By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008
The ponytailed photographer pulled up to the Tidal Basin. He wheeled a sound system out to a shady spot, whipped out three giant blue-and-purple rings, turned up the techno dance music and started jamming. Jamming and gyrating. Gyrating and jamming. Two gyrating friends joined him -- hips moving, wrists moving, legs moving.
A summer evening "hoop jam." Two days later, they'd meet again to gyrate at Rock Creek Park.
Fifty years after the Hula Hoop became a summertime sensation, the hippest toy for tots is enjoying a renaissance among adults. Fueled by YouTube and social networking sites, an underground community of adult hoop dancers -- or hoopers -- has blossomed.
On Aug. 8 -- 8/8/08 -- cities around the globe, including Washington, will celebrate World Hoop Day, on which hoopers spread their love of hooping by giving away Hula Hoops.
These are not the Hula Hoops you bought ages ago and stashed against the garage wall, next to the rickety red tool cart. Or the Hula Hoops collecting cobwebs in your attic alongside grandma's wooden console television.
We're talking about modern hoops: oversize, heavy and handmade by hoopers, customized with neon-bright electrical tape in crazy-colored patterns.
"There certainly are people who are literally living the hoop life," said the museum photographer, Max Reid, 39, of the District. Reid is among the latest converts. Since he first picked up a Hula Hoop as an adult two months ago, he has attended hooping classes every Monday night at a studio in Mount Rainier.
The students learn how to dance and do figure eights with a hoop. They learn how to spin a hoop on their arms, thighs and neck, to move a hoop between their right and left hands. They learn how to gracefully pick up a hoop when it falls, as if no mistake was made. In short, they become performers.
At the end, instructor Noelle Powers puts on Mozart and teaches them to stretch with their hoops.
Powers tells her students that hooping is a meditative exercise, a workout for the body and mind. The hoop creates a sacred circle around them, she said, and can be a metaphor for life.
"You're in the middle of this circle, and you're the center, and whatever you decide to do and how you decide to act inside of that will either keep things up, or perhaps the hoop will fall," Powers said. "Then it's up to you to just pick it back up and start moving again."
"It might sound silly," added Martine "Hoopzilla" Koissy, 31, of North Bethesda, "but I feel like the hoop is spinning away the negativity that I have inside."
* * *
The Hula Hoop wasn't supposed to be spiritual or meditative. It was supposed to sell. And it did.
When California toymaker Wham-O introduced the Hula Hoop in 1958, it sold 100 million in the first year, at $1.98 a piece. It became an instant icon, the granddaddy of all fads.
"It's got to be right up there with Monopoly and Barbie as one of the most ubiquitous toys there is," said toy historian Tim Walsh, who has written a book about Wham-O that will be published in October.
It was not surprising that the Hula Hoop would become popular in the United States. Earlier in the 20th century, children in Australia had loved playing with a similar hoop toy. Before that, the hoop existed for centuries in bamboo, wood and cane, Walsh said. As legend has it, ancient Greeks used the hoop as a form of exercise, and ancient Egyptians played with rings made out of grapevines. Native Americans were said to have used circular toys.
But almost as quickly as the Hula Hoop became an American sensation, demand fizzled, and a new idiom entered the vernacular: It went the way of the Hula Hoop.
Wham-O eventually brought it back, including a version with a ball inside the plastic cylinder that makes a shoop-shoop sound. (That one sells for $4.99.) Kids competed to set records for continuous revolution. (Eight-year-old Mary Jane Freeze of the United States reportedly hooped for 10 hours and 47 minutes straight in the summer of 1976.)
Then adults caught on to the craze and started making their own hoops. This introduced a catch. There's always a catch. Wham-O trademarked "Hula Hoop," naming it after the Hawaiian hula dance. Therefore, the patent lawyer inside each of us cautions that the hoops that Reid, Powers and Koissy use cannot be called Hula Hoops. (We'll ignore our inner lawyer.)
But some modern hoopers change the spelling to Hoola Hoop. Or drop Hula altogether.
"Some people, like myself, feel like it's culturally appropriating and not respectful to the Hawaiian dance form," Powers said.
But hooper Annie O'Keeffe said, "I do love the word hula."
* * *
This new wave of hooping was born out West. During the 1990s, the Colorado-based jam rock band the String Cheese Incident would fling Hula Hoops into the crowd at concerts. Soon people started dancing with hoops at countercultural parties and burlesque shows.
Powers, 31, was living in Seattle a few years ago when a friend got her hooked.
"I got a hoop right away, and I started making them, bringing them to parties and performing impromptu, improv kind of things, and it took off from there," Powers said. "I just totally fell in love with it."
For just a few dollars, Powers makes her own hoops, of various weights and sizes. She makes them out of irrigation tubing from a hardware store and a connector piece, then decorates them.
When the Rockville native moved back to Maryland in 2006, Powers couldn't find a hooping network. So she made one.
"I definitely thought that the mid-Atlantic could use a lot of loosening up, and hooping hadn't hit here yet," Powers said.
A certified instructor, she also performs at birthday parties and carnivals. Powers teaches herself new tricks, such as spinning the hoop backward, by watching hoopers on YouTube.
"The online community has really tied a lot of hoopers together," she said.
On the Internet, hoopers have virtual hooping identities. There's Hoopadelic, Catwoman and Bunny. And Hoopin' Annie, Hoopnotiq and Hoola Monster. Those who perform professionally have stage names, like Talia Melcer of Silver Spring, who goes by Miss Joule.
Melcer, 30, hoop dances at venues including Palace of Wonders, the sideshow and bar on H Street NE. She has been hooping for five years, and it still brings a smile to her face.
"You can hoop and just kind of forget about what's going on and focus on the current moment," Melcer said.
Some, like O'Keeffe, dance with flaming hoops. (Warning! Do not try this at home.)
"I have so many tricks under my belt. I hoop with fire. I hoop with lights," said O'Keeffe, 35, a nursing student in San Francisco who founded World Hoop Day three years ago.
It's not just 20- and 30-somethings drawn to hooping. Rhonda Lindenbaum is a 62-year-old hooping nurse in Martinsburg, W.Va.
For years, Lindenbaum struggled with her weight, and when she lost 65 pounds three years ago, she had a hard time keeping it off. She's not very coordinated -- "actually, clumsy," she said -- but when she heard that hooping was good exercise, she tried it. Within a month, she built up her muscles and lost two inches from her waist. And hooping has done wonders for her balance.
"Sometimes I hoop to very fast music, reggae music, soul, sometimes even Andrea Bocelli or Indian chants," Lindenbaum said. "If I don't get to hoop one day, I feel like I'm missing something.
"I sound like a fanatic, but I'm really not."