Gin and tonic in hand, I watch from the deck of the Aqua Bar and Grill as the skinny lad with the blonde pompadour and the tattoos reaches for his hula hoop. He slips it over his head and down around his narrow waist. Swaying and rocking, he slowly builds up speed, working the hoop up and down his lean torso. Soon he’s hopping around on one foot while the rainbow colored hula hoop ricochets ‘round and ‘round his neck. It’s an athletic and impromptu hoop jam, and the people passing by on Rehoboth’s Baltimore Avenue clearly love it, especially the kids.
The young hoopster’s name is TJ and he’s been working as a doorman for Aqua this summer, checking IDs and occasionally performing when the mood strikes. I had the opportunity recently to spend a little time chatting with him about life, love, hair, and hooping. Now don’t go getting any wrong impressions. It’s his hula hooping that caught my eye and interest. Besides, TJ isn’t into older men. This 21-year old hair stylist and burgeoning folk musician says he likes ‘em “younger and clean cut.”
TJ began hooping as a little boy at Grateful Dead concerts. His family followed the Dead and the post-Jerry Garcia spin off groups, traveling around the country to festivals and performances several times a month. Hooping is popular among Dead followers as a way of expressing love, peace, and good energy. The hoop is said to draw out those qualities and help you get more in touch with those feelings. Look closely at a car loaded with Dead stickers and you’ll likely see a dancing yellow or blue bear with a hula hoop around its waist.
To be precise, today’s hoops aren’t technically hula hoops because “hula hoop” is the trademarked name for a polyethylene toy produced by a California company called Wham-O. Modern hoops tend to be heavier and bigger. TJ makes his own out of common black poly tubing available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. He cuts the tubing, heats the ends in boiling water and then joins them together via a PVC connector. The final touch is decorating it with colored electrical tape. His current hoop du jour he calls his big gay hoop. Of course, one can buy pre-made hoops. Some even come with LED lights that cause the hoops to glow in the dark.
Wham-O hula hoops hit the southern California playgrounds in 1958, launching a craze that swept the nation. The company sold twenty-five million hula hoops in less than four months and 100 million in two years.
It’s not the first time a hoop toy has started a fad. Historians say that during the fourteenth century in England both children and adults were caught up in a hooping craze that led to dislocated backs and even heart attacks. In the late 18th century, children in Europe and the U.S. enjoyed a game called hoop trundling (the rolling of metal or wooden hoops with a stick). Things supposedly got so out of hand in London with hoops running into and cutting pedestrians’ shins that the police began to crack down on what became known as the “Hoops Nuisance.”
Fifty-five years after Wham-O, we’re seeing a hula hooping renaissance of sorts, and not just among the hairy armpit crowd, as my moonshine dealer in Asheville, NC, refers to those who have helped make that city the “hoopie” capital of the USA. Celebrities like Beyoncé and TV fashion personality Kelly Osborne use hula hoops as creative cardio to keep svelte. One minute of serious hooping can burn seven calories. A recent study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York says the benefits of regular hoop dancing may even ward off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by stimulating brain cells.
Michelle Obama hoops for exercise, as does triple platinum recording artist Jason Mraz, who sometimes hoops on stage and other times on a surfboard. Remember singer Grace Jones? She electrified the crowd at the Diamond Jubilee concert for Queen Elizabeth last year when she sang and hula hooped through the entire performance of her 1985 hit song “Slave to the Rhythm.”
TJ admits he hoops partly for the full-body workout it provides him, and it shows. There’s not an ounce of fat on this sapling – just ninety-nine pounds of skin, bone, and muscle – and he wants to keep it that way. Mostly though, TJ hoops to entertain the crowd. He’s a true performance artist, and if you haven’t seen him work his hoop, I suggest you drop by Aqua on a Saturday night.
He asks if I’ve ever hooped and I admit I have not. The hula hoop was out of style when I was a kid. But after hearing how hooping strengthens the core, abs, legs, arms, and back I am tempted. Then I picture it in my head. While the spectacle would most certainly be amusing, I think a more prudent way to cut calories is to simply switch out the tonic for soda in my cocktail….