Filmmaker Amy Goldstein is describing her new documentary, The Hooping Life, and she's getting animated. “All these characters go through a lot of difficulties,” she says, referring to a group of people who've managed to eke careers out of hula hoop dancing. “But in the end, what they get back is way greater than what they gave.”
Goldstein, who's penned pilots for HBO, CBS and Showtime, is sitting in a white bungalow behind an office building in Culver City. Three hula hoops lie off to the side of the room, and Anah “Hoopalicious” Reichenbach, who's teaching mini-lessons to willing reporters, is dressed for the occasion in a tight black crop top and flared, rust-colored leggings.
Reichenbach is quiet, but a palpable energy courses through her lean dancer's body. As she watches Goldstein describe hoop dancing – a subculture that Reichenbach is credited with starting – a smile dances across her lips. She's watching a passion play out that she's seen before; people who take up hooping tend to fall in love with it.
But in Goldstein's case, this passion drove her even further than most – she was inspired to create The Hooping Life, which last week became available on demand. “I hoop all the time, and I absolutely love it,” she says. “But I felt like this movie had a life of its own.”
Goldstein first encountered L.A.-based Reichenbach several years ago, through a mutual acquaintance. Part of the local hooping community, in which dancers get together everywhere from Venice Beach to Echo Park to practice moves and learn from one another, Reichenbach also performs around the world. After getting a commitment from Reichenbach to appear in the film, Goldstein found seven other established hoopers, and began filming their lives.
The end result is a 70-minute documentary that's as insightful as it is visually stimulating – after all, what's not to love about girls in hot pants swinging neon hoops around their hips? – but that ultimately paints a story of living a life devoted to the ups and downs of trying to capture a fleeting moment of ecstasy.
The Hooping Life begins with Reichenbach's story. About 15 years ago, she was watching jam band The String Cheese Incident when she saw a girl dancing inside a hula hoop. “She just looked so relaxed and blissful,” says Reichenbach. “It was enough to have me want to try it.”
Reichenbach asked to borrow the girl's hoop, and five hours later, she was still going.
From there, Reichenbach's passion quickly morphed into a career. In her early 20s and without a clear path, she started making her own hoops, and she was soon selling them at festivals. She also began performing around L.A., trying to convince people that hooping could have a place outside String Cheese Incident shows.
“Hooping was viewed as something you do in a flower skirt, twirling around, stoned, in a meadow,” she says, “But I grew up in L.A., so my favorite music to dance to was always electronic music. I took it back from that meadow and went into the clubs, and I think that element is partly what caused it to catch on.”
Reichenbach certainly isn't the first to discover the joys of hula hooping – it originally became a cultural phenomenon in the 1950s. But she was the first to modernize it, and to turn it into something more than a child's game.
By the time Goldstein discovered Reichenbach – years after the String Cheese Incident concert – the new hooping phenomenon had gone international. Characters in the movie live everywhere from New York to L.A. to South Africa. Goldstein says that she shot most of the film herself, but that at least ten percent came from handing her characters cameras and asking them to film their lives.
“It was so lucky for me, as a filmmaker, to have a group of people who were game that way,” she says. “Some really touching, moving things came out that I don't think would happen if I was there.”
The characters' reasons for taking up hooping are widely varied. One woman, who goes by the name of Sass, survived a traumatic experience and hooping helped her heal. A 32-year-old man living in North Carolina credits hooping with saving his life after a deep depression. Tisha Marina launched an after-school hooping program in South L.A.
And Karis – a beautiful, lithe young man whose performances often feature him in hot pants, hanging by his hands in mid-air as the hoop spins like a Tazmanian devil around his narrow hips – dances at shows ranging from Lucha Va Voom to L.A. Fashion Week.
Goldstein now recognizes that she's stumbled onto a subculture that isn't going anywhere. “It's spiritual,” she says. “It's getting bigger and bigger.”
Reichenbach, who can be seen on film dancing inside the hoop with another girl and regularly performs wearing little more than a bra and underwear, attributes the hoop's success to the fact that it taps into a primal human desire.
“It causes you to move your body in ways that could be potentially, historically – in our culture, at least – taboo,” she says. “It's very tribal. To be moving your body that way in public, and having it be this knitting together of community that happens without shame or fear or embarrassment…it's very raw.”
Before leaving, Reichenbach offers up a quick hoop lesson. “Put one foot in front of the other,” she says, “and just move back and forth.” But within minutes, she's hauling on a backpack and making her way to the door. She's off to Bali to teach a hooping workshop to devotees.
As Goldstein watches her go, she offers up a final thought.
“Ultimately,” Goldstein says, “I don't think the movie is really about hooping. The movie is about finding your passion.”
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