Erie Faces Erie: July 6, 2016
Jennifer Dennehy: hoop dancer/choreographer/instructor
"No matter how much I know, there's so much more to know, to find, and to discover within that small circle."
Ed Bernik: You started life as a psychology major but then you made this leap of faith into full time dance instructor or rather hoop dance instructor. How did that happen?
Jennifer Dennehy: I've been dancing since I was three years old and I'm a trained dancer. Dancing has been a part of my whole life. I took classes all the way through high school. We weren't a wealthy family. My family and I cleaned the studio in trade for lessons for me and my sisters, which was really cool. When college came around, my parents decided dance was not a career path I should take, so I got a regular degree. I've always been into helping people; my aunt had Down syndrome so I was drawn to people with special needs and underserved populations. I worked at Sarah Reed Children's Center for two years, then the Barber Center for four years. But then I found hooping on the beach at Presque Isle, Beach 6 actually, on a Sunday at a drum circle. I was in awe of this dance form that I had never seen before and was hooked the moment I saw it.
EB: What's so freeing about hoop dancing coming from a classical dance background?
JD: I approach it actually as a fusion between the two. In the hoop world, a lot of the dancers are improvisational, creating in the moment to live music. It's fun and I will do that, but I also infuse the unique training that I have and do choreographed pieces.
EB: Do you see a relationship between your earlier career as a social service provider and dancing?
JD: In my world, there's a huge relationship between those two things. I teach 16 hoop dancing classes a week, mostly to underserved and underprivileged populations. It's a giant part of my world just doing it through the passion I've always had.
EB: Where do you teach those classes?
JD: At the Inner City Neighborhood Art House, an Erie City after-school program, and Dafmark Dance Academy. Then in the summer, I partner with the Erie YMCA to provide about 90 hoop classes through their parks and recreation program.
EB: Can you buy hoops, or make your own? Do they come in different sizes?
JD: If you want to be a hoop dancer, store bought hoops are not the way to go. The hoops used by most dancers are made of PVC, so you can go to Lowe's or Home Depot, get the stuff, and cut it to different sizes: a big factor for adults versus kids. A lot of adults think they can't hoop, but it's really that they're trying to use light, small hoops. A bigger hoop is easier to use.
EB: Maybe that's why I could never hula hoop.
JD: My first hoop was 45 inches tall and I was not very good at it.
EB: So you really don't need anything special to do this?
JD: No, and it's equally easy for boys, girls, and adults. In my after-school programs, I have a lot of boys because they love to move as much as the girls. The moment I show them they can balance it on your nose or fingertips, it's done.
EB: Do you think hooping is growing in Erie?
JD: Definitely. When I started, a hoop class didn't exist. There weren't performances at local events. So I've created a little bit of a niche at home and more dancers are able to do it now, seeking out events on their own to perform at.
EB: Do you take it outside the region?
JD: I've done college tours in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I teach in California every year. I've performed in North Carolina and Florida. So yes, I've gotten to travel throughout the nation performing and teaching.
EB: I always get excited when people take their talent outside the region and become ambassadors for Erie.
JD: One of the cool things is shortly I'll be able to take it out of the country. That's been a goal of mine. It will be with the United Service Corps. We started talking about this two years ago, and we'll be going July 10th to Peru, where I'll be teaching kids to hoop.
EB: You received the Bruce Morton Wright Artist of the Year Award last year. What's that about?
JD: The award recognizes a local artist who gives back to the community, mentors other artists. I didn't realize until after the award was given that I was the first woman to receive it and also the first dancer.
EB: Tell me on a very esoteric level what hoop dancing does for you.
JD: Wow, that's a question. I think originally, it was freeing. It's super-freeing to be inside of [the hoop] and it's endless. No matter how much I know, there's so much more to know, to find, and to discover within that small circle.
Jennifer Dennehy: jenniferdennehy.com
Ed Bernik: bernikphotography.com