When some people are asked about the history of hooping, they’ll mention the hula hoop fad that swept the world in the 1950s. But the truth is so much greater than that. The history of the hoop extends back thousands of years before Wham-O and others decided to mass market plastic circles decades ago.
History of the Hula Hoop
The hoop has been around practically since the dawn of history. The tomb of Kheti, built approximately four thousand years ago, displays two men holding sticks with hooked ends battling to control a hoop displayed between them. The hoop game helped Ancient Egyptian men to establish agility and dexterity (Decker, 1987, p.119-120). Children also played with larger hoops created out of dried grapevines. These hoops were rolled on the ground and guided by the children with sticks (Wulffson, 1997, p.47).
Hoop rolling, or hoop bowling, was also a popular pastime of ancient Greek and Roman men. The hoop of that era was large, approximately waist to mid-chest in height. Men pushed and steered the hoop with a stick or a shaft, often made of iron. Hoop bowling was taken very seriously by the ancients and it’s believed that Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, prescribed rolling hoops as part of a physical fitness regimen (Harris, 1972, p. 135). The Roman playwright Horace even stated, “A man who does not understand games and is unskilled with ball or hoop keeps quiet, for fear that the crowds of spectators standing round will burst out laughing–Ars Poetica, 379” (Harris, 1972, p. 135).
Throughout the centuries, hoop rolling continued to be a popular pastime. In medieval Europe, barrel hoops were played with by both adults and children. In addition to hoop rolling, children would often rotate and jump through the hoops in a manner similar to jumping rope today (Wilkins, 2002, p. 124-125). Children continued to roll barrel hoops and hoops made of iron wheels into the Victorian Era (Craig, 2002, p. 105). There were also iron and wooden hoops created specifically for hoop rolling by toymakers. Hoops were often gender specific and boys pushed black iron hoops while girls pushed unpainted wooden ones.
These hoops ranged anywhere from 12 inches to 48 inches in diameter. Children would run through the hoops while they rolled down the the street. There were even musical hoops made where the center had colorful metal strips that made musical notes when rolled. The Victorians believed that the hoop represented the Wheel of Fortune and stated that “Its roundness instructs us that here is no end to man’s care and toil” (White, 1971, p. 127). Rolling hoops actually didn’t fall from popularity until the early twentieth century when motor traffic started taking over the streets where children used to play (Harris, 1972, p. 133).
Non-western cultures also incorporated the hoop into their lives. The Bambuti children of Central Africa used sticks to roll hoops made out of vines (Wilkins, 2002, p. 29-30). Young boys from New Guinea played a version of “Killing the Hoop”, where the hoop was thrown in the air as sticks were thrown through its center (White, 1971. p. 127). Versions of Hoop and Pole were played by many North American indigenous cultures including the Choctaw, Eskimos, Mandan, Creek, Sioux, and the Apache. The game involved rolling the hoop and (primarily) men would throw a pole or spear at the spot the hoop was expected to stop. A perfect throw would have the pole laying directly underneath the stopped hoop. This game often had religious or ceremonial significance (Craig, 2002, p. 180-182). The hoops were made from reeds, supple twigs, or branches bent into a circle. The hoops were then bound with grasses, bark, or hide. Some hoops were even weighted with sand (Wilkins, 2002, p. 265-266). The Osage played a Hoop and Ball game that included rolling a hoop approximately 24 inches in diameter as players tried to successfully throw balls through the rolling hoop (Wilkins, 2002, p. 247-248).
History of Hooping
It’s not hard to imagine that in thousands of years of history, somebody, somewhere, opted to twirl the hoop on their waist or in the air rather than roll it on the ground. Especially since many hoops seemed to be perfectly designed for such an exercise. Remember how Ancient Greek hoops were waist to mid-chest high (Craig, 2002, 105-106)? Most hoopers know that’s the perfect height to start hooping. And we don’t have to imagine that some enterprising person picked the hoop up off of the ground and gave it a spin. We know they did.
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 some one 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.
We also know that in Ancient Egypt, in addition to hoops being rolled on the ground, they were “swung around at the waist” (Wulffson, 1997, p.47). In the fourteenth century Edwardian era, wooden and metal hoops were also twirled around adults’ and children’s waists. Waist hooping was so common, doctors attributed dislocated backs and heart attacks to excessive core hooping with these very heavy hoops (Panati, 1987, p. 370-371). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, missionaries and British sailors began associating the term hula with hoops after visiting the islands of Hawaii and seeing the native hula dances. This occurred because the hula movements so closely resemble the movements needed to keep a hoop aloft and twirling around the waist (Walsh, 2005, p. 142-143). The only way for missionaries and sailors to know that is that they were already familiar with waist hooping.
