Health & Fitness

In a blast from the past, hula hoops catch on again at festivals, gyms

Playing with fire for entertainment and fitness

Every Thursday, Fire University meets at the Davis E Street Plaza. A large group of entertainers spin, twirl, touch and eat fire. Audience members are encouraged to participate and the performers stay until about midnight.
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Every Thursday, Fire University meets at the Davis E Street Plaza. A large group of entertainers spin, twirl, touch and eat fire. Audience members are encouraged to participate and the performers stay until about midnight.

A dozen plastic hula hoops of different colors and sizes had been spread out on the grass beneath a cedar on Sacramento’s 21st Avenue parkway. A DJ stood behind a fortress of booming speakers, bobbing his head to electronic dance music. Resolute Hoop Troupe was ready to bring hooping to the masses.

Once seen as just a children’s game, hooping (also known as hula hooping and hoop dancing) has become a favorite pastime of adults in Sacramento and around the world.

Today’s hooping scene has its roots in the Hula Hoop craze of the 1950s and ’60s. Pop singer Teresa Brewer recorded “The Hula Hoop Song” in 1958 to cash in on the national obsession with Wham-O’s best-selling toy: “From L.A. to New York, from Georgia to Duluth/Everyone is playing with the Hula Hoop.”

Now hoopers can be found at outdoor concerts and festivals as well as at gyms and bars. Passionate hoopers share video tutorials and sell hand-crafted hoops online. Each year, hundreds of them descend on Santa Cruz for Hoopcamp, a retreat exclusively devoted to hooping classes and activities.

Hula hooping “never really died out after the ’60s. It just got quiet for a couple of decades,” said Allison Miller, a 28-year-old hoop dance instructor in Sacramento.

In the ’90s, hula hooping became a popular activity at free-spirited nightclubs as well as at jam band concerts, particularly those of the eclectic group the String Cheese Incident. The term “hula hooping” was phased out in favor of “hooping” to avoid copyright infringement, and to differentiate the new wave from the boomer-era fad.

Miller said the Sacramento hooping community has grown dramatically in the past five years and shows no sign of slowing. “It doesn’t really seem like a fad. It seems like it’s sticking around this time,” she said.

Miller sold 30 of her custom-decorated hoops to the employee gym at the California Department of Public Health after teaching classes there in 2013. She also hoops and gives lessons at parties. One groom arranged for her to pop out of a cake and hoop for the entertainment of his bride and wedding guests.

In 2015, Riva Jean-Paul, one of Miller’s hooping protégés, founded the Resolute Hoop Troupe, which performs weekly at dance clubs in midtown Sacramento. Resolute also set up public “flow spaces” for hooping at the Crocker Art Museum’s Block by Block parties this summer.

Jean-Paul and fellow Resolute member James Stover were the first to pick up a hoop at the July 9 block party on the parkway in Colonial Heights. Jean-Paul twirled her hoop around her wrist as she moved through slow, elegant dance steps. Stover, wearing a black bowler hat above a tank top, did fast-paced tricks on a raised platform, swinging the hoop around in the air with his hand and making it zip up and down his torso.

Both Jean-Paul and Stover said hooping has helped them stay at a healthy body weight. It burns calories efficiently and strengthens the abdominal muscles.

And the total concentration that it promotes, which hoopers call “flow,” puts them in a tranquil state of mind.

“It’s like mindless meditation,” Stover said. “When you’re hooping you’re not really thinking about anything else. You’re just going around in a hoop, making a hoop do things.”

Jean-Paul said her current hooping focus is on “connecting with the music, and telling a story with my dance.”

“Maybe my style is different from someone’s, or maybe I can’t do tricks as fast as this hooper can do them, but that’s OK,” Jean-Paul said. “It’s not about that. It’s about finding your own expression of it.”

On the parkway, a few teenage girls and young children made their way to the flow space, a grassy strip near the Colonial Heights Library. Andrea Cruz-Morales, a slender 9-year-old, kept her hoop in orbit for minutes at a time. She said she likes the exercise because “it’s sporty, it doesn’t take a lot of practice, and it’s not that hard.”

The following week, Jean-Paul, Stover and four friends met for a hooping session in Sacramento’s Stanford Park. In the shade at the park’s edge, they improvised their own movements to electronic pop songs playing on a Bluetooth speaker. Kids dribbled soccer balls nearby, enduring the hot sun and scolding from their coach.

Brooke Carnes, 25, showed the group how to do a trick called “breaks and paddles,” using her hands to push the hoop in alternating directions around her upper body, then reaching for her opposite shoulder, “Macarena” style.

As the hooping wound down, Stover and Carnes chatted about Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Nevada desert that is considered a paradise for hoopers. Many “Burners” incorporate fire into their hooping, something that Carnes said she’s eager to try.

Hoopers skewer the wicks on metal wires like marshmallows, tie them to the hoop and soak them with fuel before lighting them on fire.

Sacramento hoopers don’t have to make a costly trip to Burning Man to try fire hooping. Fire University in downtown Davis lets people practice hooping, juggling and other forms of fire performance every Thursday.

Kiersten Schjei of Sacramento said she tried fire hooping for the first time during the 2013 winter solstice. Schjei and others at Fire University said that they become enraptured by the roaring of the flames around them as they fire-hoop.

“Once you get over the initial fear … it’s probably one of the most euphoric experiences you can have,” said Schjei.

Julie Arenz and Kristy Fortes arrived at Fire University toting an impressive collection of fire-hooping equipment. Arenz and Fortes are members of Infinite Spin, another hooping performance group in Sacramento.

To the delight of the crowd, they kept two flaming hoops moving around them simultaneously, surrounding themselves in columns of fire. Both women have small scars on their arms and shoulders, an inevitable consequence of frequent fire hooping.

Fortes said many of her best friendships have been formed through hooping. She also said that hooping in solitude has helped her work through difficult emotions, and discover talents she never knew she had.

“You can hoop by yourself and have a transcending experience. … I never thought of myself as a dancer until I found a hoop.”

Josh Mandell: 916-321-1076, @Joshuamandell

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