How Plate Spinning Works


Sure, you could eat off that plate, but you might have more fun spinning it.
Sure, you could eat off that plate, but you might have more fun spinning it.
©Sandra Mu/Getty

When you think of circus acts, you probably envision trained tigers, human cannonballs and agile, airborne acrobats. But one circus act uses plates like the ones you eat off of every day. It's called plate spinning, and it's a mesmerizing testament to the creativity of novelty acts that rely on common physics.

Plate spinning is a circus act that typically involves spinning plates (or bowls, or other dishware) on top of wooden dowels. There are all sorts of variations on this act, such as spinning plates on their edges, letting them whirl about on a tabletop in a blur of motion.

Like juggling and acrobatics, plate spinning requires a mastery of hand-eye coordination and a whole lot of practice. The best performers can fluidly transition from a basic trick like spinning a single plate to much more advanced feats that incorporate multiple types of dishes on numerous surfaces, all at the same time.

Anyone who has ever washed dishes knows that plates aren't always the most cooperative objects. When they're soapy, they slip and crash onto the kitchen floor, often shattering into dozens of sharp shards. Yet for juggling acts, plates and bowls are perfect — they're symmetrical and generally well-balanced.

That makes plates suitable for use as gyroscopes. A gyroscope is a spinning object in which several physics fundamentals converge, allowing for some unusual and often counterintuitive effects, one of which means that a spinning plate can twirl rapidly atop a pointed stick. (We'll feast on more of the physics behind plate spinning later.)

Serving Up Some History

Acrobats performing a plate-spinning routine at Laoshe teahouse in Beijing in 2012
Acrobats performing a plate-spinning routine at Laoshe teahouse in Beijing in 2012
© Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis

Plate spinning doesn't require a lot of fancy equipment or specialized skills. With a few common tools, just about anyone on the planet can give it a try. That's why it's tough to pin down the exact moment when plate spinning originated.

Spinning may have started about 2,000 years ago during China's Han Dynasty as part of a collection of variety acts. As the Han Dynasty unfolded, so did variety shows called the "Hundred Entertainments." These performances had magicians, jugglers and acrobats of all stripes, including plate spinners. Perhaps plate spinning had roots with village potters who made clay dishes. As part of mastering their craft, maybe they also learned to spin their wares on sticks to advertise their skill with the tools of their trade. Or perhaps plate spinning was an elaborate way to celebrate an annual harvest with the rest of the community.

However it began, plate spinning has a long history with Chinese acrobatic troupes. These performers typically work in groups, simultaneously twirling dishes with choreographed movements and contortions that add an extra element of difficulty and excitement.

In Western culture, plate spinners often work a stage alone. An assistant may help with setup and props, but the actual spinning portion of the act is frequently a solitary affair. Performers also may try to top each other's best tricks, spinning larger and more unwieldy objects such as tables or by spinning many different objects at the same time, or by tossing spinning objects in the air and then catching them again.

Tricked-out Plates

A boy in Tibet practices his plate spinning while adding a little complexity to the trick.
A boy in Tibet practices his plate spinning while adding a little complexity to the trick.
© Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images

At its simplest, plate spinning most commonly features a single spinning plate balanced on a stick. That's where all novice spinners begin. But it doesn't take long before most begin incorporating fancy new moves into their repertoire.

The Australian catch, for instance, is when the spinner tosses the plate into the air and then flips the stick, landing the plate on the opposite end of the stick. Spinners might throw both the stick and the plate into the air and then catch them again, or pass the plate between their legs, or even transfer the plate from the stick to index fingers.

They might balance the stick on their chins and let go entirely. Or they might balance the plate in one hand while juggling multiple balls with their free hand. More experienced spinners add more and more flourishes to their routines, making a difficult act that much harder.

Plate spinners are typically side acts in a larger show, so they don't achieve much in the way of celebrity. One plate spinner, though, took his act from the side of the small stage to the international spotlight. His name is Erich Brenn, and he's the best known dish spinner on Earth.

Brenn made a name for himself thanks to his eight appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1950s and '60s. With his bow tie and huge smile, Brenn was one of the most memorable variety acts on the show, in part because his frenetic pace kept audience members on the edge of their seats.

Perhaps his most notable act included spinning five glass bowls perched atop tall sticks while spinning eight plates on their edges. To maintain the spinning, he raced about the stage deftly adding momentum to each object just before it was about to wobble and fall to the floor. It was an anxiety-inducing set — one that seemed destined for failure at every moment— but somehow Brenn was just speedy enough to keep each dish from plummeting to a broken end.

In 1996, a spinner named David Spathaky set the world record for number of simultaneous spinning plates. With an assistant handing him plates one after another, Spathaky rested the plates on dowels and, with a flick of his wrists, sent them spinning for minutes at a time. He reached 108 plates before his feat crashed to a halt.

Spinning the Physics

Looks like Prince Charles isn’t going to pursue a side career in the circus arts anytime soon.
Looks like Prince Charles isn’t going to pursue a side career in the circus arts anytime soon.
© John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Plate spinning isn't neurosurgery. But it does require quick reflexes and a good sense of balance. It also helps to use the right plates. You won't be raiding grandma's china cabinet for these dishes. Most spinning plates have an indentation in the center that makes it easier for you to center the dowel as the plate rotates. They also have an upraised rim on the bottom that catches the dowel, particularly at the beginning of the trick. These plates are often made of heavyweight, unbreakable plastic, for obvious reasons.

To start the spinning, you hang the plate on this rim and begin rotating the stick. As the plate gains momentum and spins faster, it moves from a dangling, diagonal position to a horizontal one. At full speed, it doesn't wobble much at all, simply spinning in place.

It works because of gyroscope effects. Gyroscopes are essentially a type of spinning top, just like the children's toy you used to play with. Set a top in motion, of course, and it stands up on its pointy end until it runs out of momentum, after which it wobbles and then falls out of its spin and onto the floor.

Gyroscopes are self-balancing objects that are based on the principle of conservation of angular momentum, which is made up of both speed and direction. As an example, observe a spinning bicycle wheel. The speed of rotation is referred to as angular momentum. Most of the wheel's mass isn't in the center or the spokes; instead, it's distributed along the edges, in the tires.

Once that mass gets up to speed, its angular momentum tends to carry it along, providing stability that doesn't change much even when confronted with gravity. That's why you can carefully put a top (or other gyroscope) on a stand and orient it horizontally without it falling to the floor.

Plate spinning works much the same way. Apply force to the plate to make it spin, and its momentum holds it in place on the balancing stick without much work from you at all. The faster the spin, the greater the stability. Stability helps talented plate spinners perform dance moves, somersaults and other movements that add a wow factor to their acts without dropping the plates.

At its core, plate spinning isn't a complicated act. In fact, its simplicity is probably a big part of its appeal — you don't need fancy equipment or props to give it a try. Plate spinning's uncomplicated nature is also probably why it has persisted as a long-standing sideshow act and why it will continue to draw gape-mouthed stares for centuries to come.

Author's Note: How Plate Spinning Works

As a kid, I used to think that it would be fun to learn juggling. I'd toss tennis balls into the air with the intention of flinging them around expertly like the jugglers I saw on TV. The end result was a bunch of balls bouncing down the driveway and me sprawled out on the lawn trying to catch my breath. Skillful juggling (or plate spinning) of any kind takes endless hours of practice that I was never willing to invest. But the people who do put in the time can perform truly fantastic feats.

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More Great Links

Sources

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