New hoopla for an old fad

Stefani Pollack (from left), Danielle Sullivan and Stacey Sickler practice hula hoop techniques during a beginner class at the Koken Art Factory in St. Louis.

The dozen women dotting the second floor of the Koken Art Factory gently gyrate their hips to keep the hula hoops whirling at their waists.

Instructor Sarah Smith roams around giving one-on-one instructions.

"The bigger the hoop, the slower it rolls around your body," said Smith, 26, of St. Peters, Mo., handing a hoop wide enough for a large farm animal to walk through to a student.

Smith said that each hoop has its own rhythm; that the smaller ones fly around the body really fast.

"It helps to get a huge, huge hoop when you're first starting out so you can feel where to push and pull," she tells a first-time student.

Hula-hooping became the granddaddy of all fads in 1958 when baby boomers were kids. Now it's made a comeback among their hipster children and grandchildren.

They're doing it for fun, for choreographed performances and as a whimsical way to get fit and toned.

Actress Marisa Tomei began hula-hooping a couple of years ago to train for her role as an erotic dancer in the film "The Wrestler." Last year, she released a fitness DVD called "HoopBody."

"It's so much more relaxed than going to a gym with people running on a treadmill," said Leigh Smith, 24, of Wildwood, Mo., between hoop classes at Koken in the Fox Park neighborhood one evening. (She's not related to the instructor) "But the next day you really feel it in your muscles. You don't think it's a workout, but it definitely is."

Stefani Pollack, 34, of Webster Groves, Mo., had a baby nine months ago and said people often ask how she lost her pregnancy weight. Hula-hooping, she tells them.

"I was attracted to it because the girls who do it are always smiling and don't look like they're hating themselves to lose five pounds," she added.

Smith reminds her students to whirl the hoops in the opposite direction around their waist once in a while to balance out muscle development in their abdomens.

Then she points to a woman whose hoop is swirling at an angle -- higher in the front, lower in the back -- and said the effect can be accomplished by leaning back slightly, looking at the ceiling and thrusting the hips upward.

Leigh Smith and Lena Myers were introduced to hula-hopping by their friend, Lindsay, who moved to Hawaii. She once pulled her collapsible hoop out at a party, snapped it together, then showed off some tricks.

When Myers tells people she's going to hula hoop class, they whirl their hips and ask if that's what she means.

"I tell them that I think it's a lot more than that," she said. "You're learning a skill as you work out."

Smith moves the class onto isolation tricks, which are done by holding the hoop away from the body.

Smith has dabbled in modern dance, aerobics and figure skating. "It definitely helps with being smooth and being able to flow," she said. "People do aerobics with hooping but it's also a form of dance. It's not just about performing fancy tricks."

Smith joined the St. Louis Hoop Club as a way to meet people, then began performing with a hoop troupe.

Hoops can be made heavier by filling them with water or sand.

"If you're trying to lose weight and tone muscles, you want a heavy one," Smith said. "If you're doing performance, you want a light-weight one. A heavy one makes your arms tired and that's not good when you're on stage."