Columbia Teen Walks Tall Among Unicycle-riding Jugglers

November 04, 1990|By Dolly Merritt

Jer Gallay stands heads-above-the-crowd whenever he's taking a stroll around the lake at Centennial Park in Ellicott City. While fitness freaks labor to run, walk or bike around the approximate 2 miles of path as quickly as possible, Jer takes one slow step at a time -- on stilts.

So far, the 17-year-old Columbia resident can walk mile around the park without falling. But walking on stilts is just one of Jer's self-taught endeavors. He also rides unicycles, juggles hatchets and flaming torches, and bounces a ball on his nose.

Jer's skills have led to performing dates at the annual Renaissance Festival in Crownsville, the Harborplace Festival, St. Mary's College of Maryland and Howard County public schools.

The 12th-grader at Centennial High School became interested in such feats six years ago while watching some jugglers on television. His interest blossomed one day when he was at home with nothing to do and started tossing a few racquet balls.

"I kept at it and taught myself how to juggle," said Jer, matter-of-factly. "I started practicing a lot. It's hard to learn juggling from someone else. You have to understand the basic concepts and learn how to keep things in motion," he said.

Although the young performer believes it's hard to teach the skill to others, he has had some success teaching the basics to his parents -- Joel Gallay and Kathleen Chernus.

An older sister, Lisa, 23 -- a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst -- can juggle three balls. Jer's second sister, Jenn, 20, a student at St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City, has never learned to juggle.

"At Harborplace, I performed about 10 or 11 times (each season), earning sometimes $100 to $200 during the three hours I was there," said Jer, who received tips from admiring audiences.

"I once read a quote from a street performer who said, 'Every dollar represents a compliment.' And that's how I see it.

"People are giving you money when they don't have to. They do it because they enjoy the performance," Jer said.

Since making his debut as a juggler when he was in the eighth grade, Jer literally has been getting his act together. He spends a lot of time honing his various skills, alternating about two hours' worth of juggling practice on one day with a couple of hours' practice riding his unicycle on the next. In between, it's up on the stilts to practice his balance.

Two years ago, Jer received a 3-foot-high unicycle as a birthday present from his father. Using a wall as a support -- usually at Bryant Woods or Longfellow Elementary Schools in Columbia -- Jer pedaled "as fast as I could until I fell down."

"It took me three weeks to learn there were many more ways of falling, but I was determined," laughed Jer.

Always struggling to be on top of things, Jer has just learned to ride a friend's 6-foot unicycle, which actually puts him about 10 feet from the ground. He plans to buy one for himself.

"The bike stays idle while I rock back and forth with the pedals," he said. "When you are 10-feet off the ground riding a unicycle, that takes getting used to. It can be dangerous. You can break a knee easily."

The performer usually practices juggling "all over the place -- on the deck at home, in the park, at school.

"The motions for juggling are the same," he said. "The grips for the torches have padding in them. What makes torches so scary is that they are flying around your face. . . . I get burned sometimes. . . . I juggle hatchets inside, occasionally, but my parents are afraid of their floors getting chopped up."

When Jer first tried walking on stilts, he needed a person on each side to steady him. Mounting the boards, which are usually homemade, can be tricky. The student sits on top of a car, and with the aid of someone, positions his feet onto the stilts and starts walking, using his arms for balance.

In addition to practicing the techniques of juggling, riding the unicycle and walking on stilts, the performer is constantly creating ideas for his act. For instance, he learned to bounce a ball on his nose.

"It's very difficult, you have to keep watching the top of the ball," Jer said.

He is considering future stunts using a "rolla bolla" -- a wooden board with a cylinder beneath it that enables the performer to rock back and forth -- and cigar boxes used for "flipping around" when juggling.

Past acts included a "drag race" between Jer on his unicycle and a young volunteer from the audience who rides a Big Wheel bike. Using his own ideas for the skit like wearing "racing gear" that consists of swimming goggles and a striped ski hat, the young performer works to make people laugh.

And that's what keeps Jer practicing, even though he is undecided about his future. He plans to attend college but hasn't decided on a major.

One thing is for sure -- he hopes to continue performing.

"I can always do it on the side," Jer said.

"I see myself doing shows and traveling around. . . . I love getting to show off and make people laugh."

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