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What's All the 'Hula Hoopla' about?

It's spreading like wildfire. You could be next.

By Lisa Johnson 24 Aug 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Lisa Johnson is journalist in Vancouver who specializes in science and the environment. She has reported for CBC Radio in Vancouver, Toronto, and Nelson, B.C.

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Boomers might notice something familiar spinning ‘round the waists of dancers this festival season. They’re not kind of lightweight hoop my mom remembers buying in yellow plastic at a South Granville toy store in the late 1950s. That time around, hula hoopla was a mass-produced must-have for kids across North America. This time, hooping is a do-it-yourself affair.

The hoops themselves are cheap and easy to make by hand, with a few metres of irrigation tubing and some electrical tape for decoration. The hoopers are mostly young hipsters, and their moves are fluid and sensual, like a self-contained dance. Many bring a few extra hoops (and friendly advice) to share with newcomers they meet at festivals. And they’re winning converts up and down the West Coast.

Hoop hooked

Christa Giles got turned on to hooping three months ago. Since then, the 33-year old Vancouver native has spent about two hours hooping every day.

“I just fell in love,” says Giles. She hoops during her lunch break as head instructor at UBC pool. She hoops on the skating rink at Robson Square, grooving to music brought by people break-dancing there. She hoops at festivals, like Illuminares and the Vancouver folk music and jazz music festivals. She even started an online chat-group to connect with other or Vancouver-based hoopers.

“Most people who walk by stop, and stare,” says Giles. “I tell them, ‘No, no, you have to try it.’” She claims to have enticed Howe Street business types and seniors at the swimming pool into giving it a whirl. “The reaction is about 50/50,” she explains. “Half say, ‘Oh no, I could never do that,’ or, ‘I tried that as a kid and I wasn’t any good at it.’” But others, she says, are just waiting for the invite to pick up a hoop. “For me that’s half the joy, getting other people to try it.”

Jiggle, jiggle, drop

At first, I felt at home with the skeptical camp, and stayed on the sidelines when I saw hoop dancers like Giles at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The memories of my last turn with a factory-made hoop were uninspiring: a hopeful spin around the waist, gyrating once or twice, and letting it go as it fell below my knees.

But the hoopers make it look so easy. I saw them again at the Shambhala music festival, near Salmo a few weeks ago. With slow, sexy moves, they moved the super-sized hoops all over themselves: from swiveling hips, up an arm, on the neck, around an elbow, behind the back, and so on. When a hoop came free, I had to take it for a spin.

The first few turns felt a lot like my so-so childhood memory: jiggle, jiggle, drop. Pick up the hoop. Repeat. This time my jerky movements were doubly awkward in comparison to the sea of nymph-like dancers around me. I had to turn to one for help. “Any tips on how to make it stay up?” I asked a bikini-clad girl nearby. “Just keep it parallel to the ground,” she said, “and make sure one part of your body is touching the hoop at all times.”

Giles has a few more tips. She tries to recommends a steady stance, with one foot slightly in front. When moving your hips, she says, keep them nice and loose and take your cues from the hoop: “The biggest mistake people make is they start gyrating with no relation to the rhythm of the hoop.”

There are a lot of scantily-clad hoopers, like the ones pictured above, but that’s not a necessity, for the sport. Wear what you’d like to dance in. And a word to the wise: naked hooping is a definite “don’t” in most public places.

Whoever you are, says Giles, don’t quit too quickly. “I tell people they have to try at least six times before they give up.”

Spreading the hoopla

It’s not exactly clear how this forty-year old fad found new life. It’s been traced back to the rave scene, the Burning Man festival, and the hoop-throwing antics of a jam band called The String Cheese Incident.

However it began, the hoopla is definitely spreading online.

Giles got hooked when she stumbled upon hooping.org, a site with the self-proclaimed purpose of “serving the underground hula hooping community.” She found this 30-second video clip > of a Seattle woman named Ariel Meadow Stallings “bopping and grooving” with a hoop in her living room. An affiliated chat-group on tribe.net gives members a place to share their near cultish enthusiasm and plan their next “hoop down.”

I turned to the Internet myself after trying to hoop at Shambhala, It’s surprisingly hard to buy a ready-made hoop that’s the right size for dancing. But it’s easy to make one -- and a San Francisco-based hooper has posted a step-by-step guide. I clearly wasn’t the first hopeful hooper to visit the farmer’s supply store in Nelson. When I asked the woman behind the counter for a round of 1-inch tubing, she called out to the clerk, “Can you point her to the stuff they use for hula hoops?”

Stepping into the ring

Most hoopers say they do it for fun, or the challenge of trying new tricks. Others are looking for exercise, and some even claim it provides a healing massage to internal organs.

But I see something subtly political in the rotating hoops.

The dancers came to the festival as part of the audience, but they’ve made themselves part of the show. It’s not a worry-free switch: I certainly felt self-conscious breaking ranks with the circle of gawkers to pick up one of the spare hoops. But it is a significant one.

So much of our entertainment is fed to us from far away: untouchable celebrities and faces on the television. I don’t know the names of my next-door neighbours, but I do know what Nick said to Jessica when the Newlywed came home with $3000 bed sheets. They do, and we watch.

Making the change from observer to actor is part of a larger movement spreading through lefty circles. It reminds me of the bicycle enthusiasts, who embrace the machines they can power with their own legs, and repair with their own hands. And the waves of knitting circles, who make toques and wrist-warmers, sans sweatshop labour. I see these acts rejections of the idea that amusement has to come from somewhere else.

My homemade hoop cost $6.84, including tax. The farmer’s supply store was short on colours for electrical tape, it has simple spirals of red and white. With festival season coming to a close, there won’t be many chances to hone my hooping skills in front of an audience.

I’ll just try it at home instead. Maybe I’ll meet my neighbours.

Lisa Johnson is a Vancouver writer.  [Tyee]

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