My Path Towards Michael Ammar’s Cups & Balls Magic: Mastering the Final Loading Technique

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

The move to be studied... and why it is worth spending time on:

Among all final loading techniques, Michael Ammar’s version impresses me the most because it relies on choreography instead of speed. In other words, the loads are executed rather slowly so that the routine could leave all types of audiences the impression that the whole performance “couldn’t be fairer”. Even if we watch the loads repeatedly, such impression still lasts.

But before we get to the point, I’ll try to convince you to take my theory on the final load seriously by sharing my story of self-learning Ammar's cups and balls routine.

What was my starting point towards learning cups and balls?

In my childhood and adolescence, I lived in a time where serious magic was only available as black-and-white texts in the library. I didn’t realize, out of my solitary cottage, magicians were stepping into the age of tapes and DVDs. So, after witnessing and recording Michael Ammar’s award-winning cups and balls routine on World's Greatest Magic TV series before year 2000, I was so hooked by it that I decided to work it out by breaking it down to individual moves and jotting down the sequence of the routine on a notebook. It took me several hours to do it with a videotape recorder, which was then jammed and broken. Without the reliance on being spoonfed, however, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the structuring of Ammar's routine. Studying the choreographed moves was the next step in my plan. My focus was on Ammar's eye movements and the body language of his upper body, which I later found inadequate.

Few years after, I ordered Ammar’s DVD on the subject from Hank Lee Magic Factory online. It was sort of like finally obtaining the marking scheme from the marker and comparing the suggested answers with my notes side by side. Yet, the DVD was just a general guide. It didn't give me instant feedback so I decided to explore further.

When did I find my system practical?

At the time the purchase of my DVDs was made through the online store, it was doing a promotion to give away free brass cups to purchases over US$250. My purchase was eligible for the free gift, yet I forgot to type in the gift code on the payment page. Since I was a picky cheapskate, I ended up not buying myself any sets for nearly two decades afterwards, until recently - I found a set of high quality, cheap, vintage copper cups and balls as well as wooden wands from a Chinese magic shop. So what did I practice with in the years before finding the right cups? Bouncing balls, an old drum stick from a band and plastic cups. Also, I haven't tried my skill set in front of any authentic audiences until the discovery of the Chinese cups and wands. Without practically testing my skills in front of real audiences, what “feedback” could I possibly get? My answer is in the paragraph "the theory"; but for now, I'll let you know how my very first performance turned out to be.

A few weeks ago, I finally did my first cups-and-balls performance for a group of 200 people when my boss, one of the hosts of a small event, invited me to perform in it. It was rewarding and fun to learn that my path towards this genre of classical magic, despite being a narrow one, paid off, as it impressed a professional magician cum instructor of Professional Diploma of Close up Magic who happened to be on the occasion. After my short performance, he approached me by complimenting my final loading technique, the part that I was most proud of among all my moves, so he quickly got my attention before introducing himself as an instructor. He asked if I was the apprentice of the local head course coordinator of the diploma or its graduate. Obviously, I did something that appeared right to him. So even though you haven’t seen my loading technique, you can assume that it’s a reliable one.

Why we should all be explorers sometimes?

You may be wondering whether you should keep reading this article as you realize that I’m such a slow learner, and yet a slow learner can also be a deep learner. I’m not asking you to work out every trick independently when the option of learning it from a master's publications is easily available, neither do we have to postpone a routine's coming out until it feels totally perfect to us. The point I'm trying to make here is that by drafting your own notes, occasionally starting from scratch, you may form your own insights that fit your persona more easily. I‘ve already mentioned the importance of working out the moves and the structuring of Ammar’s routine, which we all know is necessary but rather basic for a successful performance. Now I will go further into how I got the final loading technique down without undermining my personal style.

The theory:

I heard people say that it took guts to do the loading moves, but we also need to study the moves so as to develop such confidence. First, we need to understand the technique thoroughly; after that, we’ll need to develop muscle memory for it. And it’ll better be muscle memory for a reliable version of the technique.

To illustrate my learning theory, I’ll make an analogy between our learning process and that of artificial intelligence. Currently, there are at least two feasible ways for a CGI model or a robot to acquire a set of choreographed moves.

The first way for a computer to acquire a move is to gather data from a human who is capable of doing it. For example, Kung Fu actor, Jet Li recently revealed that his turning down of working for the Matrix films was due to his worries that his Kung Fu style and moves would be recorded and copied into a digital library - the right to his routines would be taken away. Magicians started off in their craft by imitations but, as humans, our imitating attempts would, at best, be as good as, but certainly not outdoing the original act if we don't spend our own two cents as input.

So let’s get some light from the second method in which we could see a loading action essentially as the conjurer's coordination of gestures and steps as well as their head and eye movements, while a robot with artificial intelligence may see it as the sum of vectors of their limbs. (For example, I could perceive the load as the meeting of the two hands and the displacements of the body parts; then, I could further break down the movement of each hand as the result of the rotation of the center of the body and relative positions of the joints to the body; I could also define the load on its presentation dimension by studying the stress in the muscles in each arm...) In this case, even the robot is potentially capable of formulating many versions of the move because as far as the sum remains unchanged, the variables of each part can differ.

Up to this point, I guess you'll value the second approach more than the first one, except for one problem: our calculating capabilities are far behind that of a computer. How can we come up with our formulas with so many variables and get the right sum? Well, instead of breaking down the technique into individual variables, we can do the move holistically, which, in plain English, means: move with our instincts. But our instincts must be trained to develop sufficient physical and spatial intelligence beforehand so that our moves can appear right to the spectators.

What kinds of physical training fulfill the requirements? What you'll need to acquire are the skills of producing flexible hand gestures and head movements, steady and accurate rotation of your body, steps with the pointing of your toes while maintaining a balanced look of your body as well as the expressions of relaxation and tension, and the like - executed altogether to form a natural, go-with-the-flow, impression. What is it going to be? Dai Vernon, the Professor in magic, mentioned that he had tuned up the volume of his voice by boosting his lung capacity in the stadium. He had chosen running as the cross training of pattering.

As for me, my secret weapon was figure skating. Acquiring the basic elements and steps helped me improve my conjuring moves that are done standing up. The cold, unforgiving ice provided me with feedback on how to interact with reality in my own way. For you, your cross training could be Tai Chi or Wing Chun (you know, what Ip Man does). Just step out of your room filled with close-up props and do some exercise.

since 2018 by Calvin Sze