There are certain simple things I have never managed to do, basic childhood abilities that if I haven’t picked them up over the course of 36 years, I probably never will. I can’t whistle. I’ve never been able to blow a bubble with gum or do a handstand. Until recently, hula hooping belonged on that list: had never done it, didn’t ever expect I would.
That changed when I was assigned to attend a class with Jessie Jewels, a local artist, Zumba and belly dance instructor, and hoop dancer. She picked up hula hooping in 2013 and “hasn’t stopped whirling since,” performing publicly, teaching classes, even designing and selling handcrafted hoops.
I arrived at the Movement Exchange, a small dance studio on the Pawtucket/Providence line, for the first session of a four-week “Basics of Hooping” class. Standing barefoot in the center of the wood floor (I tend to appreciate activities that can be done in bare feet), forming a circle while trying to give each other a wide enough berth, we dove right into basic waist hooping. Jessie offered us hoops of varying sizes, with the advice that the larger and heavier the hoop, the easier it would be to keep up – which makes sense when you actually stop to consider the physics of it, but at first glance seemed counterintuitive.
Jessie instructed us not to fear the sound of the hoop clattering on the floor because we would be hearing a lot of it over the next hour, and it immediately became a familiar din. My first several attempts resulted in the hoop almost immediately dropping off my waist. In a revelation that may seem obvious to any eight-year-old but was entirely new to me, I learned that the “secret” to hula hooping is not swaying your body in a circle, but swinging rapidly back-and-forth or side-to-side. Apparently in hula hooping, you’re either a back-and-forth person or a side-to-side person – seldom do both come naturally to one person. I am definitively a back-and-forth person.
We also learned that each of us kind of has a natural orbit. There is a particular combination of the lean of one’s body weight and the direction of the spin that is the default setting for each of us; once you discover yours, it becomes the basic starting point for your hooping. After I discovered mine, I found myself able to get a handful of solid rotations around the waist each time, which was far less than all my classmates, but roughly 600% more than I expected based on previous experience.
Before I had the chance to marvel at my accomplishment, we quickly moved on to spinning the hoops around our hands and arms. To my surprise, I proved far more adept at this than waist hooping. With some simple flicks of the wrist I could not only keep the hoop spinning indefinitely, but change direction, switch hands and move around pretty freely.
What followed was a rapid progression through a series of hoop dancing basics: passing the hoop from hand to hand, rotating it above our heads, twisting our bodies through the center of it. Jessie then walked us through some simple combinations of basic maneuvers, slowly demonstrating each step, then adding more to the sequence. Before long, I was – well, I wouldn’t I would say I was hoop dancing, but I was engaging in a rudimentary approximation of it. I’m counting that as a win.
As we neared the end of our intro, Jessie led us in a hoop-based cool-down: some simple, yoga-inspired stretches and even a brief bit of meditation. The quiet moment provided a nice contrast to the pumping music and crashing hoops of the previous hour. My first foray into hooping had not been particularly graceful or adroit, but it exceeded my expectations for myself. Next up: finally nailing that handstand.