Sisters Rowan and Blythe TwoSisters (their legal last name) were relaxing one evening in Rowan's Houston home, when a hoop dancing DVD showed up months after Rowan had ordered it. Its arrival led to an incredible legacy of innovation and inclusion within the world of hoop dance. And yes, there's a whole world of hoop dancing. But it was a long journey to get there.
Blythe and Rowan have always been tall, now 5'11 and 6'1 respectively, which led to them trying sports like basketball and volleyball in school. Rowan played basketball but was frustrated that she couldn't get a uniform that fit her correctly. She says, "I didn't feel confident just leaving the dressing room, much less trying to play a game in embarrassingly tight clothing. And even though the boy's teams had plenty of money for uniforms, the girl's teams never did." So when she tore her ACL at age 16, she chose not to return to the sport, focusing instead on hiking in the mountains with her dogs.
Blythe played volleyball in school. "I was terrible, but they let me play because I was tall." She hated all the running and feeling uncoordinated.
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Finding the Right Exercise for Your Body
After high school, Rowan moved with her two energetic dogs to Florida, across the street from Cocoa Beach (literally A1A, Beachfront Avenue!). She would ride her bike at the beach with them and body surf to relax. At 22, she joined a gym and met some friends who were doing triathlons. They eventually talked her into giving it a try. She did great in the swim portion, but it went downhill from there, and she decided that one triathlon was more than enough.
Blythe's journey with fitness stopped as a young adult. Fitness had always been painful and dreadful. She eventually discovered that was because she had ankylosing spondylitis, a painful genetic inflammatory disease that reduces spinal flexibility but can often be managed.
In grad school she found herself frequently flying out to California and wanted to try her hand at surfing, but knew that she had to get her fitness level up to do it safely.
At 32, Blythe joined a gym. That's where she discovered NIA -- which stands for neuromuscular integrative action -- a mind-body movement technique that's a fusion of many different movement forms, including yoga, thai chi, dance, martial arts and Feldenkrais. She was in love, so of course she called her sister. While Blythe was finishing grad school in Dallas, Rowan was in Houston, which was a major hub for NIA, and Blythe insisted that Rowan take the first level (white belt) training.
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The Hula Hoop of Self-Esteem
One year later, they were both on their way to completing the second-level NIA teaching certification. It was that evening, sitting in Rowan's living room, exhausted from their NIA training, they opened that DVD. Instantly inspired, Blythe found a second wind and grabbed a hoop that Rowan had lying around. It was a complete no go. Rowan's luck wasn't any better. Wondering, "why can't we hoop like the women on the video?" they went to bed frustrated.
Undeterred, Rowan convinced Jocelyn Gordan from Hoopnotica, a leader in hoop dance fitness instruction and equipment since 2006, to come give them a training. They learned that the hoop they were using was, in Rowan's words, "way too small. Like walking around in a child's size seven shoe when you need a women's 11." They added 8 inches to the hoop, and the whole world opened up. It wasn't their bodies that were the limitation.
As they learned, they began to teach, so that they could bring hooping to people of all body sizes. "Not everybody fits inside of a tiny hula hoop, and we will be damned if someone is gonna take that joy away from us or someone we love," Rowan says. "We created the hoop of self-esteem. That sucker is HUGE! Like it doesn't fit in most cars, so Blythe figured out how to make them collapsible. We spent hours and hours figuring out how to make a hula hoop that was inclusive as hell, with 48 to 54 inches of useable space inside."
Then they created even greater accessibility by teaching more "off the body" work. When we think of hooping, we typically envision the hoop circling the waist, but in fact lots of hoop dance is done with the hoop around the arms, legs and even neck.
And it wasn't just fat bodies they wanted to make sure were included. "Both hooping and NIA are centered around the thin feminine, traditionally pretty heteronormative narrative, and sure they give lip service to othering and inclusion, but that doesn't really seem to hold when it comes to being fat. So we both roll right over those norms," shares Blythe.
Blythe got her husband involved, and soon they had their own little hoop-making factory, with Blythe traveling to hoop trainings around the country.
A Hoopful of Possibilities
In 2010 they held their first hoop retreat in Dallas. The next year they moved it to the Texas beach near Galveston, and Hottie Hoop Camp was officially born. At its largest, it included 54 people, two rented beach houses and an intensely busy week-long schedule that included hoop, burlesque, dance, yoga and fashion all done from a fiercely body positive perspective. They created their own teacher certification program under their business name, Punk Rock Hoops. They also created a series of 16 basic beginner lessons on their Punk Rock Hoops YouTube channel.
Now, both in their late 40s, they keep hooping. Asked how the world of hoop dance can be more inclusive, they don't hesitate. Rowan explains, "How about have furniture that fits many bodies... how about an activity designed for MOST people to do? You need adaptive techniques for bodies that don't find ease in movement and teachers who can break down what's not working and what is."
For Rowan, hooping allows a freedom not available with many other forms of exercise. "Hooping and flow arts are individual while being in community. So I didn't have to look like everyone else, I can look and land moves and have ease in my body in a way that doesn't mirror an instructor or follow a narrow description of what's 'right.' That's pretty freeing, being a part of an expressive and fitness community while not having to 'Wear Pink on Wednesdays.'"
After 10 years of camps they took a sabbatical this year due to the pandemic, but continue to get together every other Sunday with their friends to hoop in a park downtown, in an event they call Cool Honey's Circus. They are planning for the return of Hottie Hoop Camp next year, this time in the West Texas desert. And while their dance days in the park were shut down for a few months due to COVID-19, they're getting back to them with safety and social distancing practices. "We wear masks and stay far apart and don't hug (which hurts), but we need to see our people, and they need us too."
Ragen Chastain is a speaker, writer and thought leader in the fields of body image, Health at Every Size, athletes at every size and corporate wellness. She is the author of the blogs DanceswithFat.org and Ironfat.com, and the book "Fat: The Owner's Manual." She's also editor of the Praeger Anthology "The Politics of Size" and co-founder of the Fit Fatties Facebook group. Ragen is frequently featured as an expert in radio, television and print, and appeared in the documentaries "Fattitude," "America the Beautiful 2," "A Stage for Size" and the PBS Independent Lens short "Ragen's More Cabaret." She is an ACE-certified health coach, functional fitness specialist, three-time national champion dancer, triathlete and two-time marathoner who holds the Guinness World Record for heaviest woman to complete a marathon. She lives in Los Angeles and is training for her first (and only!) Ironman triathlon. You can find out more at sizedforsuccess.com.