It started out as a hobby, but it ended up as a contract with the largest circus in the world.

Just two years ago, San Gabriel Valley native Eric Hernandez was a sophomore at Brigham Young University, with plans of becoming a teacher or a sports coach. But unlike most sociology majors, Hernandez was trained in the art of Native American hoop dancing, a skill shared by about 100 people worldwide.

Now Hernandez is the face of Totem, the latest spectacular from Cirque du Soleil, which arrived in San Pedro last week. You can see him on the billboard ads, posing solemnly in his feathered regalia and striped black-and-white makeup. In jeans and a sweatshirt, he could be any genial 23-year-old.

“I've learned to be more of a character,” he says. “Before Cirque I would just dance and focus on my hoops, but now I look people in the eyes. I'm trying to make them really feel something because they probably haven't seen this before. [As] opposed to when I would be dancing at Native American events where they've seen the hoop dance a hundred times, you know?”

Eight to ten times a week, Hernandez plays to an audience of 2,600, hopping and spinning about the stage. As he moves he manipulates wooden hoops as his arms and legs extend from his body like wings.

The dance is a crucial part of Native American culture, but not too sacred to share with a global audience. Often performed at weddings, hoop dancing is a method of visual storytelling. A single hoop represents eternity, like a Western wedding band, and it can be interlocked with other rings to form vivid pictograms of coyotes, alligators, and butterflies. The dance is like a Rorschach test, leaving audiences to create their own interpretation of what the story is about.

While other little boys were playing baseball, ten-year-old Eric was learning these dance steps from his maternal uncle, Terry Goedel, a descendant of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina (the other half of the Hernandez family is Mexican-American). Godell encouraged his nephew to learn more about their Lumbee heritage, taking him to conventions around the U.S. where the boy could meet and compete with other hoop dancers.

Hernandez participated for eight years until Cirque du Soleil discovered him at a competition in Phoenix in 2011. He had never seen one of their shows when he got the call. He arrived for training in Montreal, shocked to discover that the headquarters were “like two Costcos put together.”

“I think I was destined for something like this,” he says. “Because I think that most people learn the dance as kids and then they grow out of it and think it's stupid. But I stuck with it. I always really enjoyed it.”

Now Hernandez has 600 Totem performances under his belt and he would like to hit 3,000 before he's through. Cirque PR spokesman Francis Jalbert describes Totem as Cirque's “earthiest” show yet, with its central theme of evolution and humanity's roots in nature. Unlike the delirious dreamscapes of Zarkana or Quidam, Totem is more grounded in human skills like feats of strength and dexterity than flying puppetry. Still, the show has its own dazzling quirks — it's peopled with characters across the natural world, from dancing frogs and apes to mad scientists and clowns. Cultural diversity is represented by Chinese cyclists, Venice Beach bathers and even a sexy Native American couple on roller skates.

Eric Hernandez and Shandien Larance; Credit: Courtesy of OSA Images

Eric Hernandez and Shandien Larance; Credit: Courtesy of OSA Images

Cirque had to be careful to keep it tasteful, a lesson companies such as Paul Frank had to learn the hard way — after hosting an offensive “pow wow” party, the retailer recently made amends by collaborating with Native American artists on a tasteful new collection. The theater took a similar approach from the start, working closely with Native American consultants — often the performers themselves — to judge what worked and what didn't.

“We don't imitate. We respect, and we don't copy any specific tribe,” says Jalbert. “That was one of the mandates from the start. Like, if we're going to have Native American-type singing then we're going to have a real Native American do it. Same for the hoop dancing.”

Hernandez gave his own input when he took over the role, and was keen to make the performance his own with small changes and interpretations. In its projected 15-year run, the show will evolve with new acts and a rotating cast of performers. For however long he decides to stay, Hernandez is satisfied to share his culture with a new audience every night.

“I hope they realize that we are still here and we're out there doing big things, like performing on Cirque du Soleil stages,” he says. “As long as the audience feels the emotion behind it, then I've achieved my goal. That's what I'm trying to do every night.”

Cirque du Soleil's Totem runs in San Pedro through Nov. 10. It will be moving to Irvine and Santa Monica later in the year.

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