Hooping and fitness enthusiast Jessica Schadt, a resident of Lawrence Township, performs with one of her LED hula hoops. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Hooping and fitness enthusiast Jessica Schadt, a resident of Lawrence Township, performs with one of her LED hula hoops. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
It was New Year’s Eve, about six or seven years ago, when Jessie Schadt saw go-go dancers performing with LED hula hoops during a gala at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Little did she know at the time, that years later she herself would be making a living as a hoop dancer.

Schadt had been working at Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, a stained glass studio in Philadelphia, for about eight years when the company closed down in 2013.

When they went out of business, she found herself at a crossroads — find another job or pursue a career in performance arts.

“I had been taking hoop dance classes (in the city) because I was intrigued by the go-go hoopers at New Year’s Eve, but also because I wanted to try something new other than running and lifting,” said Schadt, a fitness enthusiast.

Schadt and her then-fiancé and now husband, Phillip, shared a small apartment in Princeton at the time (they moved to Lawrence Township three years ago), so practice space was at a premium. But Schadt—who’s not only an artist by nature but also a long-distance runner who habitually tackled obstacle-laden endurance tests like the Tough Mudder before a series of genetic foot injuries led her to lower-impact hobbies like CrossFit and aerials—wouldn’t let a lack of regular practice space stand in her way, and took to trying out her new moves right at home.

“There weren’t a lot of hooping options in this area back then so I was looking for classes and workshops in Philly. I ended up practicing a lot by myself in our little apartment. I broke a lot of picture frames,” she says with a laugh.

She started renting out studio space to practice and soon after got her first performance gig — LED hooping for a couple who had gotten married at the Burning Man festival and had a home reception where they wanted to give their family and guests a taste of what the event was like.

As Schadt delved deeper into the hoop dance and flow arts—the catch-all name for artistic dances such as hooping, juggling, twirling and poi (weights on a tether that are swung around the performer’s body)—she discovered a community to share her interests with.

The annual Return to Roots Gathering — a five-day summer event in Medford that brings together hoopers, yogis, flow artists and music lovers — was part of that discovery, where workshops, seminars, performances and music all orbited around the central mission of promoting the flow arts and creative expression.

The emergence of a hooping community helped Schadt get over her initial hesitation to pursue the art. As a hoop dance teacher at the West Windsor Arts Council—a position she landed in 2014 after doing graphic-art work for the organization—she frequently watches a similar pattern unfold in her adult students, where they begin lessons besieged by self-consciousness and hyper-aware of how they assume they appear.

“Oftentimes, in the very first private lesson with an older adult, I’ll find that they’ll be sheepish and worry about what they look like or feel really silly—but they always forget about it within the first 10 minutes of class,” Schadt said. “Most of the private lessons I do are with adults in their 40s or 50s, and the reason they say they chose a private lesson over a group lesson is that they heard about it but they feel embarrassed because they think it’s a thing kids should be doing.”

Schadt herself is in tune with that feeling, as she couldn’t believe she was giving serious consideration to abandoning up a 9-5 life once she realized that she would have to commute to New York City to pursue work similar to what she’d been doing at the stained-glass studio. The more she thought about it, the more she gravitated toward throwing off the shackles of an office job to immerse herself entirely into hooping.

“I spent a lot of time deciding what makes a job worthwhile: Do you have to make a lot of money? Does it have to be 9 to 5? Do you need a 401K?” she said. “People kept saying that I should teach hoop dance and it seemed like such a silly thing to me—I even laughed at myself at first, like ‘You’re going to do what!?’ But it ended up being the way I should have gone all along.”

It was not as abrupt of a shift as one might imagine, as Schadt’s lifelong interest in physical activity and proclivity for creative endeavors made the transition a fairly smooth but still surprising one.

Shadt grew up in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, in a house designed and built by her father, a structural engineer. She says between her dad and her mom, a nurse anesthetist, she learned a strong a work ethic and values. “As kids, my sister, brother and I were taught to work hard for what we wanted, and not to expect things to be handed to you.”

She danced and was a cheerleader when she was younger, but never wanted to be a dancer or a professional cheerleader. “I went to art school (she graduated from Temple Tyler School of Art with a BFA in 2005), and I think hoop dance is the first thing I found where I can combine my fitness hobbies with my artistic side because you have to be creative, you have to bring an artistic side to what you do.”

Indeed, the “flow” aspect of the “flow arts” moniker refers to the choreography method of not just learning different moves but learning how to put them all together in a wholly unique way. In her hoop dance classes, the creation of a dance is so important that each session is divided in two parts: The first is dedicated to actually learning an array of moves; the second is incorporating them into a complete dance that each student has a hand in crafting.

The individualized nature of hoop dance is certainly one of its most rewarding aspects, but Schadt also extolls the health virtues of it, saying that the heavier hoops are great for muscle tone and that she’s noticed how some of her students come in with limited flexibility and are “much more bendy” by the time their classes are done. She also can readily rattle off the health statistics, explaining that the American Council on Exercise found that a 30-minute hooping workout burns about 200 calories.

In addition to hooping—which includes her own Jessie S. Hoops business, as well as her West Windsor Arts Council classes—Schadt is an avid patron of CrossFit Nassau, which she credits for fostering her relatively newer interest in aerials, the dramatic climbs, wraps, and drops of which should be familiar to anyone even minimally aware of the theatrics featured in Cirque de Soleil performances. Until she discovered The Circus Place in Hillsborough, she had an agreement with the manager of CrossFit that allowed her to hang her aerial silks from the gym’s ceilings so she could practice.

When she’s not juggling a schedule filled with practicing, teaching and an ever-increasing number of performances, Schadt and her husband Phil, an illustrator and animator, share a number of hobbies beyond their mutual affinity for activity and the arts—many of which are humorously captured in their webcomic, which can be found at pnjcomic.com.

When they are engaged in their own projects, Schadt says they both benefit from bouncing ideas off each other, as well as tempering the other’s habits.

“I’m very organized and schedule-based, he’s more laid-back about things; I think I’ve learned to go with the flow more because of him, and I think I keep him more organized,” she says. “It‘s great because every time one of us had an idea or a design, it’s really helpful to have someone around to be like, ‘Hey, what do you think of the colors? Do you have any input on the layout?’ We definitely inspire each other.”

While Schadt would have never pictured herself where she is now, she says that she truly enjoys teaching and is simply hoping that the future brings “just more of everything” she’s pursued since beginning her journey. One of her goals is to help others avoid the same hurdles she faced as a beginner by bringing more awareness to the endeavor and getting more people interested in it so it’s more accessible to those in the area. And, as hooping is an ever-evolving art form, Schadt says she hasn’t been bored with it yet.

“Even when you think you’ve mastered something or you’ve learned all there is to know, you’ll go to a festival and see someone do something new—people are hooping on their noses now, or girls will have big buns in their hair and they’ll hoop on those. I keep looking back and realizing what you can build upon if you just keep up with it. There’s always more to learn.”

Learn more about Schadt at jessieshoops.com; learn more about her classes at westwindsorartscenter.org.