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October 14, 2019

The Expert: What I Know About … Hoop Dancing

A rare skill helps this dancer shine on the stage.

Who: Kelsey Wolver 

Age: 27 

Job: Hoop dancer and dance teacher

Experience: Kelsey Wolver expertly weaves a series of hoops over her body, looping them over her arms, shoulders, head and legs, without dropping a single one – or missing a beat. As the music plays, Wolver keeps adding more and more plastic hoops into her routine, picking them up with her toes, never dropping anything. It’s mesmerizing – and a little nerve-racking – to watch. Wolver, who is Cree, French and Norwegian, has been hoop dancing for 15 years. She initially learned the Aboriginal style of dance from a brother-sister team from the Kehewin First Nation.

Now, she teaches dance to about 60 students from ages four to 18 at several schools in the Catholic school district, in addition to performing hoop dancing at events around the city, including the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts last spring. She handcrafts her own hoops, and those she gives to her students.

– “When I was younger, hoop dancing, it was not really something to be taught. I was taught to [use] about five hoops, then it was watch and see, and, if you can’t do it, then you can’t do it. You’re not going to get that step-by-step instruction that you might want. Hoop dancing is kind of like a gift. You have to really work at it to be a successful hoop dancer.

– “Hoop dancing originated 2,000 years ago [in the Aboriginal tradition]; it was originally all males who hoop danced before 1994, but then women started hoop dancing as well.

– “The most I’ve used is 40 hoops. As I’ve grown older, the hoop size has increased, so they are quite heavy now. I usually use, if it’s not a major show, 25 hoops. The hoop size is based on your body. It sort of grows with you. There’s a certain measurement that we make but it’s hard to explain. My hoops from when I was 12 aren’t ideal, so I made larger hoops.

– “If you do drop a hoop during a performance, you just work it into your routine. If it was a competition, you would still work it into your routine but you would lose marks. The main annual competition is the World Hoop Dance Championship Contest in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s for all hoop dancers across the world.

– “You can’t purchase hoops. You can purchase Hula Hoops but the problem with those is the quality. They are very breakable and can be easily damaged. They don’t last beyond a day. Hoop dancers I know, we all make our own hoops. We go out and get the material and make them piece by piece. It’s a type of plastic. It’s sometimes called laundry tubing or plumbing. You’re going out and finding that material at a hardware store. They’re breakable but they are fixable; they aren’t permanently broken. My first set of hoops lasted about 10 years; I got them when I was about 12. Now, the students at one of the elementary schools where I’ve taught use those hoops. I made my new hoops in 2012. They are getting a bit worn, tape-wise but, we would just do a re-tape and they will appear new again.

– “You’re making your own routines. It’s a story-telling dance. Usually, it’s based on experiences that I have gone through, or it’s open to interpretation. It’s mostly as the audience interprets it themselves.

– “The traditional hoop dance outfit consists of a breechcloth. It’s similar to a skirt, but you put it together in pieces. You have two side pieces and one in the front, one in the back. And then you have a vest. These pieces are handmade, so they are very elaborate, well-decorated, but they are for traditional hoop dancing. They are made from all colours.

– “Routines can vary from four minutes to 10 minutes. You kind of want to be around the six-minute mark just because when you’re working with drummers, which you usually will be, 10 minutes is a long song.

– “It’s very physically exerting. You get minor [injuries]. I get bruises around my wrists and forearms just from spinning the hoops but they go away. It’s nothing too bad.

– “I put my hoops in a storage tire cover. It does come with a handle. You don’t have to make them, which is kind of a pain. I had quite a few bags that I tried to make, or my mom tried to make, and they would break.

– “I have connected with most of the hoop dancers in Edmonton and I can quite confidently say there are less than a dozen of us practising.”

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