Tampa Bay Hooping Connections Span The Globe

83 Degrees Magazine: Chris Kuhn | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Abby Albaum describes the origins of St. Petersburg's Hoola Monsters as friends coming together with a common passion: backyard hoop jams.

After spending hours online watching hoops videos on YouTube and studying performers across the world at the popular online community Hooping.org, Albaum took a leap of faith.

In August 2009, she left her eight-year marketing career to pursue a new passion full-time and launched Hoola Monsters, a hoop fitness instructional program available to the public and a hoop dance troupe who continues to perform at local and national events.

"Hooping has evolved into a performance art, a total meditation practice and a full body workout. I relate it to yoga, a mind-body-spirit practice," she says. "Gone are the days where we're limited to hula hooping on our waist with jerky movements. It's more about getting into a state of flow so you're transitioning between the moves."

Hoola Monsters hosts multilevel, one-hour hoop fitness classes at locations throughout the Tampa Bay area including Hip Expressions Belly Dance Studios and Sunken Gardens, both in St. Pete.

The group also designs its own hoops, which look and feel nothing like its plastic counterpart from over 50 years ago. Constructed from industrial-strength irrigation tubing and finished with decorative, functional tape, today's hoops are heavier and rotate more slowly, which enables people of all ages and sizes to successfully maneuver them.

For some students, hooping can be an effective fitness and weight loss tool with participants burning as many as 600 calories per hour or a meaningful form of self-expression and art.

For others like Carissa Caricato, a former Hoola Monsters student, the meditative nature of the practice can also represent a powerful connector: both spiritually and socially.

Spreading Hoops Of Joy

Caricato first began hooping in early 2009 and was surprised by the energy and joy she felt each time she left class. Earlier that year, she had traveled to Haiti on a church mission and was planning a return trip. She brought along a half-dozen travel hoops and quickly discovered this new favorite hobby offered a fun way to connect with the Haitian children. In May 2010, she planned a third visit to Haiti following a devastating January earthquake and brought 17 hoops.

"We would hoop and have happy moments," she says. "But it's about connecting those moments of happiness to the greater and deeper meaning of joy. When we have a relationship with God, there's a deeper spirituality that's connected, a longer lasting joy than just a moment of playtime."

She returned to Tampa and her marketing role with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, but found her heart remained connected with those whom she met during her trip. After attending a national women's conference, the idea sparked to combine her passions for joy, hooping and God, and Caricato resigned from her position to pursue missionary work through Hoola for Happiness, which launched in December 2010 and became a 501c3 nonprofit organization in September 2011. Caricato sees herself and her growing team of "joy spreaders" reaching across the globe to "spread the love of God and joy through hooping." By late 2011, she and supporters had already visited 13 countries.

Hoola for Happiness board member Kara Teresi says she enjoys seeing the effect hooping has on others.

"It's fun to watch people who are always on the sidelines as spectators now have a way to be a part of it," she says.

Teresi first became friends with Caricato over a year ago when she shared her own passion for soccer and desire to visit Haiti. After seeing her new friend come alive as she described a similar passion, Teresi knew she wanted to be a part of it, too.

"In soccer or other sports, there are rules and guidelines, but with hula hooping, there's a freedom about it. It can be picked up without a lot of training," Teresi says. "Once you've broken the barrier of getting someone to try it, it just flows from there.''

Hooping Beyond Tampa Bay

On November 11, Tampa Bay and communities across the globe celebrated World Hoop Day, an annual event to raise awareness about world peace and encourage local groups to send money and hoops to other parts of the world. This year's all-day event at downtown Tampa's Curtis Hixon Park drew hundreds of participants, from college hoopers at nearby USF, University of Tampa and Saint Leo University to local families and individuals.

Caricato, whose group coordinated the event, was thrilled with the turnout and looks forward to the next annual event on December 12, 2012. As for Hoola for Happiness, Caricato has set organizational goals of delivering hoops to 20 countries during the next two years and launching a scholarship program for young students to take part in future missions across the world.

"It's about getting people outside of their comfort zone and seeing the way the majority of the world lives," she says.

Albaum, who launches a hoop dance instructor certification program in 2012, says she often witnesses in class hooping's community-building nature.

"It's an almost magical way for people to connect and laugh with one another as they try to master a new trick and learn from each other by watching people explore movement," she says. "It's a great way to bring people together."