Jenny, many of us played with hoola hoops when we were younger. How old were you when you first started out? What was it about hooping that kept you taking it to the next level?
It’s funny, but I don’t remember hula hooping at all as a child. We grew up in the woods, and our closest neighbors were about a mile or so away, so my sister and I did a lot of creative things. We created circuses, made up games in the woods, and once I tried making a pop up restaurant in my bedroom where I made my parents pay for food they had already purchased! I’m sure there was a hoop around as part of one of our circuses, but I really don’t remember playing with it as it was intended. I was 39 years old when I first picked up a hoop and was determined to keep it spinning. My sister introduced me to it by bringing a hoop making kit with her the weekend she visited for my wedding. There are a number of different things that have kept me engaged and excited about hooping. At first it was just sheer determination and the old competitive spirit of sisterhood. My sister could hoop beautifully. Why couldn’t I keep it going? I spent days out in my backyard, practicing. Eventually something clicked and my body said, “Yep. This is it.” I spent years up in my head. It felt really good to have my body speak for a change. I was always the awkward kid growing up – the one that was picked last for the team in gym class, so suddenly having a creative outlet that was also athletic and made me feel graceful instead of clumsy has kept me engaged. One of the things that continues to keep me going with hooping is the playful aspect of it. It’s a toy! So if I make a “mistake” I turn it into a new move, or I laugh it off and continue. There have been a lot of lessons with hooping.
We’ve been hearing a lot about “flow” recently when it comes to sports and the arts. It seems to me that your hooping is a great example of flow – total focus and being in the moment. Do you agree? Do you get the same feeling from your writing?
Mmm, yes, flow. I think the word gets used in a number of different ways. For me there’s the flow of linking moves together with hooping and generating a personal style. There’s a lot of talk about flow in the hooping community. Hoopers who have learned the basics and want to level up sometimes get uptight about “finding flow,” because they feel like they aren’t skilling up quickly enough. Flow happens in a sort of quiet way, I think. It’s subtle. You keep practicing at a thing you’re passionate about (writing, hooping, cooking), and suddenly and without much notice you have developed a style. My husband talks a lot about Mise en Place. It’s a cooking term that means you have all your ingredients ready and are capable of putting together a delicious meal. I think this applies to most art. Having enough technique and craft to develop style.
Then there’s the kind of flow that happens where you are focused and in the moment, which you mentioned. That type of flow, to me, is a sort of meditative state. There are moments of this for me with hooping, especially when I am alone. I don’t feel that kind of flow while I’m teaching, or performing, or when I’m working on some off-body four hoop move. Once I’ve figured out the move and can incorporate it into the other type of flow, well then I might reach that sort of nirvana “brain shutoff”. It’s interesting now that I think of it how the two types of flow work together. It’s hard to get the meditative state of flow while you’re learning to master waist hooping, but once you get it, the brain chatter stops, and it’s a blissful place to be.
What is your typical daily routine? Do you practicing hooping every day? Are you an early-riser writer?
I’m up at 5:30, and I write for an hour. I’ve kept journals for years. If I’m working on a poem that usually happens in the morning as well. I read after that for a bit, usually until 7 a.m. Hoop practice during the spring, summer, and early fall happens in the morning as well, usually after I answer emails and make a list for the day. I spend at least an hour in practice, and it’s usually at the local park. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the neighborhood this way. When the winter months hit, I practice indoors.
Your life seems to be full of play and creativity. We’re learning that flow, play and creativity are important for our health as we age. What advice would you give someone who is stuck in a stressful job and busy schedule?
I had parents that encouraged creativity, and I think that made a big influence on how I live my life. My suggestion for anyone struggling with stress is to find a creative outlet that speaks to you and moonlight from your stressful job in discovery. Theatre bug? Go audition for a local theatre or offer your help backstage. Musical itch? Take lessons. Everyone has busy schedules and the key is making time for that moonlighting. It doesn’t have to be a lot. An hour a day, or a half hour if you’re really crunched. I think anything that you’re curious about is a good place to start.
Hooping has had a lot of benefits for me, some of them being an increased spatial awareness, better eye/hand coordination, an increase in self-esteem, a boost in happiness, and then all the physical bonuses too. I’m stronger now at 45 than I was at 17. I hope to keep this up for as long as I can! Creativity is good for the brain – your brain develops new neural pathways as you skill up in an art form. This is super-beneficial as you age. I just finished teacher training with the Center for Creative Aging. There are a lot of studies that show that play and creativity have positive effects on health and well being.
You’re a teacher also. Can you tell us about one or two of your most rewarding teaching experiences?
It’s endlessly rewarding. There have been many moments of discovery and magic. I once took a group of 4th grade students outside so we could focus on the sense of sound, and they closed their eyes as I read a poem about snow. It was October. When they opened their eyes, it was snowing. They begged me to read again so they’d get a snow day! There was a teenage boy who slept through class but stayed awake when I visited to write a poem about his sister. It was like he was waiting for me to arrive so he could have the permission to write it. There was a school board meeting I attended with high school students. All those men in suits were so intimidating! They held all the cards, you know? They made all the decisions. One of the students read a poem for them called “Bomb in my Bookbag.” The “bomb” was her bible. I’ll never forget her bravery. I think every moment someone puts their trust in me to share their thoughts, or to try out a hoop, or share a life story, is rewarding. Living is rewarding. Getting to know other people is one of the best things in life, in my opinion. Students are always teaching me new things.
What’s next for you? Do you have another creative project in the works?
There’s always something going on around here. There are a string of performances I’m giving in the next couple of months, so I’m rehearsing a lot. I’ve finally committed to taking an improv class with the Philadelphia Improv Theater, and I’m excited about how what I learn there will inform the other things I do. I’m teaching a Hoop Revolution class at a local yoga studio – a quieter, slower introduction to hooping, and a Hoop Yourself Fabulous series that starts next week, which is a higher energy hoop class. In the evenings, since it’s hockey season, I will be writing. One of the things I love about the later fall is that things slow down a bit and I have time to reflect on what I’ve done and where and how creative ideas overlap. Hooping and poetry do overlap, and that’s a combination that has been fascinating to me for a few years. The most interesting exploration to me so far was a group hoop/theatre performance I created called, “O, Jabberwocky.” I’m working on developing a hooping and literacy curriculum that I can take to schools. That’s next. My lists are long, and time is of the essence!
If you (or someone you know) has made it a priority to incorporate creative play into daily life, I’d love to talk. Please contact me at catherine.shefski(at)gmail.com.