Trying to carry on a conversation with a woman twirling a plastic hoop around her wrist, around her neck, around her waist should pose some problems.
But Maria Reynolds-Oosting, hair spiked with purple and feet clad in clunky black boots, chats easily about her love of the past five years – hula hooping.
“You have to laugh at yourself,” she said. “It’s kind of silly. You’re playing with a plastic circle.”
In Charlotte – and around the world – the hula hoop has morphed from a kids toy that hit its popularity in the 1950s to a vehicle of self-expression, acrobatics and mind-body health for adults. Fueled by the free-for-all spirit of jam bands Phish and String Cheese Incident and the anything-goes festivals Burning Man and Bonnaroo, the past 10 years have seen the culture of hooping boom.
Some of Charlotte’s hoopers gather every Sunday night at a photo studio off Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood to “jam.” The music pumps and each hooper claims a space on the white floor to practice tricks, swap tips or enter a state of bliss induced by the feeling the hoop circling your body over and over.
Notice: There is no “hula” with that hoop. Adults call it a hoop, period. They engage in hooping or hoopdance, or they jam. They have fun. But it’s not a playground game.
Five years ago, Dorne Pentes picked up a hoop he saw lying on the ground at an annual Transformus arts festival in Asheville, and he said hooping has become a way to exercise daily without feeling like he’s exercising.
It’s more than that for him – it’s an artistic outlet and it’s a spiritual recharger. Think about how the hoop moving around your body mimics the movement of the universe, he said.
“It makes you happy,” he said. “It’s kind of like a runner’s high, I guess.”
Hooping also creates a tight community – hugs and kisses go the rounds every time someone new walks through the door at a recent Sunday night jam.
“It comes with the group of people that are open and loving,” Pentes said. “Because we share the love of this art form, we all love each other.”
Before those shiny plastic hoops were all the rage in the 1950s, hooping actually did have roots in a more spiritual sphere.
Hoops have been used since ancient times in Egypt for exercise and play, and traditionally were made of natural materials such as bamboo, willow, rattan and grapevines.
Native Americans used smaller, interlocking hoops to tell stories for centuries. In fact, the first world champion hoop dancer, Eddie Swimmer, came from Cherokee.
Wham-O (the toy company that brought us the Frisbee, Silly String and the Hackey Sack) began marketing a plastic hoop in 1958. At the height of the fad, 50,000 Hula Hoops were being manufactured daily.
Today’s hoops are different – they are heavier and custom-made, most often of irrigation plumbing. The weight makes them easier to control (in addition to transforming them into a pretty decent bicep workout) and the material makes them easily customized.
A passion and a business
Like many modern hoopers, a southeast Charlotte mom who goes by Cara Zara makes and sells her own hoops. Typically, they’re 38-40 inches in diameter and cost about $40. They’re bigger, slower and heavier than commercial hoops – “so it gives you more time to react,” she said.
“Most of the ones you can buy at a retail store are made for the average 6-year-old,” she said. “It’s not easy for adults to use.”
Cara Zara has built a business out of her love of hooping. It’s her full-time job.
She teaches kids during summer camps, after-school programs and birthday parties. For adults, she puts on corporate events, fitness classes and private lessons. And, for all, she performs at community events including Festival in the Park, Matthews Alive and the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Her hooping style goes beyond hip circuits and elbow tricks. She makes the hoops flow around, above and beside her. It’s graceful, like dancing. She wears pants with huge bell-bottoms that twirl as she spins, and she sometimes dons a hot-pink, bobbed wig. The music ranges from classical to the theme from “The Jetsons.”
She started hooping about eight years ago, when a friend brought in a trainer from Greensboro to teach a backyard class. She said no way to the invite, but her friend insisted – even paid her lesson fee and made her a hoop.
She was entranced.
She said hooping has shaved 20 pounds off her frame and has added muscle tone, stamina and lung strength to help with her asthma. Intense hooping for 30 to 45 minutes no longer requires the use of an inhaler.
She said hooping is a versatile exercise form: “It’s the kind of thing that you can take from being very low-impact and yoga-like to being a serious cardio workout.”
Her hooping has blossomed from that first backyard class – she went online and found out that some of her friends were hoopers, and she didn’t even know it. She began connecting with other hoopers and took lessons in person and through online tutorials. She attends that Sunday night hoop jam in Plaza Midwood as often as her business allows.
Business has been so good that she hired an assistant to help.
Center of the hoop
Pentes said North Carolina is one of the hotspots of the modern hooping movement in the United States.
The HoopPath, based in Carrboro, sponsors retreats and workshops year-round. The group’s most recent tour, EarthQuake, includes stops across the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. Founder Jonathan Baxter, a former Charlottean, picked up a hoop to help him recover from a shoulder injury. He preaches a curriculum that is equal parts spirit and sport.
His seventh annual HoopPath retreat, “HP7: Sangha,” comes to Carrboro in June.
And an unaffiliated Hoop Convergence retreat, held every year in the Raleigh-Durham area, brings hoopers from all over to learn new skills.
That’s one of the main reasons hoopers attend the Sunday night jam in Charlotte – to learn new skills from each other and from instructors.
Cory Martin, who spun hot-pink hoops during a recent jam but loves to practice with fire hoops, picks up a hoop a lot of times to relieve stress.
“The state of mind it keeps me in – it just keeps me at peace,” he said.
He likened the feeling of moving with the hoops to the sensation you get when you spin in an office chair – the centrifugal force carries you away. He calls his style “tribal” and prefers to move the hoop in slow rotations: “You learn the rhythm and the way the hoop can move.”
It looked like the hoop was floating through the air of its own volition.
Across the studio, a woman faced the wall as she spun her hoop, so she could watch the shadow of her moves.
And Pentes circled right next to the booming speakers, a sparkling black blindfold covering his eyes.
It’s yet another way of hooping, Cara Zara said.
“You take the body out of the equation,” she said, “and just feel where your body is in relation to the hoop.”