BACK in the day, I was a kickball, tetherball, four-square girl, definitely not the star hooper on my school playground. But when I heard about Los Angeles' hula hoop scene, I had to check it out.
It's not quite "underground," except to a square like me, but few people outside music festivals and offbeat exercise classes are familiar with hoop dancing, a 21st century incarnation of the old-time elementary school hobby. So you have to search in odd places to find the really cool classes.
With a little digging, I quickly discovered that Anah Reichenbach was the teacher for me.
With her hair in ponytails, a dusting of glitter around her eyes and a giant hula hoop swirling hypnotically around her tiny, washboard-waist, Reichenbach (aka "Hoopaliscious") is your childhood friend all grown up and ready to go clubbing.
The 30-year-old has held "hoop-downs" at Burning Man arts festival, hooped-out on a Coke commercial and had her giant hoop-dancing self projected on humongous screens in stadiums during Sting's Sacred Love Tour (2004). She is, in the lingo of the hooping world, a hooperstar.
She also teaches classes at the MKM Cultural Center in North Hollywood.
I signed up for a class called Hoop Hatchlings, which, as its name suggests, was meant for those new to the hula hooping world.
On a recent Sunday, seven students filed into a dance studio for the hour-and-a-half class, carrying huge hoops laced with stripes of neon and silver tape. These were not the light plastic Wham-O hoops of my childhood. These were made of heavy-duty irrigation tubing.
As many independent hoop teachers do, Reichenbach makes hoops herself and sells them to students in a personal cottage industry that will soon include a line of Anah's specially designed hoopwear (Vortex, Hoopwear for Hotties). The hoops are bigger than the traditional version, about 42 inches across, and heavier too. They weigh about 2 pounds and cost $25 (for the basic model) to $50 (for the collapsible travel model).
Coming back in a big way
In the 10 years since Reichenbach first picked up a hoop at a music festival and hooped for five hours straight, the '50s fad has gone from marginal to practically mainstream. There are cardio hoop classes offered at select Bally's Total Fitness clubs across the country (none in Los Angeles), and the Westin St. John Resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands just launched poolside hula hoop workshops in January to appeal to baby boomers who came of age when the first hooping craze swept the nation. Indie filmmaker Amy Goldstein is working on a documentary called "Hoop: A Revolution of Sorts." (see www.hoopthemovie.com). It is scheduled to premiere at film festivals later this year.
Before the class started, Reichenbach explained the two basic schools of hula hooping. There is circus-style, which involves multiple hoops and tricks. Then there is "hoop-dance," which has tricks too, but the focus is on the dancing. Within hoop-dance, she explained, are the followers of the Colorado jam band String Cheese Incident, who use bigger hoops and have a hippie bluegrass style, and her own style of hooping, which incorporates electronic music and break dance-type moves.
"It's like they are hooping on opium," she said of the String Cheese followers, whereas "My style is like hooping on speed." (Neither involves drugs, she said. "Hooping is its own intoxicant.")
We stretched for 10 minutes then began to roll our rib cages like belly dancers. Then it was our hips that we circled slowly, pushing them out as far as they would go. At last, we sent our hoops spinning. From the outset, things did not look good for me -- as the mirror on the wall constantly reminded. My hoop spun unevenly; my body lurched into jerky circular movements.
"Try to go for economy of movement," Reichenbach said, as she moved her body ever so slightly -- the hoop seeming to float in perfect circles around her.
From there we did squats, with our hoops still spinning, then added arm movements, moving our hands up and over our heads in undulating waves like Hawaiian hula dancers. It felt like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, only much, much harder. If you dropped your hoop, it clattered down like a waiter's dropped tray of glasses. That happened to me a lot.
With that as a deterrent, the other dancers and I furrowed our brows in concentration and spun harder.
"Remember, this is fun!" Reichenbach said.
From there, the funky electronic music picked up and we did speed intervals -- first hooping at high speed, then low. The sweat started to flow. "Faster, faster, faster," she said. Then the beat backed up, and we slowed it waaaaaaay down, doing big, lazy loops.
I was trying so hard to hoop I was leaning forward like a racer, with my teeth clenched and my hoop careening out of balance.