Jai Alai: An Aesthetic Appreciation
Jai Alai' (say hi-li) world's fastest sport, Biscayne Fronton, Miami, Florida Boston Public Library

Jai Alai: An Aesthetic Appreciation

The his­to­ry of Jai Alai is some­what murky. Some claims are made that it may have been a Mayan export to Spain and was tak­en up by the Basques. Oth­ers claim that it sim­ply orig­i­nat­ed in North­ern Spain with­in the Basque pop­u­la­tion as a deriv­a­tive of pop­u­lar hand­ball games known as Pelota. Rough­ly trans­lat­ed from Basque Jai Alai comes to mean Mer­ry Fes­ti­val. It was a game played on the week­ends and dur­ing fes­ti­vals among the Basque pop­u­la­tion of Spain and France with­in and around the val­leys of the Pyre­nees moun­tains. Even if we don’t know its exact ori­gins, we can make the claim that the sports pop­u­lar­i­ty was a result of its Basque her­itage and evo­lu­tion.

Jai Alai is a ball game in which the ball (or pelota made from either woven met­al strands or rub­ber and wrapped by goatskin) is hurled at a wall using a ces­ta (Span­ish for bas­ket), which looks like a long wick­er scoop. There are three tow­er­ing walls sur­round­ing the can­cha (court). The ball must remain in con­tin­u­ous motion in the game, first being served again­st the front wall with­in and then land­ing between des­ig­nat­ed lines. There are four­teen lines on the court and the ball must land between the fourth and the sev­en­th line to be con­sid­ered in play. The ball can bounce off of any of the three walls but may not breach the spec­ta­tor line or wall. Because of the ori­en­ta­tion of the court, Jai Alai play­ers must use the ces­ta on their right hands only. The game is usu­al­ly played by eight teams of two play­ers or eight sin­gle play­ers in a round robin for­mat. The aim is to reach between sev­en or nine points to secure a win.

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the sport has wavered over the past six­ty years or so. Its attach­ment to gam­bling is part­ly respon­si­ble, and the resul­tant clo­sure of courts has made it far less acces­si­ble to those who have any inter­est in it. How­ev­er, it still push­es for­ward and evolves. The pur­pose of this arti­cle is to dis­cuss the art form of Jai Alai as both sport and per­for­mance. It is tru­ly a beau­ti­ful game found­ed on min­i­mal­ist prin­ci­ples and pure ath­leti­cism. This arti­cle aims to unveil the poet­ry of a sport and its evo­lu­tion­ary unfold­ing.


HastingsState Archives of Flori­da/Hastings

The court, or can­cha, con­sists of three walls mea­sur­ing fifty-four meters in length and about twelve meters in height. The front wall is typ­i­cal­ly made out of gran­ite. The size of the can­cha is impres­sive, and the three walls open into a view­ing gallery to the right hand side. The can­cha acts as if it were a stage for a play, bal­let, or con­cert.

The aes­thet­ic of the court itself is very util­i­tar­i­an. The can­cha takes the appear­ance of some sort of Bauhau­sian indus­tri­al­ism. It is a play­ing area that reflects the min­i­mal­ism of the sport. Indeed, this is sim­ple geom­e­try; how­ev­er, due to its sim­plic­i­ty the geom­e­try and speed of the game play cre­ates an inter­est­ing par­al­lel between the sim­plic­i­ty of the court and the dif­fi­cul­ty of the actu­al game. The use of the court is an impor­tant aspect of the game. Whether we are speak­ing about where the play­er posi­tion them­selves or the play of the ball off of the wall, we see a dynam­ic and com­pli­cat­ed geom­e­try at play here and it is beau­ti­ful.

Beyond the physics of the game that are pro­duced by the shape and size of the court we have the acoustics. Whether it is result­ing from the sound of the ball strik­ing the front wall or the sound of the play­ers and their move­ment, there is a rhythm to the game. This rhythm is one of move­ment and if one looks close­ly enough, the game becomes some­thing sim­i­lar to a bal­let; it is a cal­cu­lat­ed and rhyth­mic dance between play­ers and the ball cre­ates a math­e­mat­ics of pace, recep­tion and deliv­ery as the ball whirs through the air smash­es again­st walls and whizzes past play­ers.

