, I almost put my hip out attempting to vogue – the dance style that was brought into the mainstream by Madonna’s 1990 single of the same name. Halfway through my quest to learn the most unusual skills I can for free, it’s fair to say I feel like I’m trapped in a demented version of the Generation Game.

His movement flows like water; mine has all the suppleness and grace of an arthritic Lego Man

How did I get here? Well, when we first went into lockdown in March 2020, there was a pressure to use the surplus time productively – to learn new skills, become fluent in Russian and do 100 press-ups on command. But as we emerge from quarantine, we’re now supposed to unveil our own King Lears. Whereas Taylor Swift has released two albums, a film and re-recorded her back catalogue during the pandemic, the height of my achievement has been watching all eight seasons of Desperate Housewives, fending off emotional breakdowns, drinking too much gin alone and saving on the tonic by sobbing into the glass, and talking to my cat.

Of course, I’m exaggerating for journalistic effect – I don’t have a cat.

So although I didn’t take up jogging nor bake anything that didn’t resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy’s afterbirth, I’m nonetheless determined to pretend I spent lockdown busier than Matt Hancock’s wife’s locksmith. With the clock ticking mockingly, my challenge was to spend the dog days of quarantine joining the 22 million people across the UK – 43 per cent of the population, according to government figures – who’ve engaged in “lockdown learning” online, scouring down the back of the internet’s sofa to discover the weirdest skills I can.

Some ground rules: they must be free to learn, not require any additional equipment and instantly impress. Learning a new language is a safe bet to begin. As the world closed down last year, ironically our desire to become polyglots rose, with Duolingo – the market-leading app for language learning – reporting a 67 per cent jump in users compared with the previous year. You might think I could increase my career opportunities by becoming fluent in Mandarin, the most-spoken language in the world, or immerse myself in the romanticism of French. Instead, I opt for the far more useful alternative of learning High Valyrian, the invented language of Game of Thrones, which boasts over 2,000 words in its official vocabulary.

The app gamifies language learning. To “win”, users must maintain their continuous “streaks” by practising every day and obtain a series of digital prizes – diamonds, hearts and suchlike. After asking how many minutes I’m willing to dedicate to learning – from five (beginner) to 20 (serious) – a cartoon character with a moustache asks me to translate what “Ñuha muña” means in English, giving me multiple choices. I correctly identify it’s “My mother”, and the app blows me an encouraging kiss. I rightly guess the next few – “Ñuha kepa” (my father), “Ñuha kepa kirine issa” (My father is happy) – to be greeted by a fanfare and points.  Hot damn, I’m on fire (and ice)! Unfortunately, I stumble at “Vala kirine issa”, which I mistake for “the happy man” whereas it should be “the man is happy”, so you can imagine my embarrassment. The animated teacher arches his eyebrow disapprovingly, as if he’s about to order a bell-ringing nun to follow me around yelling “Shame!”

By the end of the week, I can remember a few spurious phrases – including “Taobi nagesi” (the boys are sweating) and “Ñuha muña kirine issa” (“My mother is happy” – if she knew I was whittling away time learning fictional languages, I doubt she would be!) – but nothing that I’m ever likely to use or would cause someone at a dinner party to raise their glass of wine triumphantly Cersei-style at my achievement.

So I move onto dancing and consult a YouTube tutorial series called the Five Elements of Vogue – the dance style that originated in Harlem drag balls that can be traced back to the 1920s before reaching a peak in late-1980s New York (as seen in the Emmy-winning TV series Pose). Hosted by Gravity Balmain, the winner of the first series of the vogueing reality TV competition Legendary and an enthusiastic twentysomething with the kind of honed physique that can pull off a crop-top, he breaks it down into simple, easy-to-understand five-minute chunks, offering foolproof tips.

To do a proper level catwalk, for instance, you must place your hands on your shoulders before dropping so that the top of your head is in line with that hand. “It gives you the space in your hips to give that feminine catwalk movement,” he informs me. Hips are the crux – it’s about extreme sways from left to right. If your right leg is going down, your left arm should go up – and you should swish your hands from left to right. He looks effortlessly elegant; I resemble a drunk air traffic controller. “Imagine there’s a tightrope going over a chasm and you’re stepping one foot in front of the other on your toes,” he says. His movement flows like water; mine has all the suppleness and grace of an arthritic Lego Man.

