By Hokey Pokey, aka David Schick
Standing at the front of her class at Ouroboros Movement Studio, on the New Leicester Highway, Melanie MacNeil demonstrates a series of moves, showing students how to “flow.” Weaving and swishing, sidestepping and turning, pivoting and twisting, she tells them, “If you got lost on that last one, we can start from the beginning.”
When MacNeil began hooping over 10 years ago, she couldn’t have imagined how far her exploration would take her — or how much her efforts would help build Asheville’s hooping community. Today her business, Asheville Hoops, makes and sells hoops, runs a hooping dance class, provides free community flow jams in the summer and manages a choreographed hooping dance troupe.
“There was this pivotal moment where I went to a weekend retreat called Hoop Convergence, and it was 200 hoopers camping out and teaching workshops all weekend long,” she recalls. “I got so affirmed by the art form and the community that I quit my day job to start my business.”
MacNeil asks the class if they know the difference between tunneling and slicing, praising the student who gives a correct answer. Hooping has a language all its own: Flow artists use props such as hoops, staffs, fans and “poi” — the Maori word for a ball on a cord — seeking to dazzle audiences with their fluidity and ability to make seamless transitions from one move to the next. Other terms include isolations, pumps, corkscrews and the upward- and downward-facing booty bumps.
Asheville Hoops has been a regular at the biannual LEAF Festival and, more recently, in LEAF Community Arts’ LEAF Schools & Streets program. Ehren Cruz, the nonprofit’s performing arts director, says, “Asheville Hoops has been a wonderful source of education, entertainment and inspiration for our families and youth. Whether on the stage or roaming the field, their energy, skill, professionalism and genuine love for flow arts captivate all who experience them.”
On Tuesday evenings in the summer, Asheville Hoops leads a flow jam in Pritchard Park that’s sponsored by the Asheville Downtown Association. The event, says Executive Director Meghan Rogers, is “a great way for us to bring people into the park.” It helps them “put aside boundaries and get together to do something fun.”
MacNeil agrees, saying, “It’s nice to know there are other entities that appreciate what we’re doing; it brings people into town who then are likely to spend more money.” For some of her students, though, hooping has been nothing less than life-changing.
“I’m a white man who can’t dance,” Paul Van Heden told MacNeil years ago. “Help me: I need to find my rhythm.” Today, she reveals, “He’s this amazing hooper, and he’s organized a community event at the YMCA on Thursday nights from 8 to 10 p.m.” The free class also teaches other flow arts such as poi and acroyoga. Another former student of MacNeil’s now runs a movement studio.
“It’s another domino effect that happened from organizing classes and creating a troupe,” she explains. “And then creating a free community event that was also geared toward hooping.” Van Heden “took that and started a hoop and flow-arts jam that’s happening at the YMCA.”
For his part, Van Heden gives MacNeil a lot of credit for nurturing Asheville’s extremely vibrant flow-arts scene. “People like Melanie,” he says, “instigated the infrastructure that made this scene possible. There isn’t a flow artist in this town, whether they know it or not, who hasn’t been influenced by what she built.”
Rob Grader, aka the Cosmic Hooper, started hooping in 2001; he met MacNeil in 2009 after losing his long-term job. At the time, the market was saturated with LED hoops, but while there were both high-end and inexpensive models, there was nothing in the middle. So Grader decided to try his hand at making quality LED hoops that were more affordable. He found a grateful market of low-budget hoopers who, thanks to his continuing efforts, can hoop through the night.
Together, these people have helped create a first-rate community of flow artists.
“I would put our talent pool on par with any major city known for flow,” notes Van Heden. “This is not an exaggeration meant to appease some flack over at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce: It’s really that good.”
For MacNeil, meanwhile, hooping was something that serendipitously found her during a tumultuous period in her life. Her new prop was more than just a toy: It gave her purpose.
“It’s a piece of fitness equipment, but even more than that, it’s a tool for transformation and spiritual growth,” she explains. “It’s so much more than just a hula hoop. We don’t call it hula-hooping, we call it hoop dancing or hooping.”
Over time, though, her focus has evolved, from being a traveling performer to making and selling hoops to, these days, teaching.
“It’s where I get the most out of it — seeing people have a good time. They’re arriving in their bodies, they’re waking up, they’re finding new ways to move and be.”
Back in front of her class, MacNeil demonstrates a new move, then paces around the room, assisting students who need help. And when everyone has learned it, she congratulates them. “All of you now have this move,” she says. “Celebrate that.”
For more information on Asheville Hoops, check out their Facebook page or visit ashevillehoops.wordpress.com.