LIFE 24 Oct 1938/Gjoon Mili

LIFE 24 Oct 1938/Gjon Mili



The phys­i­cal­i­ty of Jai Alai is aston­ish­ing. The move­ment of the play­ers and their bod­ies rep­re­sents ath­leti­cism in the purest sense of the word. How­ev­er, the game tran­scends sport and becomes an art form. The move­ment is at once spon­ta­neous and inten­tion­al. The play­ers bod­ies inter­act with the envi­ron­ment and with­in the con­text of the game as if they were dancers. Their strength and prowess res­onates with every return of the ball hurled toward the front wall. The speed at which the play­ers are able to adjust to each return is spec­tac­u­lar. The gym­nas­tics-like ath­leti­cism allows the play­ers to bound high into the air or corkscrew on the ground as they return a ball played well enough to make con­tact with the low­er half of the back wall. The art form of Jai Alai can­not be appre­ci­at­ed through mere words; per­haps the pho­tos below serve bet­ter to illus­trate the poet­ry of move­ment found in the game.




Life 24 Oct 1938/Gjon Mili

Life 24 Oct 1938/Gjon Mili


Like most sports the fash­ion of the game has evolved to suit the ath­leti­cism of the sport; how­ev­er, one aspect has remained the same: the ces­ta. It is an ele­gant yet sim­ple piece of equip­ment. Each ces­ta is hand woven to suit the needs of each indi­vid­u­al play­er. The reeds used for weav­ing have tra­di­tion­al­ly been found only in Pyre­nees moun­tains and the weav­ing is sup­port­ed by chest­nut frames. The ele­gant curve of each ces­ta is a require­ment for both catch­ing and throw­ing the ball in a flu­id motion.

Tra­di­tion­al Jai Alai uni­forms con­sist­ed of white linen pants and linen top, a faja (sash) and white play­ing shoes. Due to the hard­ness and dan­ger of the ball, con­tem­po­rary uni­forms include a hel­met. In the time peri­od of its upris­ing in the US and Lat­in Amer­i­ca col­ored and num­bered jer­seys were donned, like­ly to help with ref­er­ee­ing and the impor­tant role that gam­bling played on spread­ing and sus­tain­ing the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the sport through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.





Like the oth­er aspects of the game, the adorn­ment of play­ers is kept min­i­mal and the uni­forms allow each play­er to per­form at the best of their abil­i­ties. While the game has expe­ri­enced sev­er­al aes­thet­ics when it comes to fash­ion from clas­si­cal to retro and now con­tem­po­rary, the fash­ion has evolved with the increased phys­i­cal­i­ty. Like most sports, as it evolves and grows, the ath­leti­cism in Jai Alai has improved sub­stan­tial­ly along with the tech­nol­o­gy of fash­ion and design. Increased com­fort and mobil­i­ty have cer­tain­ly played a role in the games improv­ing phys­i­cal­i­ty and speed. The sim­plic­i­ty, grace and styl­ish­ness of the game has con­sis­tent­ly been rep­re­sent­ed in the fash­ion of both the equip­ment and uni­forms used in the sport. It is a styl­ish game. It is a sexy game. It is a seduc­tive game.



Jai Alai is a per­for­ma­tive, acoustic and beau­ti­ful sport. The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the sport and its rel­a­tive depen­dence on gam­bling has meant that it has waned in glob­al pop­u­lar­i­ty. The dif­fi­cul­ty in find­ing an audi­ence beyond the casi­no and gam­bling seems to me to be a strange phe­nom­e­non. The ath­leti­cism, speed and artis­tic aspects of the game, to me, should be more than enough to attract a devot­ed audi­ence. I am sure that in the future it will gain pop­u­lar­i­ty once again and we shall see and hear much more of this won­der­ful sport. Until then and in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty, play­ers will prac­tice and devel­op upon their craft.