The hula hoop renaissance
By D. Dion
Hula hoops have been around for a very long time. By some accounts, people have been twirling or wheeling them along the ground since at least 500 BC. About a century ago in Australia, they were fashioned out of bamboo, which was likely the inspiration for the plastic version that was patented by Wham-O in the U.S. in the late 1950s.
Wham-O sold twenty-five million plastic hoops in just four months, and a fad was born. In 1958, singer Georgia Gibbs performed her hit “The Hula Hoop Song,” one of four songs in that era paying homage to the toy, on The Ed Sullivan Show.
It was the first time that this circular toy was linked with music, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Round the Wheel
In the 1990s, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the bluegrass genre itself, was coming of age. Young musicians and future legends Alison Krauss, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile were emerging on the scene, and bands like Leftover Salmon, with its cajun/zydeco flair, and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with its jazz influences, were adding more texture to traditional bluegrass. Bluegrass was transforming into what’s been called “Newgrass,” a less formulaic, more jam-band style of music that incorporated different instruments and crossed genres.
String Cheese Incident first played at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1994. They were a brand new local band at the time—in fact, the slot originally belonged to frontman Billy Nershi’s old band, which had broken up—and SCI had only been together a few months. “We were so new that we didn’t even have a lot of songs to play,” says Michael Kang, the band’s mandolin and violin player. “We practiced all winter and put a set together.”
In those days, Nershi was a fixture on the bench outside the Floradora, where he worked as a cook. He used to sit and play guitar and sing, stopping to chat with passersby and friends. No one realized back then that String Cheese Incident would go on to become one of the most celebrated jam bands in the country, drawing huge crowds wherever they go on tour. Nershi reminisced in 2017: “I think it’s probably a shock for them now to have me come back to town and have like 4,000 people trying to get into town to see us play.”
The band honed their chops in those early days by playing small gigs around town and a bunch of weddings. “Luckily,” joked Kang, “a lot of our friends got married back then.” After they played, they often hung out at their friend Beth Childers’ place, and it was there that she turned them on to hula hooping one fateful night. Said Kang: “She told us, ‘This is the thing. This is going to cause a stir.’”
Childers was something of a local celebrity herself. Vivacious, extroverted, and beautiful, she knew better than anyone how to cause a stir. She and her friend from Durango, Kari “Beanie” Silverman, took hula hoops to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and hooped for two weeks straight, she said. In Telluride, Childers always hooped at parties or end-of-season street dances, and would show up at SCI gigs with a hula hoop and her tap shoes. She was, in essence, the spokesmodel for the hula hoop renaissance: no longer just a plastic toy, the new, beefier version of homemade hoops were made for music. “We made our own with PVC piping,” said Childers. “They had to be heavy enough to keep them up around our hips. I had a party and I taught the band how to hula hoop. Everyone started bringing them to shows, and it just took off.”
When Childers showed the band how to hoop that night, it clicked. There is something intrinsically pleasant about hooping to music: it’s like having your own metronome circling your hips, keeping time. There’s a strangely satisfying interplay between the centripetal and centrifugal forces, maybe the same sort of sensation that had hippies twirling at Grateful Dead shows for decades. For an up-and-coming jam band like String Cheese Incident, hooping was the perfect complement to their music. “We always felt like we wanted to be a dance band—that was our goal. Hula hoops are just a way to do that, to help people break down their inhibitions,” said Kang. “A friend and I made forty or fifty of them out of tubing. We were traveling in a Crested Butte school bus and we brought them to Bluegrass, and during our set just threw them out there. It kind of became our thing.”
The band ran with the concept. They have been known to hoop on stage at their shows, and once made a grand entrance to a closing day gig at Gorrono’s on the ski resort, telemarking and hooping simultaneously. They designed the iconic stickers of a pedestrian-crossing street sign with a hula hoop, and to this day, you can still find them on Subaru bumpers in ski towns— along with a host of actual street signs where the pedestrian or the deer crossing has been graffitied with a hoop. Their fans embraced the idea, too—so much so that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival eventually had to create a special area just for hooping.
True Love’s Dance Hall
“For me, the hula hoop zone has always been about protecting the innocent from battery,” said Craig Ferguson, the festival’s director; “I’m kidding.” Ferguson said he doesn’t remember when the zone—called “True Love’s Dance Hall”—was first created, but he does know that it was for safety reasons.
This year marks the 50th anniversary for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the 30th for String Cheese. The hoop is a fitting symbol, as the band will come full circle this summer, performing at the golden anniversary of the festival where they played their first big show. They spin back through town often on their busy touring schedule, at other festivals and solo shows, and Kang said it’s always special. “For us, Telluride in many ways is our literal and figurative home. Our spiritual base. It feels like a homecoming to us for sure; we’re really excited to come back. We love Telluride.”
A lot of the artists and attendees of the bluegrass festival feel the same vibe. The pilgrimage to Telluride during the summer solstice, to play and enjoy music, is like an annual reunion. The communion of old friends and familiar tunes, basking in the longest days of the year, is magical.
The solstice, and the festival, are a way of marking time—one revolution around the sun, an annual gathering of the tribe—like the way you punctuate the spinning hoop by checking it with your hip, keeping the rhythm. Hooping, too, is a celebration of the music, of joy, of being lost in the moment. While hula hooping has cycled through all kinds of trends, from toy, to fitness tool, even to fire twirling, it is elementally suited to music. “It’s bliss,” said Childers. “It is so much fun. You just get really into the groove. Close your eyes, hoop, and everything comes together.”