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Hula hooping: exercise in disguise

The latest exercise craze has a longer history that you’d think

Lucy Farmer | June 19th 2015

Last week, I donned my Lycra and trainers and ascended to the rooftop of the Berkeley hotel in London for a rather unusual fitness class: hula hooping, led by Anna Byrne from HulaFit. Stationed around the white, Provençal-chic pool, with the open sky above us, and the green panorama of Hyde Park beyond, it was an invigorating experience. And one that didn’t feel like exercise.

Hula hooping is probably a game you remember from your childhood—endless attempts to spin a candy-coloured hoop around your middle, and hours spent giggling and picking it up again from around your ankles. It also has a nostalgic Fifties air about it, the decade when the hula hoop as a toy went mainstream and the American company Wham-O sold 100m worldwide in two years. But the hula hoop has a much longer history than that.

According to the Australian “hoop artist” Judith Lanigan in her book, “The Hula Hoop”, there is evidence of children in ancient Egypt playing with hoops made from dried grape vines. The ancient Greeks (who knew a thing or two about fitness) used them for exercise—surely to tone their abs before sitting for their next marble sculpture. And Native Americans tell stories through a Sacred Hoop Dance to the beat of a powwow drum.

Over the last two centuries this simple circle—usually made from wood or plastic—has been used to do spectacular things. In rhythmic gymnastics, athletes prove their agility and grace by throwing, catching and tumbling through and around the hoop. On stage, circus performers and cabaret acts combine skill and illusion to wow crowds with multiple-hoop displays and fire hooping, a thrilling, primal technique in which they spin hoops with flaming wicks attached. Hooping has also developed into a free-flowing martial art akin to capoeira or tai chi with impressive tricks. And now it has come full circle, as it were, as a fitness craze.

At HulaFit, Anna started us off with basic “waist hooping”: one foot slightly in front of the other, spinning the hoop around your waist using a regular forward-and-back motion with the hips. We hooped and laughed to the feel-good sounds of “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry and more upbeat tracks like Iggy Azalea’s “Trouble”. This move, I was sure, would be the pinnacle of my achievements. What else was there to do? But soon we were waist hooping with our feet together and hands above our heads, kneeling and standing up again, circling it around our booties and our necks, and doing the “lasso”—a hand-twirling, 360-degree spinning manoeuvre. Well, nearly. I actually ended up flinging my hoop in the pool.

Anna first came across theatrical hula hooping a decade ago in the experimental universe of the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert—a hotbed for hooping as a performance art. She was mesmerised. Now, back in London, she combines teaching HulaFit classes with performing in cabaret shows and at events and festivals under the stage name “Anna the Hulagan” (next up is Glastonbury). She also makes the hoops by hand. Her classes are designed to be an all-over body workout using cardio routines and weighted hoops, which are easier to manage for virgin “hoopers”. And the reason famous faces like Michelle Obama and Liv Tyler are pictured “hooping themselves thin” is because it targets your core and tones your middle.

The concept of HulaFit comes at a time when fitness is more fashionable than ever. Instead of a solo trudge on the treadmill or silent reps on resistance machines, people are increasingly looking for fun ways to work out. It’s an encouraging trend. In the case of HulaFit, novelty and amusement distract you from the fact that you’re exercising, and it’s sociable, too. As with so much else, those ancient Greeks were on to something.

HulaFit at the Berkeley, London, is every Wednesday at 1pm from June 17th until October 28th

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