TORONTO — Sadie Yancey, hoop dance instructor, performer and entrepreneur, explains the Band-Aid around her finger with a laugh.
“This was my first trip to the hospital for hoop-related injuries,” says the 28-year-old queen of Toronto’s hoop community as she details how she power drilled into her finger while making a connector for a hoop.
Building hula hoops out of irrigation tubing and colourful tape is one of three aspects of Yancey’s company, Hoop Toronto. The Virginia native with a master’s degree in biomedical physics also teaches hoop classes and performs at a variety of events. Many of these performances involve Yancey spinning a fire hoop, a hoop with several Kevlar wicks attached to it that are soaked in fuel and lit.
Hoop dancing has experienced a rebirth in the last two or three years, after dipping considerably following its mass production and sale by a company called Wham-O in 1957.
“They sold a ridiculous amount of hoops,” says Yancey. “Pretty much everyone in the U.S. bought a hula hoop, and then the market dropped because no one needed one.”
But after a series of recent celebrity testimonials about the power of the hoop, the ’50s craze that has been lingering in the shadows of the underground art scene for the last few decades is back in the spotlight.
Michelle Obama, wife of the U.S. president, gave the hula hoop face time when pictures of her hooping on the White House lawn circulated on the Internet last fall. A YouTube search for “hoop dance” yields over 18,000 results. Nintendo’s Wii Fit hula hoop game has been a popular choice among both youngsters and adults and, starting Aug. 16, you can purchase the Gaiam Marisa Tomei HoopBody Hoop and DVD Kit for around $40.
Tomei demonstrated her hoop skills on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in January last year after crediting the hoop with getting her in shape for her role as an exotic dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, “The Wrestler.”
But while her fitness DVD and hula hoop set, which is already available for preorder online, boasts hooping as a means of shedding up to 600 calories per hour, the notion of calorie counting seems counterintuitive to hoop dance. The effectiveness of hooping as a workout lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel like a workout at all — you have so much fun doing it that the thought of burning calories doesn’t cross your mind.
“My classes are about having fun and not being hard on yourself, rather than burning a certain number of calories or learning a certain number of tricks,” says Yancey.
“Fun” is a word that frequently rolls off Yancey’s tongue. The three-lettered, monosyllabic word is perhaps the best explanation for the hoop’s growing popularity.
Yancey also describes hooping as a more balanced way to use your core than exercises like crunches. Hooping opens up the body after a long day of slouching and creates a feeling of relaxation similar to that of yoga, while massaging the waist.
During her classes, Yancey emphasizes smiling, giggling and exploration. She tells you to imagine your hands as paintbrushes, spreading your favourite colour of paint across the walls of the studio where she teaches.
She tells you to pretend that you’re surfing, or fencing, or instructs you to paw at your hoop, which has fallen to the ground with a delightful clatter, as though you’re a cat. This emphasis on play is central to the HoopGirl instructor certification program that Yancey completed in San Francisco in 2007.
“I teach adults because adults need help learning how to play, whereas kids do it all the time,” says Yancey.
By the last day of her six-week class, her timid pupils have become graceful and excited hoopers, adept at playing, who laugh when their hoops occasionally go soaring across the room. For Yancey, watching this transition occur is one of the most valuable aspects of being a teacher.
“What’s really powerful about hooping is it’s something a lot of people believe they can’t do. They couldn’t do it when they were 11, they couldn’t do it when they were 17 and they definitely can’t do it now,” says Yancey.
“My role as a teacher is saying, ‘Yes, you can, just try it. Look, this hoop is different.’ And when people get it, they go a little nuts. They go, ‘I can hoop now. So maybe I can be a swimmer now, too. Maybe I can learn guitar.’ This whole world of things they thought they couldn’t do opens up.”
Having a proper adult-sized hoop is definitely a factor. Yancey’s hoops vary from about 97 to 112 centimetres in diameter, and the tubing that they’re made from is heavier than your average plastic kid’s hoop. Their large size makes them travel more slowly around your waist, thus making it easier to keep one up, and the weight allows you to feel where the hoop is on your body. Most adults who think they can’t hoop are able to do it if given the right kind of hoop, says Yancey.
Yancey, who has been hooping for about 3 1/2 years, says there weren’t any hoop instructors in the city when she started. There were only a handful of hoopers in Toronto, then, and Yancey befriended all of them, dragging them out to the park every week to jam and learn new tricks; a modest origin for what has blossomed into a growing community of hoopers. Today, Torontonians have several certified instructors to choose from, a few of whom started off as Yancey’s students.
Mo Skowronski, a colleague of Yancey’s and fellow hooper, attributes the growth of hooping in Toronto at least partly to Yancey being very public with a hoop, bringing it into parks and other public spaces. The Internet may have also played a role.
“It’s exploding right now,” says Skowronski, 29.
“When I first started hooping you couldn’t find too many videos of hoopers on YouTube. Now there’s a huge swell of hoop information on the Internet, which is creating these pockets of hoopers around the world, and it’s seeding into Toronto.”
Yancey is pleased with this boom in popularity.
“I think it’s important to spread hooping. It makes a lot of people happy,” she says, adding that there is currently more demand for hoop classes than she can provide.
Yancey is not the only hoop instructor to report sold-out classes, and since she started selling hoops at the Fairies Pyjamas in Kensington Market, in addition to online at HoopToronto.com, the demand for them has been so great that she’s had to hire someone to help.
Aradia Fitness, a pole dance studio, offers three different hoop class time slots with two different instructors while Felinity has a Saturday morning class. In fact, hooping is in such high demand that Yancey says she recently quit her day job at the University of Toronto to hoop full-time; an appropriate turn of events for a girl who picked up her first hoop at an arts festival almost four years ago and hasn’t put it down since.