Danielle Lee says hooping is gaining popularity in Madison.
Walking through a side door of the warehouse-style building that houses the Madison Circus Space is like stepping into a scene from the big top: On any given day, people are juggling, walking on stilts, spinning inside an aerial disc, or rolling around inside giant metal German wheels.
There’s also a group practicing hoop dancing, a growing nationwide phenomenon that updates the 1950s hula-hoop craze, attracting prominent names such as Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michelle Obama.
The sessions are often headed by Danielle Lee, an engineer certified as a hooping instructor by Hoop Girl, an international organization devoted to the art.
The appeal of hooping is evident when witnessing hoop dancers execute ninja-type moves, effortlessly spinning a poly tube that’s three and a half feet in diameter. Most experts are able to spin multiple hoops at once. But compared to the more rigorous qualifications needed to become a German wheeler or an aerial performer, it’s easy to get started hooping, and beginners and drop-ins are welcome at the weekly $5 hooping sessions.
Lee began hooping in college, practicing on a side street outside a friend’s apartment. Later, she won a $5,700 senior project award for her invention of a bike rack that holds hoops. She spent half of her winnings getting certified as an instructor. Lee then packed her bags with 20 hoops and headed to Rwanda for a three-week stint with Engineering Without Borders.
“I only brought three days’ worth of clothing, which I just continually rewashed so I could have enough room in my suitcase. The people there had never seen hoops like that. I taught them how to sustain one on their body, and the first time they saw me do it they were mind-blown,” says Lee. Before she left, she donated the hoops to the village.
In 2009, Lee began teaching out of a small yoga studio on East Main Street that barely held eight people. When a spiritual center on East Washington Avenue became available that same year, she invited members of Madison’s hoop community to join her for weekly practices.
Lee got involved with the Madison Circus Space when German wheel artists asked her if she wanted to pool resources. “I was like, ‘hell yeah!’” says Lee.
Although the former auto repair garage was in bad shape when they leased it in 2013, the groups (which also include jugglers, a table tennis club and aerialists) leveraged a Kickstarter campaign to fix it up and put in a dance-friendly floor with a rubber underlay. Less than two years later, almost all of the loans have been paid back, and circus performers have an ideal place to practice their art.
Lee says there’s a synergy when performers use the same space. “I’m seeing a lot of crossover of circus disciplines,” says Lee, who has given hooping tutorials to both a juggler and a German wheeler.
The resident groups have also seen an increase in participation since moving into the space, with classes filling up quickly, adds Lee. Together the groups are working to send German wheel athletes to the Wheel Gymnastics World Championships in Lignano, Italy, following a fundraiser at the Madison Circus Space on May 1. The event, which begins at 6:30 p.m., will feature “try circus” opportunities for donating participants, followed by a German wheel showcase at 7:30 p.m.
Many of Madison’s circus artists, including hoop dancers, will also participate in STRUT!, the May 2 procession spearheaded by Laura Anderson Barbata, the interdisciplinary artist in residence at the UW’s Arts Institute. Barbata, a stilt walker, blends dance, music and design.
The procession will circle the Capitol Square at 2 p.m. before heading to the Madison Children’s Museum on Hamilton Street for a “dance-off.”