The Hoop Dancer Uncovers Hula Hoop History

The Hoopdancer
The Hoop Dancer, La Joueuse de cerceau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1891
[Hooping.org is pleased to announce the arrival of our new regular columnist, Rayna McInturf, who digs deep this week into our past and our history.]

by Rayna McInturf

Ten years ago, I spent my days sitting at a desk, helping faculty, staff and students with their computer problems at a law university. That IT job was a good job, and I really liked my boss and co-workers. However, I was dying to make a change. I yearned to find some way to unleash my creativity. I pleaded with the Universe to help me. Then, I met Anah “Hoopalicious” Reichenbach, and my life was forever changed. I became totally obsessed with hooping and before I knew it, hooping had completely taken over my life. Here I am ten years later and I think it’s safe to say I’m still obsessed!

Being obsessed with hooping, I’ve wanted to know EVERYTHING about it. Where did it come from? How has it evolved? Did ancient people hoopdance? The voice in my head cried, “They must have!” So you can imagine how I felt when, strolling through the Getty Center in Los Angeles, CA, I came upon Jean-Léon Gérôme’s sculpture pictured above called, of all things, “The Hoop Dancer”! Also on display was a painting by Gérôme in which he featured The Hoop Dancer figurine. Needless to say I was highly intrigued, and I set out to get to the bottom of this mystery.

 the art of Jean-Leon Gerome

Jean-Léon Gérôme was a French painter and sculptor working in the mid 1800’s until his death in the early 1900’s. According to the Indiana University Art Museum:

Gérôme had his first success as a painter at the Salon of 1847. Six years earlier, he had left his native city of Vesoul to study in Paris, first with Paul Delaroche, then with Charles Gleyre. From then on, he was a success, receiving government commissions and honors, such as the Legion of Honor. He became a member of the Institut de France, a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, a visitor at the court of the Empress, the husband of a very rich woman, a popular teacher, and a very famous painter.

In 1878, at the age of fifty-four, he began his career as a sculptor when he won a Medal of Honor at the Exposition Universelle for his large bronze group, The Gladiators. Talk about an over-achiever!

Terracotta figurine of a Greek goddess Nike Tanagra Boeotia 200-150 BCE
Terracotta figurine of a Greek goddess Nike Tanagra Boeotia 200-150 BCE
Gérôme’s The Hoop Dancer and related works were inspired by terra cotta figurines discovered in the ancient Greek city of Tanagra. These Tanagra Figurines were unearthed between the 1860’s and 1870’s and are dated between the 1st and 3rd centuries B.C. According to the Musée du Louvre in Paris, “Tanagras were the object of a veritable craze in 19th-century Paris, and a source of inspiration for numerous artists.”

Tanagra, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890
Tanagra, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890
Before creating the bronze sculpture of “The Hoop Dancer”, Gérôme featured this same figurine in a larger work called “Tanagra”. In Gerald Ackerman’s book “The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme” he writes that in this large sculpture, Tanagra “sits upon a mound left by excavators, holding a figurine in her hand”. She represents the “tyche” or spirit of the ancient city of Tanagra. The figurine in her hand is what later became his separate work, The Hoop Dancer – one of his most popular sculptures.

At this point in my research, I got rather excited. The remaining unknown factor was the exact source of Gérôme’s inspiration for creating “The Hoop Dancer.” I was taken aback by the position of her body and her hoop. I noted that the size of the hoop seemed to resemble the smaller hoops that are popular with some hoopers today. I was intrigued by her description as a “young Greek girl.” I dug further.

I started to look beyond what now seems to be the traditional history of the hula hoop, which can be found in various forms across the Internet, and found some very interesting hoop history within the history of Rhythmic Gymnastics. As it turns out, rhythmic gymnastics has its roots in schools of movement that were developed in France, Sweden, the US and Finland in the early to late 1800’s. This was way before the “invention” of the hula hoop. From Wikipedia:

During the 1880s, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze of Switzerland developed “eurhythmics”, a form of physical training for musicians and dancers. George Demeny of France created exercises to music that were designed to promote grace of movement, muscular flexibility, and good posture. All of these styles were combined around 1900 into the Swedish school of rhythmic gymnastics, which would later add dance elements from Finland.

Author Judith Lanigan writes in her book “The Hula Hoop. The First Compendium or Serious Study of the Subject”, “The Eurhythmic movement became an integral part of physical education in the English and Australian Education system, which meant that hoops were available in most schools.”

Later, in 1957, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin of Wham-O, starting with the idea of Australian bamboo “exercise hoops”, would manufacture 42-inch hoops that were made with Marlex plastic. What is Marlex? It’s a trademarked name for “crystalline polypropylene” and “high-density polyethylene” (HDPE). These plastics were invented by J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, two research chemists at the Phillips Petroleum company.

Hence it appears that hooping, including circus style hooping, and therefore modern hooping and hoopdance, developed from the Eurhythmic and related movements of the 1800’s. But I digress… Back to Gérôme!

I then discovered some additional writings about Gérôme’s Tanagra inspired Hoop Dancer. Author Phillip Hardie states in his book “Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion” that, “The large scale Hoop Dancer [from the painting, Working in Marble] is a copy of a fictitious Tanagrene original.”

Regarding the Tanagra sculpture, Jane F. Fulcher writes in her book “Debussy and His World” that “the figurine she holds is not a copy of a Tanagra statuette, but a modern sculpture by Gérôme inspired by the Tanagra finds.”

All of this finally coalesced for me into this hypothesis: the Tanagra Figurines inspired Gérôme, like other artists at that time. The newly developing schools of movement and gymnastics also inspired him, and specifically the way hoops were being used in these movements. So he decided to blend the ideas together, creating a sculptured figurine much like an ancient Tanagra, but with a “modern” twist – he made her a hoop dancer. This is, of course, a hypothesis. I could not find any more detailed information about what inspired Gérôme specifically to create a hoop dancer, in a position not unlike those I’ve seen modern hoopers in. What do you think about these findings and my hypothesis?

While I may not have found evidence that people were indeed hooping around their bodies in ancient Greece, I am thrilled at all of the information I did find during my research. Having a deeper understanding of where hooping has come from, beyond the fact that Australian children were hooping in the 1950’s, is HUGE for me and I hope it is for you as well. I hope that other hoopers out there who are equally obsessed with hooping history feel, as I do, that our story has gained more depth and richness.

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Rayna McInturf Rayna McInturf began hooping in 2000 and co-moderates Hooping.org’s Hooping Instructors and California Hoopers groups and online forums. She was voted Female Hooper of the Year in 2008 by Hooping.org readers and you can visit her website at www.ihooponline.com.

7 thoughts on “The Hoop Dancer Uncovers Hula Hoop History

  1. this is as open & honest as it gets…just wonderful, interesting and very appealing to anyone who loves the hoop…thanks SO much for sharing your words & thoughts with us, Rayna….I, too, was looking for SOMETHiNG new, something to make me feel vital, feed my creativity & get me moving like a dancer, but not really dancing…then, one random day, I saw YOU! Caution to the wind, I knew I had to learn hoopDance…and learning from you simply sealed the deal! Ever since then, my life has forever changed & you make me proud to BE aRound JOY each day!! I will be forever grateful…as many, many others are… love you, girl!!

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