Julia Hartsell discovered the art of hooping, a form of artistic dance involving a hula hoop, when she realized that this form of seamless movement could lift her out of the hopelessness and depression she was feeling.
Bonnie MacDougall began learning to hoop after she saw Hartsell perform on Weaver Street in Carrboro. A former college athlete and an avid runner, MacDougall had fallen into a depression after suffering a pelvic bone fracture that prevented her from exercising like she normally would.
MacDougall is now an employee at the Flowjo, a space founded by Hartsell in Carrboro that offers circus arts, ritual dance, healing arts and group classes. The building is mainly encompassed by a large dance space that accommodates hoopers, aerial dancers and silk/trapeze artists, but it also includes a treatment space for acupuncture and bodily healing.
Hartsell said the multi-purpose space can be described in one word: a sanctuary. She called it a place where people can feel at home in their bodies and hopefully heal during times of darkness like she and MacDougall did.
“The practices at the Flowjo have really anchored communities," Hartsell said. "It’s good medicine, and it’s really helpful for coming back to the present moment. I’ve seen people finding joy and connection and community through hooping and through dance forms — I keep seeing these practices enrich and enhance and heal people."
The Flowjo now hosts bi-monthly Flow Jams in which flow artists gather to practice in an open space with music and without speaking. Ann Humphreys is a regular at Flow Jams who learned hooping after seeing a performer on Weaver Street. She said she tried yoga in the past, but felt she could achieve a higher form of expression through dancing and hooping.
“It’s a movement meditation," Humphreys said. "There’s a meditative quality to flow art that absorbs your whole attention: mind, body and soul."
Flow Jams bring people together to practice similar forms of art and dance, but each person’s style and interpretation is different, MacDougall said, which makes these gatherings so unique.
“No two people are going to do it the same way," MacDougall said. "It requires merging the body with the prop and falling into a state of continuous movement. If you’re lucky, it can feel like having an extra appendage.”
As the Flowjo’s 10-year anniversary nears this month, hooping has taken root all over the world. Hoop dance and other forms of flow art can be seen at popular music festivals, like Burning Man in Nevada, and all over Instagram and Facebook feeds.
As those enlightened by flow and hooping continue to grow exponentially, the Flowjo stays committed to the pursuit of feeling at home in the body.
Hartsell said she recently received an inquiry about whether or not the Flowjo had any activities that a disabled person could partake in, and that she said absolutely. Flow art allows anyone to embrace the sacred quality of the body in a way that is not limited to any one domination or tradition, Hartsell said.
"People find a sense of belonging at the Flowjo," Hartsell said. "It’s also just a hard time to be alive. It feels particularly charged, intense and polarized right now. There are now such social challenges that are also on top of just the common thread of isolation in this culture. People come to find a place to express those things and tend to all of that. People tend to leave happier than they came."
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