How Plate Spinning Works

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.