Over the course of the last year and half, I have taken a deliberately phased approach to learning magic. I started at the end of 2017 by reading instructional books, then moved on to watching instructional videos, then practiced in front of a mirror for sleight of hand-based tricks, and then began attending live performances. In early 2019, I made a determination to enrol in professional face-to-face training.

Masterclass visits Juan Tamariz
Masterclass visits Juan Tamariz

Because of a fortuitously timed web search, I had a wonderful opportunity to sign up for a Masterclass with the world renowned card magician Dani Daortiz. Over 26-28 July 2019, seven of us spent a weekend with Dani and his friends (this included a private show by Juan Tamariz! At his home!!).

With an academic hat on, there are many questions that might be asked of this kind of Masterclass. Since the format is inextricably linked to who instructs it, how teachers share their expertise and establish their authority are integral features of such training. In this case, Dani established his standing through competency and charisma. Our first session consisted of 2+ hours of him doing table-based card tricks in his characteristic ‘chaotic’ style. I think it is fair to say we students were left bedazzled.

The rest of the instructed component of the Masterclass alternated between witnessing Dani perform, watching his explanations for the mechanisms of tricks, and listening to the wider thinking that informs his style. As an indication of his openness, Dani allowed me to record a number of the sessions and share those with the other students.

On the surface then, the taught aspects of the Masterclass entailed Dani performing, explaining and elaborating on effects such that we as students would be able to later repeat them. And yet, there is so much more to say than this. Below I want to talk about some of the pedagogical dynamics of the Masterclass as I came to understand them.


One of the features I take as interesting about becoming skilful in magic is how it involves a negotiated refinement of perceptual discernment. On the one hand, as with so many other skills, learning consists of developing something of an ‘eye’. A learner begins to appreciate and harness visual and other sensory subtleties that would pass many other people by. On the other hand, though, because of the way in which magic often utilises the bounds of our cognitive and perceptual capabilities, learning entails becoming aware of the limits of what we can perceive. Thus it entails a double movement: closely attending to, and coming to doubt, sensory experiences.

As part of the Masterclass, we as students were repeatedly invited to look and see what was taking place, but in ways that varyingly positioned us as able to do so. Let me map some of that diversity.

As mentioned, a major component of the weekend involved us watching Dani up-close. Overwhelmingly, such tricks led to expressions of bafflement (statements of ‘Wow’ or looks of incredulity). Trick after trick after trick, Dani explained how he accomplished his effects by evoking a split between the magician’s and the spectator’s experiences/point of view. While the showing of tricks which we could not figure out positioned us on the spectator side of this divide, we were also not just members of the public with no knowledge of magic. An indicator of his expertise was that we were repeatedly rendered into stupefied spectators despite our familiarity with card magic.

When Dani performed his famous Card in a Bottle routine for the girlfriend of one of the students who came to see what he was getting up to that weekend, we as students shifted into occupying the magician’s point of view by being able to watch the unfolding of performance given we all had prior knowledge of the particular trick.

More generally, on the face of it the explanations Dani offered for the tricks provided the basis for us being able to see from what he called ‘the magician’s point of view’. And yet, the situation was more complicated. Dani use repetition to indicate the limits of how our understanding as magicians matter. Let me give some examples. As part of his performances, he included a variety of ‘situational effects’ (such as a card repeatedly appearing in a previous empty card box) and card-related ‘running gags’ (such as students again and again being invited to take any card, but then Dani forcing a specific one on them). Judging by the reactions at least, we seemed to be taken in by these acts. Again and again. Through this experience we were implicitly being invited to consider the limits of what we could discern even when we had some prior sense of what was to come.

There were though also lots of ways in which Dani did not rely on showing. In addressing how to deal with how audiences’ unanticipated actions to tricks we had just worked through, in seeking to evoke a sense of the contingencies of live performances, in speaking about the experiences of those with no prior knowledge of magic, in evoking a sense of how we would later recall the effects we experienced as part of the Masterclass, and in other respects, there was no straightforward way the contentions made could be demonstrated to us. Instead, in various ways, we were asked to imagine, simulate, or otherwise speculate. In doing so we were asked to take on various roles: that of naïve, discerning or belligerent spectators as well as skilled and novice magicians.

At times as well, Dani told us how what we witnessed should be understood – despite whatever we might be experiencing. He compared the aesthetical merits of different ways of lifting cards, he contrasted the affective potential of similar effects, he suggested what cannot be visually perceived in a particular situation, etc. Dani told us what we needed to really see rather than leaving it to us to derive our own conclusions or rather than explicitly seeking validations from us as students.

The previous paragraphs then speak to the some of the ways perceptions were positioned in the Masterclass. The extent to which ‘seeing is believing’ within face-to-face teaching is open to different kinds of positioning. As I have come to understand it, part of the skill of learning magic is to be able to move between varied orientations to sensorial experiences.


Learning card effects from Dani Daortiz entailed much more than working through the physical mechanisms of tricks. His magic is inextricably linked with his presentational style. When I first saw him at the 2019 Session conference near Heathrow Airport, I was struck by his affective, casual, and highly conversational manner. Within the Masterclass, in part, he related this appearance to cultivating a sense of ‘naturalness’. I don’t think in the weekend we got a precise dictionary style definition of what ‘natural’ means within the context of card magic. The term though pointed toward something along the lines that the actions of the magician should be expected, justified and regarded as ordinary from the spectators’ point of view.

How then do you teach people to appear natural?

