Kayley Smith, 27, performs for the circus troupe Circus Bacchus (Circus Bacchus)

Kayley Smith, 27, performs for the circus troupe Circus Bacchus (Circus Bacchus)

Aztec Street has a reputation as being one of the best places in Flagstaff, Ariz. to trick or treat on Halloween. People go all out, burning cauldron fires in their driveways, walking on neon stilts and turning backyards into “Trails of Terror.”

But this past Halloween, none of the costumed kids or their parents were expecting to see a fire hula hooping performance in the middle of Aztec Street.

Kayley Smith, 27, spun a blazing hoop of fire around her waist, arms, and neck. Her audience watched in awe…from a safe distance.

Smith is no amateur. She’s a performer with the local circus troupe, Circus Bacchus. She says safety is key when it comes to fire hooping, right down to the clothes on your body, which on that night, for Smith, consisted of a black leotard and silver lamé tights.

When you really get into hoop, it’s not so much about the hips anymore as it is all the way from your toes to your fingertips… You learn a kind of muscle control that you didn’t know you had before.
– Melissa Kashaely, hula hooper

“When you first start fire performing, you start researching what fabrics are good for you, making sure that they don’t melt to your skin, that’s a good one,” Smith said. “It’s not just a fun thing you do while you’re drunk at a party.”

But, it used to be… kind of.

The first commercial hula hoop was marketed by the Wham-O company in 1957. It was advertised as a fun activity to do at the beach or at a party. And it was an instant success. It was also instantly unclear whether the hula hoop was just a toy or an actual form of exercise or even sport. That question came up in 1958 when Wham-O co-inventor Arthur “Spud” Melin appeared on the game show, “What’s My Line?” where celebrity guests tried to figure out what contestants did for a living.

“Well Mr. Melin, you look like quite a strong, young man,” panelist Arlene Francis said. “Do you have anything to do with the world of sports?”

“Yes,” Melin replied.

“I would say this, Spud, I think Spud is being too generous,” the host interrupted. “He has a different idea of sport than you. The affirmative answer there would be misleading in the extreme, and besides we want to flip a card so I’ll change it to ‘no.’”

But it turns out it was more sport than toy. In the 1970s, while kids across America began losing interest in the plastic hoop, it was slowly working its way into elite sports.  In 1984, a high-tech version of the original hula hoop made its Olympic debut in Los Angeles in the rhythmic gymnastics competition.

A hooper performs at the Flagstaff Hullabaloo in Arizona. (Rick Johnson)

A hooper performs at the Flagstaff Hullabaloo in Arizona. (Rick Johnson)

And even more recently, it’s become a popular – and ultra-hip – fitness class.

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of spandex-clad students gathered at a studio in downtown Flagstaff for a hula hooping class. Melissa Kashaely, 31, was one of them.

“When you really get into hoop, it’s not so much about the hips anymore as it is all the way from your toes to your fingertips,” Kashaely said.

Kashaely became interested in hooping after obsessively watching YouTube videos of dramatic hula hoop tricks. She was bored with her regular exercise routine and decided to give hooping a spin.

“You learn a kind of muscle control that you didn’t know you had before,” she said.

But, of all the toys that had at least some element of athleticism – the pogo stick, ping pong – why did the hula hoop make it into the modern world of exercise?

“This generation is all about working out and having fun, too,” said Marlene Hochman, founder and director of the Toy Museum of New York, where she is known as Queen Marlene. “They’re a very social generation.”

“Back in the day, you played with your jacks, you had a Frisbee, you had pick-up sticks and you had a hula hoop,” Hochman said. “It was not an exercise piece of equipment at all. But, today as a revival toy, you get instant gratification. It does something.”

Paul Blair gets more gratification from the hula hoop than most people. He is a professional hooper and goes by the stage name, “Dizzy Hips.”

“Dizzy Hips”, 44, makes a living on international TV shows and at county fairs, hooping everything from small children to giant tractor tires. He also holds the Guinness world record for spinning the most hoops at once, 136. “Dizzy Hips” said he hardly does anything without a hula hoop involved.

“I can do pretty much every sport while hooping – play football, throw, catch, tennis, I play tennis while hooping and roller skating,” he said. “Skiing, snowboarding, swimming, every sport while hula hooping.”

“Dizzy Hips” said there’s somewhat of a glass ceiling for male hoopers since, according to his calculations, 99.999 percent of all “hoopers” are women. And that, he said, is the kind of job security he likes.