A little sleight-of-hand to get through the chaos

The first rule of magic is not to trust magicians, says Duke Sleight Club president Wesley Pritzlaff. The second is not to forget what your card is.

He absently shuffles a deck as he talks, as do many of the dozen or so students in attendance. It’s not long after a spectacular sunset, the kind that causes Duke Chapel to glow golden orange as shadows lengthen toward it, and Pritzlaff, a junior, is leading a sleightof- hand session in the Student Wellness Center’s Oasis West room. He shares performance tips (the more choices a magician gives their spectators, the better) and misdirection techniques (hide smaller movements within larger movements; if you look your audience in the eyes, they won’t look at your hands). Pritzlaff offers alternatives (if you have a hard time spreading the cards, don’t stress it; there are other techniques), even as he reveals what the magician’s hands do between “pick a card” and “is this your card?”

“That’s where the magic happens,” he says.

There’s more to this than wowing friends and strangers with deft card tricks, Pritzlaff believes. This evening’s sleight-of-hand session, for instance, is part of DuWell’s Moments of Mindfulness programming (DuWell is a branch of the Student Wellness Center). Other recurring Moments of Mindfulness include yoga, knitting, drum circles, tea ceremonies, and meditation. The gist is that students arrive with all the chaos and baggage of their day, their week—what have you—and depart calm, grounded, and present. There’s no mental space to perseverate when one is learning a card trick that requires focus, digital dexterity, coordination, and close attention.

And that’s where the magic happens.

“You truly have to be in the present moment to be able to coordinate hand-eye movement to a degree to stay present with the person you’re presenting it to—especially if you’re doing fast movements to try and hide things that you’re doing,” says Thomas Szigethy. “When they leave that one-hour session they’re feeling better about themselves and they’re feeling less stressed.”

Szigethy, associate dean and director of DuWell, offers a succinct explanation: These are activities that ground one in the present moment, which is happiness, rather than the past, which is regret, or the future, which is fear.

These concepts aren’t new, Szigethy continues. Chinese Baoding balls or Tibetan singing bowls operate on a similar principle to the Moments of Mindfulness offerings. There’s an emphasis on focusing the mind through simple movements, concentration, and digital dexterity. More recent inventions that operate on the same principle include fidget spinners and Rubik’s Cubes.

“The cards can be your anchor,” says Pritzlaff. Learning a new trick is cognitively demanding, both in terms of mastering hand motions and maintaining the patter that keeps audiences at once misdirected and entertained. Even a few seconds of silence can allow a spectator’s attention to wander; can allow the spectator to look too closely at what the magician is doing with his or her hands.

Pritzlaff, a neuroscience major, shares his passion through Duke Sleight Club and Moments of Mindfulness, sure, but he has the long game in mind as he develops his card tricks. He pictures his future self a physical therapist who does magic on the side, but without erecting walls between the two interests.

For Pritzlaff, magic has always been about connecting with others, which is a major reason he feels it can be incorporated into physical therapy. A magic trick is meaningless without an audience to entertain, he posits, while therapy isn’t therapy without a patient. If Pritzlaff is going to learn something, he’s going to share it. And if he’s going to share something, he’s going to want to improve someone’s day in the process—even if it takes intense focus.

“You’re static if you’re just practicing the same things,” Pritzlaff says, simultaneously describing magic and therapy. “You have to push yourself, develop a plan of how you move forward.”

And that’s where the magic happens.

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