Within the Masterclass, this was partly accomplished by Dani outlining his preparation strategy. As he explained, naturalness was not achieved by an attitude of indifference to planning, but rather the contrary. As detailed, his performances were studiously prepared and his interactions with audiences highly rehearsed. Naturalness was achieved by stepping back from one’s actions as a magician to ask how they would appear to spectators, in order to find ways of acting that would not jar with spectators’ expectations or reasoning. Through a rehearsed understanding of how to present oneself and how to respond to audiences, magicians’ actions could appear uncontrived. Then, under the cover of this achieved casualness, a great deal of the mechanical work of doing tricks could be hidden. ‘Achieved/prepared/rehearsed casualness’ did not necessarily equate with slickness though. Through feigning a lack of understanding of English and a lack of comprehension of what we said to him, Dani also accomplished a good deal of his dissimulation.

In outlining the effort he takes to look effortless, Dani Daortiz’s talked echoed a similar approach I heard a couple of weeks before from the magician Mac King at the Science of Magic conference in Chicago regarding how to look spontaneous even if you perform the same show nine times a week in Las Vegas.

As part of the explanations for his effects, Dani explained, step by step, how to manipulate cards, how to position one’s body and surrounding objects, as well as how to direct attention through glances and gestures in ways that would appear natural. Within this highly embodied form of instruction, time was a critical dimension. Actions he took at a certain point in time could be used to make what he had done previously look natural. Or what he was doing at that point. Or what he was about to do. For instance, we were taught how to position our feet and body when we turned toward a spectator so that they would expect, through our body positioning, that we would turn in a specific manner required to cover a card manipulation.

As we were instructed, naturalness was often achieved by doing and saying less. Rather than telling spectators ‘Put your card back here (in the deck)’ we were told instead to simply say ‘Put’ with the placement of cards providing spectators with a sense of what was being asked of them. Through shortening the directive in this manner, Dani argued, spectators wouldn’t think or (more importantly) feel to question why their card was being put back in that specific place.

And yet, despite Dani pointing out certain discrete steps, in many respects achieving naturalness could not be reduced to a simple set of rules and prescriptions. A maxim we learnt related to this minimalistic approach was not to draw verbal attention to what you are trying to hide. And yet, too, at times Dani used verbal phrasing effectively to render unimportant features of the scene that were vital for achieving dissimulation.

Structured Chaos

‘Chaos’ is another aspect of Dani’s presentational style. This adjective relates to the manner the cards are handled. Spectators are frequently asked to shuffle and change their minds, and cards get mixed up and thrown about this way and that. The impression sought is that cards are not in his control.

Practice card table
Our practice table

For Dani, displayed chaos is located in the means, not the ends. This is to say that while the process of handling cards should appear as disordered, the end effect should be clear for spectators to grasp. Toward this end, we were instructed to construct moments of significance in our performances (so-called memory pillars) that could provide a straightforward basis for spectators to fashion a sense of what had taken place and thereby the significance of a trick’s culmination.

Learning how to structure chaos requires the magician to engage consciously with how performances were working at the rational, emotional and sensational levels. He aims to induce a feeling of ‘Wow’, a sensation that audiences have witnessed something extra-ordinary but not necessarily something that can be easily recounted later.

In line with this goal, within the Masterclass, Dani’s performances worked on us at this sensational level. In the car journey from our bar venue of the first 2+ hour session, for instance, I couldn’t actually remember more than a few of the dozens of tricks we had just seen. However, I was left with a definite impression of a skilled performer and an engrossing performance. Also, in line with his stated aim, on a number of occasions in the Masterclass students made comments to the effect that they had read or heard about some of Dani’s tricks before, but only felt their power once they had seen them performed face to face.

The manner in which Dani’s chaotic style affected us though also made learning through the Masterclass complicated. For instance, we were encouraged to work with what spectators feel rather than what they verbally profess; but how to access the former beyond watching individuals’ outward expressions (which presumably aren’t all that reliable) seemed precarious. Also, Dani typically offered walkthroughs of the physical mechanisms for tricks sometime after they had been performed. In these later re-runs, however, in the absence of a clear memory about their presentation, I had repeated trouble in making sense of what had been interesting about seeing the tricks the first time around.

As another aspect of my own engagements at the Masterclass, by day three I had often trouble staying with the tricks; the manner one was given after another was just too much for me to take in. During these periods of mental fatigue, I sometimes adopted an orientation to the tricks that wasn’t disengagement, but neither was it close attention. Instead, my attention was something like how one might attend carefree to waves at a beach, just letting them come and go. The peaks and troughs of the ‘waves’ in this case were actions of emphasis and relaxation Dani taught us as part of inducing the sensation of chaos. The passage from verbal and gestural emphasis to relaxation was the point at which he suggested doing a lot of the jiggery-pokery of card control. It certainly seemed to me at the time (but perceptions are fallible!) that attending to the ‘rhythm’ of his tricks in this semi-detached manner enabled me to spot the physical card manipulations taking place. Within the chaos, then, something of the underlying structure appeared. (I should add that perceiving the manipulations didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the tricks; it provided the basis for a different kind of appreciation.)

In terms of how the Masterclass will inform my own practice, there are certainly situational effects, lines, and tricks I will incorporate in my routines. And, too, through the Masterclass I was inspired to make my performances more chaotic by incorporating Dani’s planning and performing suggestions. I have already come up with the outline of a new routine that mixes a presentational chaotic style with my interest in using magic as a basis for getting people to reflect on social interactions. A topic for me to work through now is how far incorporating discrete elements of what we as students experienced can go in creating something of the magic that is the style of Dani Daortiz.