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.
State 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.
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.
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.