Ancient Greece Hoop Dance Spins Our History Deeper!
by Mandi Smith
When I hoop I often lose my sense of self as I get lost in the perfect moment – a moment that seems to transcend space and time. I often imagine that I am a part of something larger, a universal dance that incorporates all hoopers and stretches across history, from ancient times through today. Except, I’m not just imagining it. An Ancient Greek passage we recently rediscovered helps to support the notion that when I hoop dance, I am not just participating in one of the latest trends. I am continuing a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.
History is littered with hoops. A hoop was painted on the Tomb of Kheti in Ancient Egypt four thousand years ago. Hoops have been found in the Mediterranean, Central Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. However, in almost every scenario, historians cite hoops were used for games, rather than hoop dancing. One of the most common games was that of hoop bowling, or hoop rolling, and no one took hoop bowling more seriously than the Ancient Greeks. Hoop bowling was a celebrated skill, and possibly even a spectator sport. Hoop bowling in Ancient Greece consisted of men pushing a large hoop (anywhere from waist to mid-chest high) with a shaft or stick. It took great strength and skill to keep the large hoop rolling in a straight line down the ancient streets, or to turn it, or to successfully run and jump through it as it continued rolling. Evidence of hoop bowling can be found on Ancient Greek pottery, in Ancient Greek plays, and even in ancient medical prescriptions written by Hippocrates, the father of western medicine.
Despite the fact that hoops and hoop bowling were so prevalent in Ancient Greece, however, the hooping community hadn’t been aware of any references to hoop dancing from that time period – until now! Over two thousand years ago, sometime in the late 360s BC, the Ancient Greek historian Xenophon, a student of Socrates, wrote the following passage:
“Then Socrates: The question would seem at any rate to be debatable. Suppose we defer it till another time, and for the present not interrupt the programme of proceedings. I see, the dancing-girl is standing ready; they are handing her some hoops. And at the instant her fellow with the flute commenced a tune to keep her company, whilst someone posted at her side kept handing her the hoops till she had twelve in all. With these in her hands she fell to dancing, and the while she danced she flung the hoops into the air—overhead she sent them twirling—judging the height they must be thrown to catch them, as they fell, in perfect time” (Symposium II, 7 by Xenophon).
While the inclusion of a hoop dance in one of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogs implies that hoop dancing was not the common use of hoops, it does illustrate that hoop dancing existed in Ancient Greece. That millennia ago, people would also get lost in the music, the moment and within the perfect circle in the same way I do today. I like knowing that I am carrying on a tradition that spans thousands of years and helps connect me to that ancient era.
The Greek band Daemonia Nymphe is very much inspired by Ancient Greece as well. The ethereal world music artists are using authentic reproductions of Hellenic instruments like the lyre, varvitos, and the kithara, and some of their lyrics are inspired by Homeric hymns. Their performances often include lavish masks and ancient dresses which help transport the listener to another time and place in the same way their unearthly music does. And when the time came to create a performance to accompany their tenth and latest album, Psychostastia, the band and the performance director, Anastasia Revi, intuitively knew that the hoop would be the perfect fit.
“It is the circle of birth and death,” Anastasia explained, adding, “Life is not vertical, but circular. Therefore the hula hoop is the symbol of life and its non stop repetitive and really extravagant movement is the innocence of being in that circle.” The hoop was chosen despite the fact that, at the time, the group wasn’t aware of hoop dancing’s connection with Ancient Greece. Listening to their song “Selene’s Awakening Horos” and watching a member hoop dance, it’s as if we are being given a window to an ancient world, and our ancient history.
Daemonia Nymphe’s music and performances connect us to Ancient Greece in the same way hooping does. Both take us beyond ourselves and beyond our own time. Both help to remind us that no matter what time period we are from, be it Ancient Greece or today, we are all part of the same circle.
Contributor Mandi Smith uses hooping to escape from her crazy academic life. By day she is an academic librarian, but in the evening twilight hours between her day and night and on weekends, she is a hooper who is thoroughly loving her hooping journey. She lives in southwest Oklahoma with her husband, three cats, over a dozen hoops, and several hundred stray books.