There are also many legends that discuss the origin of Native American hoop dancing and it is believed to be a centuries old tradition practiced by many tribes. We do know that Lakota paintings from the 1700s showcase people dancing with hoops in what was called the rainbow dance. Tony White Cloud, a Pueblo, made the dance popular during the 1930s when he danced publicly at several events. He continued to perform the hoop dance in the movies Valley of the Sun and Apache Country. He also toured with Gene Autry throughout the United States and Europe (Johnston, Hixon, & Anton, 2009, p. 22).
Other people were also incorporating hoops into their dance routines during the early twentieth century. Margaret H’Doubler used hoops at the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s to help her students explore movement (Ross, 2000, p. ii, 212). Doris Humphrey and Ruth St. Denis used hoops and other props during their dance routines in the 1920s on the Vaudeville stage (Kasing, 2007, p. 171). During the 1936 Olympic Games, Hinrich Medau added hoops to the world of rhythmic gymnastics. Hoops were initially decorative, but were soon incorporated as integral aspects of rhythmic gymnastic routines. By 1963, hoops were so integrated within the sport that they were included in the first world championship and every world championship since (Schmid, 1976, p. 158-159).
In the mid 1950s, a school teacher taught her students how to waist hoop with bamboo hoops in Australia. Coles department store soon began selling bamboo hoops, but couldn’t keep up with the demand. Alex Tolmer, the founder of Toltoys, was asked to devise a way to mass produce them. Toltoys did using a new material, polyethylene plastic, and sold 400,000 hoops in 1957. Toltoys took their design to WHAM-O in the United States who bought the design and gave away free hoops to kids in Southern California. After the appearance of the so named “Hula Hoop” on the Dinah Shore Show, the trend took off. Nearly 100 million hoops were sold in 1958. However the fad ended within the first year. WHAM-O started selling hoops again in 1965 (Walsh, 2005, p. 142-144) and with the 1960’s reemergence, WHAM-O began holding national and world championships until 1981. Winners of these championships, like Mat Pendl, would often portray their talents on popular television shows.
The Modern Hooping Movement
But the history of hooping doesn’t end in the 1980’s. The second revolution of hooping began creeping back into the American collective cultural consciousness in the mid 1990’s when a jam band known as The String Cheese Incident started tossing large adult-sized handmade hoops out into the audience during their concerts. Their fans gave birth to modern hoop dance. Anah “Hoopalicious” Reichenbach, well regarded as the mother of the modern hoop dance movement, began spinning things up in Los Angeles, while others of note were doing the same in New York City and in Carrboro, North Carolina. The larger adult-sized hoops began making appearances at underground dance community events in San Francisco, fire performances in Portland, raves in Seattle, and forest parties in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The modern hoop dance movement chose not to use word “hula” in relation to hooping not only because it was trademarked, but because they wanted language that conveyed that this was not your grandmother’s hula hoop – this was something new and different. When hooping.org launched in May of 2003, scattered hoopers who were previously unaware that there were others found each other in our community forums, and the hooping community was born. Hooping.org co-founders Philo Hagen and Vera Fleischer also started Bay Area Hoopers at that time, a weekly San Francisco hooping group with music that still continues today and has been replicated all over the world.
Over the years, a certain degree of cross blending did begin to occur. Many traditional circus hula hoopers were inspired by modern hoop dance and began weaving elements of it into their routines. Meanwhile, some hoop dancers began finding inspiration in the traditional circus arts as well. In the latter part of that decade, hoopers like Rich Porter began putting a new spin on hooping using smaller and lighter hoops and incorporating poi spinning techniques. Though the modern hoop dance movement had previously had little connection to indigenous hoop dance in North America, thanks to the introduction of smaller hoop sizes a degree of blending began to occur as well. Today hoops and hoopers come in all sizes and the hooping community itself is very diverse. Circling the globe, you can find hoopers of all ages spinning hoops of many sizes for fun, fitness, self expression, performance and meditation.
Craig, S. (2002). Sports and games of the ancients. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Decker, W. (1987). Sports and games of ancient Egypt. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Johnston, R., Hixon, K. & Anton, K. (2009). “The never-ending circle of life: Native American hoop dancing from its origin to the present day.” Journal of Physical Education and Dance, 80(6), 21-30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07303084.2009.10598336
Kasing G. (2007). History of Dance: An interactive arts approach. Champaign, Illinois: human Kinetics.
Panati, C. (1987). Extraordinary origins of everyday things. New York: Harper and Row.
Ross, J. (2000). Moving lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and the beginning of dance in American education. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
Walsh, T. (2005). Timeless toys: Classic toys and the playmakers who created them. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.
White, G. Antique toys and their background. New York, New York: Arco Publishing Company.
Wilkins, S. (2002). Sports and games of medieval cultures. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood
Wulffson, D. L. (1997). The kid who invented the popsicle and other surprising stories about inventions. New York, New York: Puffin Books.