When 1,028 free spirits from 9 countries converged on this city to attend the International Jugglers Association Convention, it was ”the largest juggling convention ever held on the planet Earth,” said Laura Dirksen Green, the meeting’s chairjuggler, as she was officially designated.

”Not to imply that things were all that earthbound,” she added. Indeed, just about everything was up in the air. Clubs. Rings. Balls. Plates. Knives. Torches. Rubber plungers. Rubber plungers? ”Bought these plumber’s helpers at Woolworth’s for $1 apiece,” said Bill Amos of Ellicott City, Md., as he effortlessly juggled three 18-inch-long plungers. ”I don’t think you’ve seen these on the Johnny Carson show!”

The six-day convention, which ended in a Sunday-morning jugglers’ prayer service, featured competitions, shows, workshops and athletic events that tossed more than a few hallowed world juggling records to the winds.

If the meeting was attended by some rank beginners and a fair number of unabashed amateurs, there was also a generous representation of artistes with an e. There were old masters, New Vaudevillians, Las Vegas headliners, cruise-ship habitues, theme-park troupers and street bandits. Clowns were on hand. And yes, there were fools.

A Fool in Demand

”I’m such a foolish Fool that people applaud me just for juggling one ball,” said Frank Jeffreys, a juggler from Raleigh, N.C., who often plays the fool at trade shows, fairs and festivals.

The association’s 42d annual convention sprawled through the gymnasiums, lawns and playing fields of Loyola College; the host was the nonprofit juggling association, which has 3,400 members worldwide, a minority of whom earn their living from their art.

More than 150 international jugglers attended from countries as near as Canada and as far as France, Switzerland, Japan and New Zealand. ”There would have been more jugglers from Europe,” said Karl-Heinz Ziethen, a juggling historian from West Berlin, ”except for the higher summer air fares and the higher American dollar. European jugglers are not millionaires.”

According to the Smithsonian magazine, more than a million Americans can now juggle the ”three-ball cascade,” as the basic figure-8 juggling pattern is known. ”Juggling has gone from being an oddball circus skill to a leisure pastime,” said Bill Giduz, the editor of Juggler’s World, the association’s magazine based in Kenmore, N.Y.

‘Just Plain Fun’

Juggling classes have sprung up in a host of schools, exercise programs and adult-education courses. ”Juggling is popular because it can be lyrical and meditative as well as just plain fun,” Ms. Green said. ”I find the required concentration similar to knitting or doing needlepoint.”

”People can juggle alone or together with a miniumum of equipment and perform a highly aerobic activity,” added Ms. Green, who should know: she holds the association women’s record for ”joggling” the 100-meter dash. That means she ran 100 meters while juggling three balls. And not dropping them. Membership in the Jugglers Association has nearly doubled from the 1,800 it numbered in 1984. The organization began with only 8 members in June 1947, when that number of jugglers found themselves attending a magicians’ convention in Pittsburgh. They all gathered in the coffee shop of the William Penn Hotel and ”decided to form our own association,” said the 77-year-old Art Jennings, one of the original founders.

”At that time, we felt the art of juggling was about ready to die,” he said. ”Vaudeville was coming to an end and jugglers were competing for scarce jobs. They were secretive; they feuded, and they didn’t want to teach newcomers. But in the intervening decades, we’ve seen an unbelievable explosion of juggling just about everywhere.”

”I don’t think juggling is in any danger of becoming too respectable, though,” said Cindy Friedberg, a 22-year-old from Manhattan who, under the nom-de-juggle of Cindy Marvell, accomplished quite a respectable feat herself. She won the convention award for giving the best individual juggling performance. She is the first woman to do so in the history of the association.

High-Tech Props

At the convention, studious jugglers could attend seminars on everything from ”Three-Ball Tricks for Beginners” to ”Torch Juggling.” Table upon table of vendors offered props to the conventioneers, including high-tech silicon juggling balls, epoxy resin fiberglass juggling clubs and ”Jugglebusters” T-shirts emblazoned with the motto ”We Ain’t Afraid of No Gravity.”

”This isn’t just a convention; it’s a family reunion,” said Ms. Green, a sometime Baltimore street performer who deemed it part of her chairjuggler responsibilities to dye her hair ”drop-dead burgundy,” as she described the color.

At the convention, Anthony Gatto, a 16-year-old juggling prodigy, broke four previous juggling records and set three new ones including that for the total number of clubs tossed and caught: eight. Gene Jones, an associate editor of ”The Guinness Book of World Records,” was on hand to verify results and submit them to the Guinness judges.

En masse, a group of conventiongoers also broke the Guinness record ”for the most jugglers juggling the greatest number of objects without using their brains,” as Ms. Green described it, deadpan.

The feat was billed as ”The Great Toss-Up.” A crowd of 524 conventioneers juggled 1,997 objects at the same time Saturday on the vast green expanse of the John M. Curley Jr. Athletic Field. They bettered the old record of 476 people juggling 1,867 objects.

Jargon of the Trade

But before and after the competitive events, virtually 24 hours a day, groups of conventioneers worked out while addressing one another in the jargon of the juggling trade, referring to pirouettes, back-crosses, kickups, side throws and pancakes – the last being a ring-tossing motion that looks like flipping a flapjack.

”I think St. Bosco has been smiling on our convention,” said Ms. Green as she surveyed the gymnasium full of wiry, graceful jugglers putting up a barrage of identified flying objects.

She was referring to St. John Bosco, the patron saint of jugglers, who was canonized in 1934. A 19th-century Roman Catholic priest in Turin, Italy, the saint learned to juggle balls and plates and perform magic tricks so he could gather crowds of street urchins, to whom he would preach.

”Well, at least somebody up there likes us,” Ms. Green said. And then, because she was sounding a little too portentous for a juggler, Ms. Green smiled and crossed her eyes.

Photo of a group of jugglers, among them Mark Long Jr. tossing rings and Mark Sr. tossing pins, at the International Jugglers Association Convention in Baltimore. (NYT/Marty Katz)