Author: Holly J Coley
Ashley Gannon spins round as she twirls a brightly colored hula hoop like it’s a natural extension of her body. She reminds you of an acrobat and like any good performer, she smiles the entire time, each move flowing to the next like a dance. She makes it look effortless and graceful. It’s hard to believe that she was once somewhat of a wallflower. She tells me, “Growing up I was very shy and introverted. I spent more time in the books then I did [with] people.”
We sit down to chat on a Wednesday at Bread Alone, a bakery in Rhinebeck, NY. We’ve just come from taking photos of Ashley hooping down by the river. During the shoot, a self-assuredness radiates from her and as we now discuss her business, Hoop for a Better Tomorrow, she glows as she explains all the ways hooping has changed her life.
Entering the fitness world, let alone being a business owner was not in her plans growing up. The Hudson Valley native gravitated towards helping others and with an analytical mind that could breakdown the most complex formulas, she set her sights on teaching mathematics. “My mother was a math teacher,” she explains. “I wanted to be just like her and math came natural to me.”
She pursued her teaching degree at The University of SUNY New Paltz and was on track to meet her goals. It was a trip to summertime music festival Mountain Jam that set her on a different course-although it took her awhile to realize it.
While enjoying the sights she came across a group of women doing what is termed “modern hooping”; a combination of dance, poi spinning, and acrobatic like movement. “There were a bunch of girls and they all had these huge hula hoops,” she recalls. “They were doing all these really cool tricks…I was memorized. It looked so magical to me.”
The beauty of the fluid movements and the way hooping could be so expressive, particularly when accompanied by music, made her invested in learning how to do it herself. She began researching and before she knew it she was making trips to the hardware store to buy material to build her own hoop.
Hooping: A Very Brief History
Many people associate hooping with the child’s toy made popular by Wham-O in the 1950s but historians have found references to the spherical device as early as the Ancient Egyptians. In Ancient Greece and Rome, hoop bowling and rolling was considered a leisure activity for men and those of the Victorian era believed the contraption was symbolic of the “Wheel of Fortune,” a philosophical term, coined back in the Middle Ages by Boethius. Some credit the band, The String Cheese Alliance, for starting the new movement of hoop, as they’ve been known for giving hoops out during concerts, as well as offering demonstrations. Fitness wise, hooping can burn up to 600 calories in an hour, making it a cardio rival of boot camps and step aerobics. It forces engagement of the core and incorporates isometric training. It’s a fun way to be active without stepping foot inside a gym.
Hoop for a Better Tomorrow
There weren’t any hooping classes available in the Hudson Valley in 2009, back when Ashley was starting out. Rather than give up, she took to Youtube to teach herself tricks. She spent her study breaks working outside with her hoop, trying to learn and smooth her movements.
“I would spend a lot of time rewinding and trying to figure out, ‘Where is their hand?’ or ‘What is the hoop doing?’ and ‘How are they making that happen?’” Her mathematical mind and teaching skills came in handy, as it allowed her to brake movements down into easier steps for herself till she could gel a trick together. “Sometimes it was frustrating. There was a lot of hitting myself in the face with the hoop,” she admits with a laugh. But even with all the initial struggles something about it resonated with her. “I loved it. It made me feel really good about myself.”
This is the part in the interview where Ashley recounts the years she spent as a shy guarded girl. Everyone is insecure in high school and she was no exception. But even in college, a time most people find liberating, she was still struggling. Although she was part of the cheer squad and working outside of campus, she continued to hold herself back. Hooping changed everything. As she gave herself over to it, a new sense of empowerment took hold. She began to appreciate herself in ways that she didn’t before and her new found positivity attracted positive people and changes into her life. “Hula hooping helped me get out of my shell and discover my own confidence. [It helped] me love myself,” she says. “[Before] I was very judgmental of myself and always focusing on my flaws.”
She continued to perfect her craft while she finished her degree. While she taught her immediate friends (who often told her to pursue it as a career) she still felt a more conventional route was best. She had worked in the Not-for-Profit sector throughout school, assisting those with development disabilities. Once she completed her studies she continued in that industry, as well as taught special ED math to high schoolers. She loved working with clients and students but felt disappointed that her one-on-one time was limited. For her, teaching was never just about learning a specific subject but applying those lessons to life.
On the surface she was in the place that she had worked hard to be at but inside, she sensed something was off. Even after she found herself at a new job in 2013, she knew she needed something more. She had discovered a certification for hooping, something she had wanted to do but was uncertain if it was worth the effort and money. Now working as an incident investigator, she wasn’t sure when she would find the time to add the process to her schedule. But after some encouragement from her boyfriend, she decided to go for it. Her first class was held at Vanderbilt Mansion, in Hyde Park, NY. She blasted the event on Facebook and soon found herself surrounded by twenty people, eager to learn hoop. At the end of the session she was met with a barrage of inquiries about her next class. Clearly this wasn’t going to be a onetime thing.
“Suddenly I was doing three classes a week,” she says, visibly in awe by the enthusiasm and support that has encircled her. With each class she felt more and more in her own element. She realized she had found her calling. Two years later, Ashley continues to grow her business, teaching men and women of all ages and fitness levels.
Many hoopers fall in love with the art for more than its beauty and physical benefits. Some experts believe that the rocking motion reminds us of being rocked as babies. The coordination you develop from learning tricks stimulates the brain and encourages focus. And there’s also the pleasure factor to consider. When we learn something new and master it, the reward center of our brain lights up. Our confidence sores and we feel good.
Ashley sees the benefits of hooping every time she works with students. “I see the smiles on their faces,” she says. “They’re having fun, they’re working out [and] feeling better about themselves.”
Being their support is one of the biggest rewards of the job. The individual attention that she had longed to give students when teaching mathematics she’s finally able to do. She loves watching them improve and become more open to trying new things in and outside of class. For her, hooping is a lot like life. As she found at the beginning of her journey, once you find that space where you can be yourself, good things happen.
“We talk about flowing and moving with the hoop and not fighting with it,” she explains. “And just like in life, if something doesn’t feel right instinctively; if you feel like it’s a struggle and you’ve lost yourself, most of the time it means that there is something else better for you.”
Like any skilled teacher, she knows how to assess each student and tailor her hour long classes to their needs. Drop-ins can hoop next to students who’ve been taking classes for years. While many may come to try a different type of workout, they keep coming back because hooping doesn’t just awaken the body but the spirit. They become part of a community that embraces individuality.
Besides teaching, Ashley continues to make hoops. Much like a pair of running shoes or a playlist, there is no single hoop that works best for everyone. Most people don’t realize that the device comes in a variety of sizes and that finding the right one can make all the difference in finding the flow. Because a hoop needs to be tailored to an individual’s needs, she only sells hers in person. She also does custom orders, so students can have a hoop that reflects their unique style. “It takes the experience to another level,” she says. “People become connected to it.”
Along with regularly scheduled classes, Ashley teaches hula hooping workshops and visits a variety of schools and organizations in the Hudson Valley. Her Get Fit Hoop Kit ($50) is being offered from now till midnight of Black Friday and comes with 1 handcrafted adult-size hula hoop and 2 classes at select locations. Valued at $74, it’s a steal and makes a great holiday gift for friends (or yourself). In honor of Small Business Saturday, Ashley will be announcing an extra juicy discount on Facebook at 12:01, Saturday morning. Don’t miss out on the fun and savings.
For more information about Ashley, Hoop for a Better Tomorrow, classes and workshops, please visit her official Facebook page.
Hudson Valley based writer.