The Joys Of Modern Life; 31. Hula Hoops

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The Independent Culture
FOR A start, they're round. Round is good: aesthetically pleasing, simple, pure. Then they're plain. Nothing can go wrong with them. Even if the two ends do come apart at the join you just stick them back into each other. If they won't, you can put one end to your mouth and spiral the other in a big loop to your friend's ear and use it as a funny telephone. But what they're really for is something so simple and perfect that although to my knowledge there are no pictures of hula-hooping devotees in tomb paintings or carved on Egyptian temples, it is only a matter of time before some are discovered.

One of the joys of Cairo is the Sufi dancers at al Ghouri, who two nights a week whirl with an elegance and energy which entrances the audience as well as the dervishes. They wear wide, circular skirts, their hems reinforced with I'm not sure what, and they have a particular pace - a kind of one-two-three step - with which they propel themselves round, keep their balance and make their direct and mystical connection to God. As they do so, their skirts rise, fall, whirl and billow in great circular movements, guided by their arms as part of the dance. Always moving, they undo their waistbands and their skirts become as hoops, the cloth folded in, and they whirl on, for hours sometimes, round their waists, their knees, their feet, one arm and then the other, their necks, then way up up above their heads, the circle spinning and spinning as the man spins too. It's clearly related to orbit, the passages of the sun, the moon and the earth, the music of the spheres and the perfection of geometry. Circles on circles.

Now it is not quite like this in the playground, but it is not entirely different: the girls at my daughter's school, when they spin themselves round, do the same footwork as the Cairo Sufi dancers. When they bend their waists in that to-and-fro snaking movement to keep the hoop spinning on their hips - the movement is always much slower than you expect - they remind me of belly dancers.

The modern hula hoop is 41 this year: in 1958, 25 million of them sold in four months, and they were banned from the streets of Tokyo. It was the biggest fad ever. Another fad, the hoochie-coochie, was a derivative of a dance identified with the temple dancers of Kutch in India (there's nothing new). Not that children care. They like hula hooping because they can do it and grown-ups, on the whole, can't. And it's something you learn to do at about five or six, when serious independence - climbing trees, going up the road on your own - starts to tempt. Grown-ups are better at most activities requiring independence. Not this, though; when they try, they are stiff, awkward, out of time and embarrassed. It's a great role reversal.

I can't do it. But I comfort myself that I never could. I do know a trick, however, where you bowl the hoop away from you - and you can bowl it quite hard to go 20 or 30 feet - and with a particular flick of the wrist you can make it pause at the end of its journey and then roll straight back to your waiting hand. It manages to impress even the most accomplished of six-year-olds.