York’s Magic Ball Man will be taking to the streets this weekend during York Residents Festival. He gives STEPHEN LEWIS a crash course in the art of contact juggling.

YOU must have seen the Magic Ball Man when out and about in York. Usually he is outside Café Rouge in Low Petergate, doing amazing things with clear, transparent balls of what looks like glass.

The balls have a life of their own: floating above the ground or rising into the air, apparently under their own volition, as he dances and weaves around them.

It is a truly magical act, although there is no true magic involved. It is all about timing, balance and hours of practice.

What the Magic Ball Man does is known as ‘contact juggling’. The ball is always in touch with some part of his body: the palm of his hand, the tips of his fingers, and the outstretched underside of his arm.

But he is constantly in motion: after years of practice he has perfected the art of rolling his arms or the palms or the backs of his hands smoothly beneath the ball, leaving it apparently hanging in space while he dances around it.

The resulting act often has passers-by entranced. Sometimes people think the ball is on a piece of string, he says; or that it is filled with gas. It isn’t, it is deceptively solid and heavy, as I find out when he gives me a quick lesson in Museum Gardens.

He demonstrates a move called ‘the butterfly’, in which he rolls the ball up the palm of one hand to the tips of the fingers, down the back of the hand, and then back again – and then smoothly flips it across to the other hand and does the same. Before long the ball is describing graceful figures of eight in the air while his hands flow around it.

He passes it to me. I balance it on my palm and try to roll it towards the tips of my fingers – and it thuds to the ground. He rolls it up his arm: the arm moving, the ball seeming to hang in the air. I balance it on my arm and it slips off again.

He gives me a pitying look tinged with humour. “It’s all about timing,” he says. “And when I’m doing it well, it is almost like meditation. You become one with the ball: it is almost as though it is floating itself.”

So who is this man who, for several years now, has entranced visitors and locals alike in the centre of York?

His real name is Steve Bullen, he’s 40 and he was born and bred in York. He went to Easingwold School, worked at a garden centre when he left, and then moved from job to job: as a welder, a blacksmith, a plumber, a chef and bottle-washer.

“None of them were careers,” he says. “They were all dead-end jobs.”

Steve was restless, never staying long in one place. He spent time in Holland and France, lived for six years in Sheffield going from “one agency job to another” and spent several years in the Lake District. He ended up back in York a few years ago.

He loves travelling and was in Barcelona when he first encountered contact juggling. Steve enjoys entertaining, and had done a bit of traditional juggling and unicycling. But he’d never seen anything like this. He bought one of the balls for himself. “And for months I couldn’t figure out what to do with it! If you’ve only got one ball, and you’re used to doing juggling…”

Steve persevered until he had an idea of what he was doing and felt he was ready to unleash himself on the public. Three years on and he has become a familiar and street entertainer, with his distinctive waistcoat, tall hat, and ginger Rastafarian dreadlocks.

He married a year ago and describes himself as a full-time professional contact juggler. He is available to hire for weddings, parties and corporate events. That’s why he tries to look smart. His hair, which has only been cut once in more than 20 years, is his only concession to a teenage love of Bob Marley.

Steve loves performing, especially the look on people’s faces when it is going well, and he enjoys interacting with his audience.

“One little lad came up to me and said ‘boo!’, trying to make me drop the ball,” he says. “He turned round to look at his parents, and I went behind him juggling, and when he turned back around I went ‘boo!’”

It was the people of York who gave him his name, he says. “People used to go past and say ‘Oh, look, he’s got a magic ball!’”

And so he has.

• The Magic Ball Man will be out this weekend during York Residents Festival – weather permitting. He doesn’t mind the cold and wears thermals beneath his costume to keep warm. But rain is a deal-killer. “The job is like cricket: rain stops play.”

• University of York student Max Czech has recently made a stunning film of Steve contact juggling in the Lake District, on top of Skiddaw and at the Castlerigg stone circle.

You can contact Steve at magicballman@ymail.com or visit facebook.com/TheMagicBallMan