For Jennifer Modjeska, sitting here talking to a stranger isn’t natural.
Six years ago, the 50-year-old Davenport woman would’ve been too afraid to claim any kind of spotlight. Much less, she would’ve been too afraid to sling back a beer, stand up and dance with her hula hoop as a crowd of people watched.
She would have let her shyness and social anxiety talk her out of even showing up at Great River Brewery, wearing a Spiderman dress with a hula hoop in hand, on a sunny afternoon.
But that was before.
Before Modjeska met someone who gave her what she didn’t even know she needed: a hula hoop and confidence.
Out of her comfort zone
After decades of being active, whether it was daily yoga practices or kickboxing, Modjeska tore a nerve in her leg in 2011 that left her unable to do her normal routine.
“I lost my identity a little bit and it was like I was grounded from the things that made me feel strong,” she said. “A lot of people would’ve quit altogether.”
While working at The Spa at Hotel BlackHawk, Modjeska met a fellow massage therapist, Karah Rehnberg, who gave her a reason to keep going.
“It was a good month before we became best friends,” Rehnberg, 30, said. “I don’t remember my life without her. Other than my husband, she’s my other half. She’s my girl.”
In 2012, Rehnberg, who had taken up hula hooping as a hobby years before, talked her new friend into attending Summer Camp Music Festival, which returns for its 16th year this weekend in Chillicothe, Illinois.
“It was so not in my comfort zone to go to Summer Camp or stay in a tent and I definitely didn’t want to hula hoop in front a bunch of people,” Modjeska said. “But Karah got me to do it. And then it was a whole new ballgame.”
When she got back to town, a different friend gifted Modjeska a beginner’s hula hoop, which cost $350. It was a form of exercise she could do while her injury healed.
“Hooping is hard to explain,” she said. “I needed a new game to play … I needed a new way to move.”
And along the way, the mother of two, who now wears eclectic outfits each day and is known to change to the color of her hair on a whim, found a way to express herself.
“It brought her out of her shell,” Rehnberg said. “She’s so unique -- there’s no one like Jen. With her being an introvert, the hoop is like an invisible barrier. She doesn’t have people right next to her, but it’s her way of interacting with people.”
Modjeska has since joined a community of hula hoopers in the area, many of whom show off their skills at parades, festivals and concerts.
And they do more than make those basis circles around their waists.
“It’s a wild underground club,” Rehnberg said. “We’re always practicing new tricks we find on YouTube and then trying them out. You follow the hoop and see where it goes.”
In 2012, Rehnberg and friends Cara Bishop and Jenni Pickering started Circle of Friends Handmade Goods, a business in which they make and sell custom hula hoops. They ship hoops of all sizes -- the bigger the hoop, the easier it is -- to customers across the country. Bishop also teaches hula hooping classes.
It’s not just a social thing. Hooping has helped many in the “underground club” deal with self-esteem issues, Rehnberg said.
“My hoop is my security blanket,” she said. “It makes me feel comfortable wherever I am and like I can do anything or talk to anyone.”
There’s another purpose: Getting Quad-Citians to dance.
“In the Quad-Cities, no one wants to be the first one of the dance floor,” she said. “When Jen and I are together, we can start a dance floor in five minutes flat.”
Together, the pair plan to do just that at upcoming concerts at the Redstone Room, Davenport and Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa.
“You almost feel like a magician,” she said. “We have this confidence that we don’t have alone. We feed off of each other.”
To watch her with her hula hoop is to get a glimpse of Modjeska’s shiny after.
During a break from dancing on the patio of Great River Brewery, where Modjeska visits a few times per week, she sits down with strangers and friends. She says she likes who she is now more than ever.
“It gives me a place where it’s OK to make mistakes,” she said. “If I was just dancing, people maybe wouldn't understand. With this, people say, ‘Oh it’s the hula hoop girl,’ and they kind of accept me."
While her headphones blast Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, the kind of classic country she grew up listening to in Eldridge, Iowa, and she twists and turns with her hoop, she doesn’t care who watches.
“When she’s hooping, she’s totally engrossed in what she’s doing,” Rehnberg said. “When you watch her, you see her personality and style. You really do see a part of her.”
Modjeska stresses that it’s not about performing.
For her, here’s what it’s about: Playing, learning to let go of fear and “spreading light and joy into my little corner of the world.”
“It’s pure joy to me; this is my way of finding peace; I wouldn’t be here without hula hooping,” she said. “Every time I do it, there’s maybe some people that don’t get it. But there’s one or two people that come up and say ‘Thank you. Thank you for having so much fun and letting me watch.’”