- Associated Press - Friday, August 27, 2010

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Stefanie Moser hadn’t touched a Hula Hoop since she was a kid. So when she went to a wedding and the bride insisted the guests hoop instead of dance, she gave it a twirl.

Soon, the 26-year-old found herself hooping while she read books or talked on the phone. She made so many trips to the local hardware store for supplies to make her own hoops that the workers there dubbed her “The Hoop Lady.” Now she leads a hoop jam of the Steel City Hoop Union every Tuesday night at a church-turned-community gathering place.

“Once you enter through that plastic portal, you get kind of sucked in,” Moser said.

Born of the Hula Hoops first made in the 1950s, hooping has become hip again, with clubs across the country bringing together hoop aficionados, exercise classes and DVDs incorporating hoops and even first lady Michelle Obama touting the toy as a way to fight childhood obesity.

The Hula Hoop was created in 1958 by Wham-O Inc. Its popularity was short lived, but artists and others eventually started making their own hoops and incorporating them into festivals, such as at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada where many dance with hoops on fire.

But in the past few years, hooping has gone mainstream. Now there are hooping classes and virtual hooping using the Wii Fit game console. Actress Marisa Tomei hooped on the Ellen DeGeneres show last year when she talked about how she keeps in shape; now she has her own hooping fitness DVD coming out this month through Gaiam, a company that promotes healthy lifestyles.

In Las Vegas, the City Council is considering a ban on hoops in its Freemont Street Experience, a bustling downtown area which draws tourists and artists. Supporters of the ban say the large hoops used there can injure people.

“It’s just exploded,” said Michelle Schaeffer, founder of the STL Hoop Club in St. Louis, Mo., which has taught people from ages 5 to 90 how to hoop. “It’s such a fun activity and for everyone I know that does it, it puts a smile on their face.”

Never able to hoop as a kid? Hoop addicts say don’t let that stop you from trying. Hoops for adults are larger and heavier than the toy ones sold in stores for children, and that helps them stay up on bigger bodies. Adult hoops can be 43 inches in diameter, or larger, weigh several pounds and cost $30 or more.

Gabriella Redding, founder and chief executive of Hoopnotica, a California-based hooping business, said many people associate hooping with children or more fringe performers. Those misconceptions, she said, have led people to shy away from it or associate it with “weirdos.”

Redding started hooping about six years ago when she stumbled upon a hooping class while looking for a way to lose the weight she gained when she was pregnant. She was looking for more of a cardiovascular workout than yoga could offer and was bored by pilates.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it only took one class,” said Redding, who lost 60 pounds. “I was smitten with it.”

Redding’s company sells hoops, hooping DVDs and other gear, and certifies hoop instructors to teach the Hoopnotica program all over the world. Last year, the company certified 50 new instructors. So far this year, they’ve already certified 280.

“I think we’re really going to see a shift that is similar to the tipping point that yoga had,” Redding said. Yoga, once considered fringe, became commonplace in fitness centers across the country once celebrities like Madonna started doing it, Redding said.

Bill Sondheim, Gaiam’s president, said hooping has been a burgeoning trend in fitness that the company had been watching when actress Tomei approached them about working together. He said often workouts can be intimidating, but hooping is all about having fun.

In Pittsburgh, the Steel City Hoop Union spends sunny Tuesdays hooping for an hour in a grassy area outside while music beats in the background; if it rains or snows, the group hoops surrounded by tall stained glass windows in the old church’s great hall.

Erika Johnson, 42, who founded the group with Moser, “hooped” her way through a half marathon in Nashville in 2009. The 13.1 miles took her 4 hours and 3 minutes, all while walking and hooping.

When she moved to Pittsburgh last year from Tennessee, she was disappointed there weren’t any hooping classes offered here. Then she ran into Moser, 26, selling hoops at an arts festival.

“It’s silly and it’s sexy and you don’t have to take yourself very seriously, and it evokes all these childhood memories,” said Johnson, as she talked and twirled a large hoop with her hand, around and around and around again.

Moser and Johnson said in addition to being great exercise, hooping at its core is a great social activity. They have regulars who show up each week, but also people that are new to hooping and just want to try it out.

“It’s just been more than anything a beautiful way to really get to know some people,” Moser said. “You let your guard down because you’re doing something silly within five minutes and your laughing with somebody that you’ve never spoken to before.”