Moving onto the hands (broken down into sub-techniques of taps, lines, waves, circles and figures of eights), he’s fluid with his movements – whereas I look like Marcel Marceau having a fight with a wasp. Episode three introduces the duckwalk – which is like a moving squat – where you’re moving while sitting on your heels, with your knees in front of you and your chest straight up. “The way I was taught by my father Jamari Balmain is to imagine you have a small rock in front of each foot and you’re using slight kicking movements to propel that rock forward,” says Gravity. I actually manage to do this one, but the switch-duckwalk – where you’re jumping with both feet at the same time and switching the position on the beat – chisels at my knees and hips with a pain that borders on sadism. It’s easier in heels, says Gravity. It’s also knackering and I’m sodden with perspiration. You might even say: “Taobi nagesi”.

When we get to the floor exercises – where I’m lying back trying to make circles with my legs but instead resembling someone in the throes of painful epidural-free childbirth – I realise that despite my best efforts, my vogueing (which originated with black and latino gay men and trans women ostracised from the mainstream finding alternative families) could be classed as a hate crime.

Concluding my vogueing efforts are less Paris Is Burning and more Manchester With a Box Of Damp Swan Vestas, I decide to try circus skills and find a YouTube life-hack video titled How To Juggle Three Balls. Perfect! Say what you like, but I can’t think of any conceivable scenario where yelling “Look, that man’s got three balls!” wouldn’t pique somebody’s interest. Guiding me in this pursuit is Josh Horton, gold medalist in the juggling world championships and a 12-time Guinness World Record holder, who speaks in that LOUD YOUTUBE WAY OF BEING PERMANENTLY ENTHUSIASTIC!!!, like an exclamation mark made flesh. Step one: you need something to juggle. In lieu of bona fide juggling balls, he suggests scrunched-up socks instead. We work on body position and I practice by tossing one sock with my hands making inward-scoops as I throw and aiming for head-height. Next is adding in another ball (well, sock). When the first sock reaches its peak, that’s when you throw the next one. You have to keep your eyes fixed on one point, so you see everything in your peripheral vision – and repeat: “Right, left, catch, catch.”

I practice for four days and – bloody hell! (What’s the High Valyrian for that?) – I’m juggling! Josh warns you can’t pick up a third ball until you can throw 10 in a row easily from each hand, so alas, I don’t master juggling three socks. But “if you put in a lot of practice, you can look like this”, says Josh, juggling under his legs, spinning around and frankly putting his balls in places they have no business being.

Basking in my juggling afterglow, it’s time to get crafty and construct a Guinness World Record-breaking paper airplane, courtesy of John Collins’ YouTube video How To Fold Five Incredible Paper Airplanes. In 2012, Collins’ glider, named Suzanne after his wife, flew a whopping 226 feet, 10 inches, smashing the previous record by 19 feet and six inches. Collins, an avuncular American wearing a novelty tie adorned with on-brand tiny paper airplanes, shows us how to construct the Boomerang Plane (which should fly back to you), the Boomerang 2, the Batwing (which flaps its wings like a bat), and the aforementioned Suzanne.

Not going to lie – my first attempt at the Boomerang Plane is the worst act that’s ever been committed to paper since Jeffrey Archer wrote his first novel. Like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper’s dad, Collins also gives an insight into the physics and aerodynamics behind what you’re making. Of the Boomerang’s drooping wings, he explains: “A positive dihegal helps the plane rock back to neutral. This plane’s wings are drooping in a negative dihedral or anhedral fashion and that – along with where the centre of gravity is – helps the Boomerang Plane circle back.” And to think, beforehand all I knew about Gravity was that he looked good in a crop top and possesses adamantium knee joints.

As Freedom Day passes, and normality resumes, do our newly acquired avocations have an afterlife like a pastime-based version of long Covid or are they just the passing driftwood we clung to like drowning men? In a recent Ipsos MORI poll, 54 per cent of people said they would miss elements of lockdown. Unshackled from the 9-to-5, perhaps it’s given some the opportunity to try on new different versions of themselves, like Mr Benn walking into the fancy-dress shop. Or after broadening our horizons, will we narrow them back down to factory settings? Maybe we now have a renewed sense of impending mortality – we all know people who have died during this period – that will make us grab onto new experiences.

After a week of intense online learning, the skills I’ve acquired to knock my friends’ (non-juggled) socks off are that I can say “The boys are sweating” in High Valyrian while doing a switch-duckwalk and juggling two balls as a paper airplane spirals serenely in the air.

Beat that, Taylor Swift!

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