Carolyn Mabry, better known as “Caroleeena” to her constituents, is what you might call North Carolina’s “Queen of the Hoop.”
Just follow the drumming sounds every Wednesday night in Pullen Park and you’ll find dozens of people by the historic carousel, spinning in circles with a simple children’s toy that first gained popularity in the ’50s.
At the nucleus of this weekly gathering is Mabry, a 10-year hula-hooping veteran from Raleigh who is quite a big deal in hooping circles.
Mabry, 50, is active with a yearly international hooper conference in Efland called “ HoopCon,” in addition to the free weekly play dates at Pullen Park.
Her biggest hooping focus is on encouraging adults to get out there and “play,” she said.
“My goal was to figure out how to do the things I love to do anyway as a service to others,” Mabry said. “Each week I bring a truckload of hoops in a variety of sizes, all of which I made, and help people get started hooping. A lot of people think they can’t, even if they could as kids, when really, all they need is a hoop that fits and the tiniest bit of instruction.”
Mabry frequently offers classes around Raleigh, and you can find her spinning hoops – some of which she sets on fire – at many city events. She has also taught hooping sessions at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind and has created dozens of hooping projects for Boys and Girls Clubs and for children and caregivers in the pediatric units at Duke Hospital.
Hula hoop dreams
Mabry’s hoop dreams began six years ago when she first started the Raleigh Hoop Jam in Pullen Park, the biggest such jam in the state. Since collaborating with local drummers to include a drum circle on the same night, Mabry regularly attracts a group of children and adults that ranges in size from 30 to 100 people every week.
Mabry isn’t just an expert twirler, she’s also well-versed on the timeline of hooping.
“Hooping has existed in some form or other since the beginning of recorded history,” she said. “I have a photo of a petroglyph in Dry Fork Canyon, Utah, of a Native American with a hoop around his waist that is estimated to be 1,200 years old.”
The hula hoop we know and love from childhood appears to be a rip-off of the original.
“The guy from Wham-O who is credited with inventing the hoop actually saw it during his travels in Australia,” she said. “He just made a plastic version.”
But the most recent resurgence of hooping is way more rock ’n’ roll.
“A jam band – String Cheese Incident – would buy tubing at the hardware store and make hoops on their bus between gigs in the early ’90s,” Mabry said. “They would throw out these hoops as gifts from the stage and people started hula hooping. Because there was music, people started dancing with these hoops and a whole new form of hoop dance was born.”
Since then, hooping has become a quirky subculture that is especially vibrant in North Carolina. This year, Asheville won the Hooping.org Community of the Year Hoopie Award. Several local hoopers are mentioned on the website, which is a news hub and bulletin board for the hoopers trying to stay in the know.
Natalie Shaw, 45, of Chapel Hill has been hooping for seven years. As a working mother of two, she says it gives her a meditative break from her hectic everyday life.
“It fills different needs at different times,” she said. “It’s something that is solely self-feeding and self-serving; it lets me leave the role of mother and wife and lets me just be Natalie again.”
The health benefits aren’t bad, either.
“With hooping you can burn up to 400 calories an hour, and it’s great core exercise,” Shaw said. “Off-body hooping (twirling a hoop on your arms) can work triceps, biceps, and be a sustained cardio workout.”
For Mabry, being Raleigh royalty is no joke. Her schedule is an endless maze of performances, classes and play dates that would have anyone else spinning in circles. Even attempting to schedule an interview with her can have a reporter jumping through hoops.
“I am teaching tonight at Cirque de Vol, Raleigh’s first circus school, but it’s going to be pretty hectic all night,” she wrote in a recent message. “I have a short performance before, then I teach two classes, and then I’m going to hoop at Oak City 7 until 10:30. I’m not sure I could squeeze in a talk tonight unless it was kinda late.”
It isn’t easy being queen.