The hula-hoop has crept back into the American consciousness. Over the last decade, the hoop has found itself rediscovered as a dancing partner, performance art, meditation tool, and unintentional exercise device.
“The hoop is going to be widespread. I see it going into pop culture; I see 17-year-old TRL fans wanting to do this. I see Britney Spears calling me to ask for lessons,” prophesizes Anah Reichenbach, a 27-year-old Los Angeles native and hooping instructor, performer, and manufacturer. Reichenbach has a blond Mohawk, a tattoo that curls over her left shoulder, and has been spreading her form of hoop gospel since she first picked up a hula-hoop at a world music festival five years ago. She started making and selling her own shortly there-after, crafting adult-sized hoops that are heavier and larger in diameter than the plastic Wham-O versions still available at Toys “R” Us nationwide.
The most notable difference between this most recent wave of hoop popularity and its former incarnations is that contemporary hooping is most often partnered with music. Hoops have been popular within the nation’s jam-band community since the mid-90s, when Colorado band The String Cheese Incident started tossing hoops into the crowd at concerts. “Cheese heads” are known for swiveling their way through sets of music, and Anah guesses that it was one of The String Cheese Incident’s hoops that she first picked up in 1997.
Hooping first registered on my cultural radar in December of 2000, when a friend told stories of a woman with a hoop dancing at a Moontribe desert rave. That dancer was Anah, who seems to have acted as the land bridge that hooping traversed across the divide between the hippy and raver continents. From that Moontribe gathering in 2000, the hoop meme spread through the West Coast’s underground rave community, with hoops making appearances at clubs in San Francisco, fire performances in Portland, raves in Seattle, and forest parties in Vancouver, BC. Dancing with a hoop adds an extra dimension of rhythmic sensuality to any dance, whether the accompaniment is spaced-out jam-band noodlings or the throb of 135 b.p.m. electronic music.
Part of the fun of owning a hoop is loaning it to others. A typical introduction finds the potential hooper demurring, “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m too old. I’ve never been able to keep a hula hoop going.” The weight and size of the newer hoops make them significantly easier to keep rotating around even super-sized waists, and most people pick up the motion within moments. Then comes the laughter.
“It’s a common response,” Anah concurs, when I recount hearing everyone from my 60-year old father, to middle-aged women, to guy friends in their twenties howl with glee when they first get the knack of hooping. “Something about the hoop is so compelling. People really respond on a very deep level.”
The swiveling hip movement of hula hooping is inherently sensual, yet it doesn’t seem overtly sexual, despite the use of muscles normally reserved for late night encounters. Exercising the pelvis in a way that feels playful, calming, and deeply meditative, playing with a hula-hoop is akin to karmic masturbation. Anah admits that hoops have helped her through some sexual “dry spells,” explaining that hooping “gives you an outlet to express your sexuality and your sensuality in a really healthy, non-degrading, non-nasty way.”
Grown-ups playing with hula-hoops may be too busy giggling and dancing to notice, but they’re also getting a low-impact workout. Hooping tones several muscle groups, including the obliques, hip flexors, and gluteals; massages intestines; and is mildly cardio-vascular. This kind of “accidental workout” is especially novel in the larger context of LA’s “feel the burn” exercise culture. Rather than grunting over the treadmill, doing penance for last night’s indulgence, hoopers at Anah’s recent workshop in Hollywood laughed and danced around smiling. Sweatshirts came off, muscles were toned, and no one watched the clock.
“There’s no self-hate involved. It’s just loving yourself, whoever you are, allowing yourself to feel good,” Anah muses, and then remembers selling a customized hoop to a woman who she guessed was well over 300 pounds. “I spent probably 10 minutes teaching her how to use it, and her whole being just lit up. Hooping touches these deep places that we tend to ignore after a while … she walked away like she had just bought a new car.”
As the new wave of hula-hoops creeps steadily into under- and above-ground culture, one can’t help but worry that it’ll go the way of another recent break-out performance art: fire dancing. When I query Anah about how hooping can avoid the stagnation that fire performances have succumbed to over the last year, she ventures, “the reason why fire performing has become so stagnant is that in the beginning, it seemed so dangerous. But the more you see it, the more you know it’s not really dangerous. It’s just eye-candy. It’s a cheap thrill.” Hoop performances run the risk of being equally cheap a thrill, but perhaps the hoop’s saving grace will be that it’s a familiar toy that anyone can pick up and try. In its accessibility lies its capacity for joy … and who doesn’t need more of that?