A Blast from the Past
In his book ”The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” Charles Panati wrote that hoops made from grapevines existed in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and that wood and metal hoops created a craze in 14th-century England. Egyptian children played with hoops by rolling them with sticks or whirling them around their waist. The ancient Greeks used them to exercise, but there is no evidence relating them to the Olympics. In the Louvre there is a vase dated 500-490 BC showing Ganymede rolling a hoop. Hoops were used in Great Britain in the 14th century in religious ceremonies but also as a form of recreation. Documentation of doctors treating dislocated backs and heart attacks attributed to hooping were found in the medical records of that time.
British sailors saw hula dancing in the Hawaiian Islands and thought it looked similar to the movements of hooping back home, and thus the term “hula hooping” was born. Hooping resurfaced in England in the early 1800s when children use them as the Greeks did – by rolling them with a stick or spinning them around their waists.
A land originally settled by British immigrants, Australia was the source of the 1950s hula hoop craze. Children were already twirling hoops made out of bamboo. When the production of bamboo hoops could not meet the demand, an organization called Toltoys started making hoops out of plastic and by 1957 had sold 400,000 hoops.
The plastic hoop was introduced in the United States by two California entrepreneurs, Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr, who founded Wham-O in 1948 and operated from their garage, originally producing sling-shots. Incidentally, these guys also popularized the frisbe, and created other hit toys. One story says Melin and Knerr got the idea for hoops on a trip to Australia, where they saw children using a bamboo hoop in an exercise class. Another legend says they got the idea from a visiting Australian. They started manufacturing Marlex (HDPE – high-density polyethylene – Marlex is Phillips Petroleum’s tradename for HDPE) hoops in 1958. Wham-O forked out free hoops and gave demonstrations in playgrounds all across southern California. The hula hooping frenzy was born. Wham-O had sold about 100 million hoops by 1960. As it had been in use for thousands of year beforehand, Wham-O was not able to patent the hula hoop, as simply using a new material did not meet the originality requirement. They were, however, able to trademark the name hula hoop in the United States.
”No sensation has ever swept the country like the Hula Hoop,” Richard Johnson wrote in his book ”American Fads.” The hoop, he said, ”remains the one standard against which all national crazes are measured.” But fads by definition die out quickly, and this one was no exception. The first wave of the hula hoop craze actually lasted less than a year. In the mid-60′s sales were lagging, so Wham-O added small ball bearings inside the tube to make noise (see videos below). This helped launch a second hooping craze, including a National Hula Hoop Contest that ran from 1968 to 1981. The 1980 World Hula Hoop Championship was held in more than 2,000 cities with an estimated two million participants. Judging was done on compulsory moves, including the Knee Knocker, Stork, Hula Hop, Wrap the Mummy, Alley Oop, as well as freestyle dance routines.
The Circus Arts
In the 1960s, predominantly Russian and Chinese acrobats brought hooping to the circus, with many acts incorporating multiple hoops. Cirque du Soleil now has several shows (Alegria, Quidam and Wintuk) featuring contortionist hoop acts. Notable artists include Australian circus performer and hula hoop historian Judith Lanigan, who performs The Dying Swan – a tragedy with 30 hula hoops, Elena Lev, and Vanessa. Street performers like Lisa Lottie have brought their circus flair to the masses and made a name for themselves in the process.
Native American Story-Telling
Hoop dance has been a part of North American Native culture and tradition, a way of telling stories for centuries – since the 1400s. With no beginning or end, the hoop represents the never-ending circle of life. Native dancers used dozens of small hoops, typically made of reeds, as symbolic representations of animals such as eagles, snakes, butterflies or coyotes. Their hoop dance uses very rapid movements and the off-body use of hoops to construct symbolic forms around their bodies. Tony White Cloud ushered in modern Native American hoop dancing in the 1930s when he began using multiple hoops to perform stylized dances to weave stories of how life is connected with changes and transitions. There is an annual Native American Hoop Dance competition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Here, Lowery Begay introduces us to this dance form:
The hula hoop then, is actually simply the trademarked term created by Melin and Knerr of Wham-O. “Hoop”, “hooping,” and “hoop dance / hoopdance” are terms in current lingo. A jam band called The string Cheese Incident is said to have spurred the current renewed interest in hooping. Band members have been throwing hoops into their audiences since the mid-90′s, encouraging their fans to dance and spread the joy. Also in the 1990s, The Cohen Brothers’ fictionalized the invention of the hoop in a film called The Hudscker Proxy. Since 2003, the annual Burning Man festival of arts and freedom in the northern Nevada desert has been a literal hotbed for hooping, providing an uninhibited forum for hoopers from all around the world to share tricks, techniques, and energy. The festival is far from limited to hooping, but a lot of hooping, notably fire hooping, takes place here. Another venue where modern hooping has developed is the club scene, where go-go girls in revealing outfits and furry leggings enjoy crowd-pleasing by spinning led-lit hoops to electronic dance music.
Hooping has now found its way into mainstream gyms and studios as a fun and effective form of exercise. Classes can be found all across the US and now the world as more and more people rediscover that hoop dance is actually an extremely fun, playful, and addictive way to get some exercise. Modern hoops are overall heavier, bigger, and easier to spin, but there are actually a wide variety in usage. The size and material of hoop you choose will depend upon your height, girth, hooping ability, and desired application. Hoops are no longer made of bamboo, rattan, willow, wood, grasses, or vines, but rather different types of plastics and sometimes metal.
Hooping generally refers to artistic movement and dancing with a hoop (or hoops) used as a prop or dance partner. Hoops can be made of metal, wood or plastic. Hooping combines technical moves and tricks with freestyle or technical dancing, and is typically accompanied by music. In contrast to the classic toy hula hoop, modern hoopers a) use heavier and larger diameter hoops, and b) frequently rotate the hoop around parts of the body, other than the waist, including the hips, chest, neck, shoulders, thighs, knees, arms, hands, thumbs, feet and toes. All spaces both within and outside of the hoop can be freely explored.
Modern hooping has taken cues from diverse art forms such as rhythmic gymnastics, hip-hop, freestyle dance, fire dance, twirling, and other dance and movement forms. Hooping is part of the greater spectrum of flow arts, which are playful movement arts involving skill toys that are used to evoke the exploration of dynamic, flowing, and sequential movements. This movement, and the related mind/body state, is referred to as “flow”.
Technically, hooping is a form of object manipulation and in as much shares some lineage with classical juggling. In its modern incarnation as an art form, dance form, and exercise modality, the practice is referred to either as hoop dance or simply “hooping”. Hoop dance artists commonly refer to themselves, and the greater hoop dance community, as hoopers.