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Ode to the Hula Hoop

Why it's been making a comeback.

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illustration of woman using a hula hoop at night
Christoph Niemann
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In 1959, the same year I was born, the Wham-O company trademarked the name Hula Hoop. Within the first six months of receiving the patent, 20 million hoops sold for $1.98 each. Today the same basic hoop goes for $5.99.

I went through a period when I was 9 or 10 when I practiced hooping almost daily, in secret, while watching I Dream of Jeannie on TV. I desperately moved my hips from side to side until I became frustrated to the point of tears. I never achieved a single rotation around my stick-like, unfeminine body. I was nicknamed Beanpole for a reason.

Hula hooping came naturally to most people, but not to me. Though I'd always prided myself on having excellent balancing skills — I could skateboard, water ski and do handstands — I found it impossible to spin the glittering ring around my waist. My spastic movements always resulted in the same pitiful drop of plastic to the ground.

Hooping, like pole dancing, became a sexy-exercise craze in the early 2000s. Doing it vigorously can burn nearly as many calories as a spin class.

It surprised me to realize in 2005, at age 46, that I hadn't given up my dream of spinning a ring around my body. I signed up for a hula-hooping class at my gym after my Pilates instructor, Sandy, put on a show for us wearing an I Dream of Jeannie outfit and dancing with hoops that featured changing colored lights. Ponytailed and gyrating to Flo Rida's “Low,” she curved her liquid body around the room like a swan, rolling hoops around her wrists, head and between her feet with a feminine grace and fluidity the rest of us could only dream of. Her bangles clinked and shifted each time she raised her arm to make a dramatic hand gesture, seducing us.

Sandy promised she could teach anyone to hoop. I wanted a body like hers — chiseled abs, Michelle Obama arms, a display-worthy waist. In my cautious and unflirty world — I'd grown up skinny, boyish and ignored by boys — this was revolutionary. Japan once banned the hula hoop because the rotating hip action was thought to be indecent. I was all in with whatever Sandy was peddling.

The word “hula” was first used in the 1700s, when British sailors discovered topless Polynesian women doing the sensuous hip-swiveling hula dance. Though they didn't use hoops, the oscillations of knee, hip and waist were the same as the motion used to sling a hoop around a midsection and the term stuck. Graceful hand and arm movements were used to signify swaying trees, waves in the ocean and a sense of yearning.

Before my first hooping class, Sandy invited me to the parking lot to choose one of the hoops she'd made from polypropylene tubing and was selling out of her trunk. They were gorgeous and sparkly, not the orthopedic shoes of special hoops, like some “sports hoops” I'd seen online, covered in ugly foam padding.

"Your hoop should reach somewhere between your waist and mid-chest when resting vertically on the ground,” Sandy said. I chose one with hues of purple and aqua that picked up holographic patterns in the sun, paid $38, and prayed this would be the antidote to my spasticity.

The hoop toy is older than most religions. As early as 1,000 B.C., Egyptian children played with hoops they fashioned from dried grapevines.

In the class with eight other women, I stood in the center of the hoop and lifted it around my waist. I tried a simple rotation, moving my hips from side to side. It fell, with heavy weight clanking on the floor. Old feelings of shame surfaced.

Then Sandy walked over to me and demonstrated how to move my pelvis forward and back. “It's not about the hips,” she said.

I put the hoop back up at my waist and gave it a twirl. I rocked my pelvis forward and back. I had always thought it was a side to side motion I was going for. The weight and size of the hoop made it easier to keep up. The friction tape helped it stick to my body. It suddenly felt so right. I was focused yet relaxed, my body and mind working as one. The repetition of it became soothing and everything seemed to come together, the power of the female body unleashed!

I suspect the immense joy I felt related to my hoop-ability was in direct proportion to how difficult it had been for me to get there. I went on to learn minor-level tricks, walking and twirling around my yard.

I came across my hoop in the basement the other night and dusted it off, took it outside onto the terrace off my bedroom, and started to gyrate and hula under the stars, my body a fluid instrument made for this exact sensual action. I alternated flinging the hoop with my arms, a leg and my waist. It now seemed more cosmic than sexual, like I'd come full circle.

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