What Goes Around, Comes Around

College students in the North Country embrace hula-hooping as a sport and an art

Story by Elizabeth Davidson
Photos by Ryan Ward

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Homemade hoops can be personalized with a variety of colored duct tapes

“It really is for everybody,” says Carly Woodhouse, a 20-year-old Utica native. “Hooping is so natural—anyone can do it!”

Hula-hooping, which hasn't enjoyed wide popularity since the 1950s, is making a comeback among college students in the North Country. And this is no child's play.

Many things differentiate this sport from the child's activity associated with elementary school gym class. For one, the hoops are thicker and heavier than children's hoops so they can be moved  slower around the body with more control. The hoops are also wider in circumference, allowing the “hooper” to spin the hoop on and off their body swiftly during tricks.

The biggest difference, though, is not physical—it's functional. Children's hooping is often a game of endurance; the point is to keep the hoop moving as long or as fast as possible. But trick hoopers seek not to hoop as long as possible, but as skillfully as possible—the quickest hand-offs, the smoothest transitions, and the tightest spins. Hooping, or hoop dancing, combines athletic and artistic elements to create a stunning spectator sport.

“They really are groovy in the truest sense of the word.”

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Hoop dancing involves spinning the hula hoop around all parts of the body, including the legs, as SUNY Plattsburgh student Kelly Benner-Cambell shows here.
According to Time magazine, hooping can be found in human society as early back as the Roman Empire, where hoops were used for exercise and building abdominal strength for other sports. Its first emergence as a toy came around the year 1300 when the British began making homemade hoops for a variety of games, but it wasn't mass-marketed until the American toy company Wham-O designed a plastic version of the original wood-carved British hoop in the 1950s.

During the '50s, hooping enjoyed widespread popularity among kids and teenagers, but then mysteriously died out during the '60s. For some reason, though, hooping has re-emerged in the past several years in the hippie and electronica music scenes.

“I've been going to festivals and outdoor concerts for almost three decades,” says Michael Barr, “and I've only started seeing these hoopers pop up in the last five or so [years.] They really are groovy in the truest sense of the word.”

“Our group just keeps growing and growing. People get hooked.”

Hoopers often perform at music festivals that feature jam-rock bands such as Phish and Umphrey's McGee and electronic dub-step DJs like Bassnectar and Skrillex, but these hoopers don't stop when the music does. They gather on college campuses to build their skills between shows.

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Although it is technically a solitary sport, hooping is often practiced in groups. Shown above (from the left) are SUNY Plattsburgh students Amanda Knapp, Liz Davidson, and Michelle O'Reilly.

“Every sunny day, pretty much, we go out and hoop to music for hours,” says Sophie Howitt, a junior at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “We bring extra hoops too, so people can join in if they want to learn how. Our group just keeps growing and growing. People get hooked.”

Woodhouse says that more people would hoop-dance if the hoops were sold in stores, but no large company has yet marketed them. Toy stores carry light plastic hoops for children, but the Internet is the only place to buy an adult one. So instead of buying, many people make their own out of flexible PVC piping and colorful duct tape, which adds decoration as well traction for better hand-gripping.

Hoopers incorporate the hoop into their dancing by rocking it to the music's beat, twirling it above their heads or to their sides, jumping through it, throwing it in the air, and so much more. The list of tricks seems endless, and more tricks are constantly being invented.

“When I tell people I hoop, I think they picture me just spinning the thing on my hips for hours,” Woodhouse says, “but it's not like that at all. I can do about 30 different tricks, and I'm learning new stuff all the time.”

Most hoop-dancers are self-taught, Woodhouse says, or else they learned through practicing with friends. “It's great; when one of us learns a  new trick, the rest of us know it by the next week. It's harder to learn all by yourself.”

“There's a really awesome community feel to hooping.”

“We make the hoops together, teach each other tricks, and we help each other improve. But mostly, we just have fun dancing,” says SUNY Plattsburgh freshman Amanda Knapp. “There's a really awesome community feel to hooping.”

SUNY Plattsburgh student, Max Magill, has been hooping for just three weeks. He demonstrates "The Head Spin."

SUNY Plattsburgh student Amanda Knapp demonstrates some simple hand trick

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