Concealed in a blue glow-in-the-dark jumpsuit and helmet, Patt Miller reached for a freshly flattened, lightly floured pizza dough and began tossing it wildly into the air. He hoped it wouldn’t fall to the floor.
Miller, 24, was a contestant in the masters division of the Pizza Expo’s freestyle acrobatics competition Wednesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Juggling two pieces of pizza dough in the air at a time, Miller made an over-the-shoulder toss look effortless. He switched up his routine by grabbing a fistful of multicolored, neon, glow-in-the-dark necklaces to throw into the audience.
“It was pretty difficult,” said Miller, who works for a pizzeria in Ohio called A Slice of New York.
Other contestants in the first division and masters division of the freestyle acrobatics used a few props — like pompoms, samurai swords and glass bottles — while they expertly spun pizza dough in the air, between their legs and around their backs. An audience of hundreds of convention-goers cheered their efforts.
“You think of it as figure skating,” said Tony Gemignani, an 11-time world champion who helped organize this year’s competition. “The guys who are competing are good.”
The contestants were vying for the world title. They were judged on difficulty level, variety of their routine, dexterity, synchronization with the music, creativity and entertainment value.
“One drop can like lose it for you,” Gemignani said.
A panel of six judges perched in the front row awarded scores to each contestant for each category.
Elizabeth Falkner a pastry chef who has competed on Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef,” was a judge.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Falkner said. “They all have different styles.”
Falkner said she most enjoyed how fun and passionate the contestants were on stage.
Nick Diesslin, 20, of Maplewood, Minn., was the youngest competitor, and he successfully managed to toss his pizza dough while blindfolded.
Diesslin was a juggler before he found himself in the world of freestyle pizza acrobatics. He was self taught and later was hired at a pizza place because of his dough-tossing ability.
“It’s my favorite exercise, it’s relaxing,” Diesslin said. “I love doing it blindfolded.”
Diesslin won second place in the first division. Simone Ingrosso from Lecce, Italy, came in third. The winner was Kazuya Akaogi, 30, of Japan.
Akaogi pumped the crowd with an energized performance that included tossing multiple pieces of dough at once before launching them off into the cheering crowd.
Earlier in the evening, Akaogi, won the pizza dough-spinning competition and set a world record for longest spin, just over nine minutes.
With his win in the first division’s freestyle round, Akaogi jumped at the chance to compete in the masters division against Miller and Jay Schuurman, 26, of Sacramento, Calif.
Schuurman’s been tossing pizza competitively for six years. He’s worked at Pizza Rock for a year now.
“You cannot be in Vegas today unless you’ve learned from other people,” said Schuurman, who has several mentors in the pizza world.
At the start of his performance Schuurman spun a bottle of liquor in one hand and poured himself a drink as if he were tending a bar. He quickly switched to spinning a pizza and eventually ended up juggling the pizza dough and the bottle.
Schuurman won the masters division title.
Winning the competition helps gain recognition in both the pizza world and back at their local pizzeria, the competitors said.
Competitors say the hardest part isn’t the juggling or coming up with a routine; it’s adapting to the dough’s texture.
“Dough is a big part of it,” Schuurman said. “The dough was a lot softer than I liked.”
Since 1984 the annual show has been hosted in major cities across the country, Oakley said. In recent years, though, it has found a home in Las Vegas.
Bill Oakley, executive vice president of Pizza Expo and Pizza Today, said having the expo in Las Vegas was a no-brainer.
“Las Vegas was significantly better,” Oakley said in regards to convention attendance. “It has the most pizzazz and the most appeal.”