Just when you think you know a lot about a place, the people who inhabit it, the way the light falls over the valley during a mid-January sunset, you realize that at best you’ve only dusted off one layer of so rich and varied a cultural landscape.
When I think about hula hoops, I can see my childhood friend’s driveway, the delineations of the free-throw line to their freestanding basketball hoop, the smack and clap of the plastic ring falling from my narrow hips to the backs of my knees and within a couple of seconds clattering to the asphalt. Of course, I kept trying to get that silly round hollowed piece of plastic to sway gracefully around my waist. It kept falling and falling and falling until I simply gave up.
What can frustrate an athlete more than a silly round object that for whatever reason cannot synchronize with their body? Taking the inverse of that question, I now realize that the discovery of this rhythm and timing, this ability to keep the hoop hulaing around the body and arms and hips and legs, is a skill that can unlock the spirit, turn into a highly imaginative and athletic form of dance that can, it seems, bring people of all ages and backgrounds together.
Asked to perform for others
It was this simple, old-fashioned love of movement that inspired a cadre of locals to become the High Falls Hoopers for Humanity. “It started out as small group of ladies who enjoyed getting together and hula-hooping,” said member Chiara Herman, a pre-school teacher and mother. “It’s a great form of exercise, and we liked being able to practice together and to teach each other moves. Eventually we started having little potluck dinners afterwards. It was just a fun time!”
As word of mouth grew, these talented hoopers were asked to perform at various community events, from the Rosendale Street Festival to Global Water Dances Day.
Stacy Torchio, a trained ballerina, is also a member of this special group of dancers. “I have always enjoyed dancing, and was an apprentice with the Pennsylvania Ballet company when I was 17, and with a modern dance troupe called In Forward Motion out of SUNY New Paltz. About four years ago, I was looking for opportunities to exercise locally and learned about the local hoop gatherings. I had never hoop-danced before, and was able to learn everything I know from Bonnie Augustine, Chiara Herman and the other people in the group.”
Like Herman, Torchio was drawn to the group aspect of hooping. “I enjoy the camaraderie, exercise and artistry that the group offers. I enjoy the mind/body connection of learning new tricks with the hoop. It’s fun to build our repertoire of new moves together. I also like being able to share the skill of hooping with other people, including my daughter, who has participated in a few of our hoop events and performances.”
Herman herself was once one of those kids who could not figure out the tricks of the hula-hoop trade. “I saw a woman do the ‘vortex’ with the hula hoop and was mesmerized,” she said. “She was teaching a class in Kingston, and my husband encouraged me to just go and try it.”
At first, Herman kept dropping the hoop. “I would start to hula and it would fall to the floor. I tried it over and over again and it kept falling. But what I remember was how much fun I had, even when I kept dropping it. I was laughing the entire time!”
Reconnecting with nostalgia
Herman was hooked. “I went from having it just drop straight to the floor to being able to keep it going around my waist and then all over my body. It became a passion of mine, and after a while I decided to become a hula-hoop coach and trainer.”
Herman explained that once she got past the frustration of having the hoop drop to the floor the activity became a daily exercise to build endurance. “People don’t often realize that it’s a real form of exercise.”
When people think hula hoop, they may picture American Bandstand and gawky teens and 20-somethings with argyle sweaters and knee-length skirts trying to hula in time with whatever music was playing. But these hoopers choreograph dances, string movements together, and utilize different-sized hoops. Some are proficient with twirling the circle on their body, some off-body, and still others like to combine the two. You’re watching something ethereal at times, even when the instrument they’re using is just a simple ring of plastic.
“I like to bring extra hula hoops to various music events to share them, because it’s a fun way of bringing people together in a joyful and healthy way,” added Torchio. “Many people feel inspired, curious and excited to see and experience the hoop in action. It is neat to reconnect with the nostalgia of the toy that you may have experienced as child and realize that there is more potential for variety in your style of play.”
Pre-pandemic, the group would often utilize the High Falls Firehouse to practice and get together. They’re missing each other right now, and after reconnecting for a performance at the recent holiday show in New Paltz they’re trying to find ways of meeting up again, outdoors, when the weather isn’t too cold.
The hoopers are confident that they’ll be back into full swing as soon as the Covid-19 situation has lifted. “Right now, I use my hula hoops at the school I work at, so that each child can sit inside their own ring and keep socially distanced,” said Herman. “It’s sad. They can’t share toys right now, but there’s something special about that circle.”
No beginning, no end
What was it that drew her about the hula-dancing art form? “It may sound corny, but because it’s a circle, there is no beginning and no end,” she replied. “The whole concept is to keep it in the air, in perpetual motion, and if it falls around your knees that’s okay. What do you do with it then? There is no right way or wrong way, and everyone drops the hoop. But the flow and beauty that exist when you string movements together is something that I just love.”
Torchio, whom Herman said “has such a poised and graceful way with the hoop,” concurred. “I connect with the music that I am hooping to, and enjoy getting into the rhythm and flow with my hoop as an extension of my body. I like doing both on- and off-body hoop tricks.”
The High Falls Hoopers will hopefully be out and about again soon, inspiring kids into learning how to make their own hoops, encouraging locals of all ages not to give up on those first couple of tries and, most of all, to enjoy movement, music and community.