How I Learned to Hula-Hoop from Cirque du Soleil Artists

In Portland for their production of Alegría, the world's greatest contortionists face their toughest challenge yet.

By Conner Reed June 29, 2022

Me (right) and Cirque du Soleil hoop artist Joann Zhuang (just kidding I'm on the left)

Image: Dalila Brent

In my line of work, you receive a lot of emails. Several times a day, I and my colleagues are asked to check out the latest EPs from “game-changing” Toronto bedroom-pop duos or consider attending immersive brand experiences from the minds that brought us French’s yellow mustard. Regularly, these emails deliver useful information; often, they beget great stories. Every once in a blue moon, though, a special breed of PR email comes along to rise above the rest and really sweep us off our feet. Enter “MEDIA EVENT: Learn to hula hoop with Cirque du Soleil." 

On June 17, the acclaimed Canadian circus company—source of many a nightmare and delight for children worldwide—set up shop “under the big top” at the Portland Expo Center with its tour du jour, a spiffed-up take on the 1994 megahit Alegría (now subtitled "In a New Light"). In the second week of its run, as an act of community outreach, two of the show's 53 performers headed to the Circus Project in Northwest Portland to teach an hourlong hooping and contortion workshop. I enthusiastically RSVP’ed. Here’s how it went.

Would this soon be me? 

Image: Matt Beard

In my head, I would be walking into an event full of people like me: physically frail media types who had seen Cirque du Soleil once 11 years ago after their high school boyfriend broke up with them (for example). From the moment I stepped into the Circus Project's rehearsal space, though, I realized I had miscalculated. Instead of a sea of clueless journalists, the room was teeming with Circus Project instructors who were stretching muscle groups I had yet to discover and asking questions about the qualities of the hoops we would be using. Soon, I learned that only two other journalists would be in attendance, plus a couple of influencers.

Which, listen, was perfectly OK! I had brought along Portland Monthly's digital engagement editor, Dalila Brent, to document the afternoon, and we rapidly came to peace with the fact that her job would now consist of highlighting my personal ineptitude for public enjoyment. It would not be "look at those silly people trying to mimic the professional circus performers"; it would be "look at that silly man who has never heard of his hips before." So it goes. In defiance of Smokey Robinson, I would be a tearless clown.

Just as I was accepting my fate as a future Portland Monthly Instagram reel, however, a cameraman from KOIN News 6 set up shop in my immediate line of sight. Putting it all on display for the internet was one thing; subjecting distant relatives and former lovers in the metro area to the confounding rhythms of my body during an otherwise peaceful morning of news-watching was something else.

Pic of me feeling really confident

Image: Dalila Brent

Luckily, I didn't have much time to think about it. Just after KOIN's own Travis Teich (lovely guy) took a seat beside me on the mat, Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert let us know that the show was about to begin. Moments later, in full makeup and costume, hoop artist Joann Zhuang and contortionist Oyuna Senge descended the stairs and began to perform highlights from their respective numbers in Alegría. Did it feel a little like bragging? Yes. Was I completely awestruck? Also yes.

Here's the thing about Cirque du Soleil: it's so cool. It doesn't matter who you are or what your tastes or whether your anxiety would typically prevent you from enjoying the sight of muscular strangers soaring through the absolute sky. Watching the human body Do That—in this case, handle an excess of eight hoops at once and effortlessly fold one's legs above their head—is thrilling in a near-primal way. These, it becomes clear, are the fittest, their collective survival more crucial to the species than that of any culture writer in a pair of visibly dirty quarter-length tube socks.

Pic of me not doing well at the splits but at least doing a little better than KOIN's Travis Teich (sorry Travis, your handstand was cool.)

Image: Dalila Brent

Before I and my fellow pupils could get too lost in the sauce, our instructors laid down their props and let us know it was our time to shine. First, we warmed up, which wasn't so bad. My tenure at a sub-suburban tae kwon do studio during the George W. Bush administration prepared me to pull off a nice bridge, and having recently shattered a glass at the Voicebox Karaoke on NW 21st while sinking into the splits during a rendition of Britney Spears’s no. 19 single “If U Seek Amy,” I felt qualified on that front as well. The split didn't come as easily with zero whiskey sodas in my blood, though, and as I struggled to bring my hips to the ground, my eyes began to wander. Before long, I caught a glimpse of some literal writing on the wall. “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned SKYWARD,” it read. For sure. 

Once we were nice and warm, Senge and Zhuang attempted to teach us some choreography. In their defense, the ask was something akin to "teach a baby advanced calculus," but I have to admit I was lost from square one. Zhuang began with the "super secret" advice that hooping is not about jostling your body side to side, but engaging your core before gently rocking back and forth. This seemed to really unlock something in the pair of teens to my right, but I remained staunchly sans epiphany.

Feelin' good

Image: Dalila Brent

I am sure the forthcoming Instagram reel will be more revealing about my performance than I ever could, but I will say this: I got kind of good at flipping the Hula-Hoop over my wrist. I am pretty sure I offered up more than one panic-drenched pair of jazz hands. No one in that room was hitting their final pose as hard as I was. And I get the vibe that whatever my midriff was choosing to do wound up converting my body to Teflon and encouraging each hoop to slide directly to the floor without making so much as a single revolution—a significant feat in its way, no?

After the event, I chatted a bit with Zhuang, who's been auditioning for Cirque du Soleil since 2015 and finally joined the company last fall. She'd never been to Portland before, and for the first week or two of her time here she stayed close to her quarters and the Expo Center. The crowds, she said, have been electric: palpably excited to see a spectacle in tough times. Before she leaves, she wants to hike at Mount Hood, spend a day at the coast, and—most enthusiastically—check out Multnomah Falls.

All things that I have done! I'm not (that) naive, and I understand that just because you can put your foot behind your ear without breaking a sweat, that doesn't mean you're automatically immune to simple pleasures. Still, as I packed up my tote bag, said my goodbyes, and linked with Dalila to debrief, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Eye-popping, mind-scrabblingly athletic artists: they're just like us.


Various times Wed–Sun through July 17 | Portland Expo Center, $49–199

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