"Focus" is Paul Arneberg's favorite word. It's "the word I use more than any other," he said.

Arneberg is the founder, director, head coach and chief cheerleader for Jugheads, a juggling academy based in Edina. Six times a week, he weaves his way through a whirlwind of flying balls, airborne clubs, soaring rings and whatever else his students try to keep aloft while offering technical tips and reminding them to concentrate.

"Start with bouncing the balls" instead of throwing them in the air, he advised a student who was trying her hand at juggling five balls. "Bouncing the balls will slow them down," he explained to an onlooker before turning back to the student and adding: "And focus."

Juggling is not just the stuff of the Renaissance Festival anymore. It's become a year-round passion for many people, with juggling clubs -- the kind jugglers belong to, not the ones they toss -- for every age bracket. The University of Minnesota has a club, as does Normandale Community College. Minnesota Neverthriving (15th-century jargon for a company of jugglers) meets in south Minneapolis. There's also a club in Rochester.

Arneberg has been at the epicenter of that growth. He started with three students 19 years ago; now he has 146, ranging in age from second-graders to high school seniors.

A number of factors are behind juggling's popularity. Competitive juggling has caught on, adding an element of sport to its artistic side. It can be done just about anywhere, either alone or in groups. It has found adherents among athletes because of its emphasis on hand-eye coordination and among musicians because of its reliance on rhythm and timing. And in its basic form, it's relatively easy to learn -- or so jugglers claim -- but higher levels of difficulty can take a lifetime to master.

There even have been studies showing that the concentration required to juggle improves mental acuity. "A study at MIT found that it improves students' scores in math, spelling and reading," Arneberg said.

The instant gratification offset with the long-range challenges is what attracted Bobby Homan, a senior who is president of the University of Minnesota juggling club.

"I started juggling three balls, and that was fairly easy," he said. "So I started adding more, and then I really got into it fast. I like doing something that challenges me to get better."

Sharon Harvey, a computer science instructor and the faculty adviser of the club at Normandale Community College, took up juggling to prove that she wasn't the klutz she often appeared to be in phy-ed class.

"I got tired of being the last one picked for basketball," she said. "I found out that I have very good hand-eye coordination. And I found out that juggling is a very good stress reliever."

Sharing the know-how

Jerry Martin, the president of Minnesota Neverthriving and someone who occasionally performs in public, said that most jugglers learn from other jugglers. Unlike magicians who typically keep the secrets behind their tricks, "most jugglers are happy to share. If you see a move you like, they're not at all secretive," he said, adding with a laugh: "But if you try to steal my jokes, then you're in trouble."

His group meets in the Matthews Park building in the Seward area of Minneapolis. As part of their agreement to use the building, the jugglers offer free beginner lessons and participate in community events, including the Halloween parade at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Physical traits that can factor into other endeavors -- height in basketball, for instance -- don't apply to juggling. Gender isn't an issue, either, Arneberg said. "Physical strength doesn't matter if you're doing the techniques properly."

Competitive juggling, in which participants vie to keep the most objects airborne for the longest time, doesn't involve the politics that can impact other sports. "We don't have parents who grew up juggling and now are trying to live vicariously through their kids," Arneberg said.

Of course, that's if the spectators can even follow what's happening. As 15-year-old Taylor Claeys of Eden Prairie worked on a drill in which she and a partner kept nine balls in motion, she agreed that all the frantic passing might have looked chaotic. "It's controlled chaos," she said.

Elise Johnson, 13, Minnetonka, took up juggling to improve at softball and basketball. "It really helps with coordination," she said. Evan Peter, 17, Edina, an avid snowboarder, found a different benefit: "It helps with balance," he said. While Chris Jost, 18, president of the Normandale juggling club, appreciates its laid-back nature. "You can juggle anywhere," he said.

And if you're good enough, you can juggle just about anything -- although most clubs draw the line at outrageous things, like chainsaws, for liability reasons. The burning torches that are the stuff of circus shows are considered a rather mundane challenge by most experienced jugglers, however.

"Even if you grab at the wrong end of the torch, you don't really get burned because you drop it so fast," Harvey said. "It's no worse than passing your hand through the flame of a candle. Now, when you juggle machetes, that's different. ... "

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392