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Ashley Russell

Hula Hoop Dreams

Talent uncovered at Longwood fuels student's career ambitions and supports the local community

Hula hooping may seem like kid's stuff to a lot of people but--combined with physics, biology, creativity and passion--it has turned into something much more serious for one Longwood University senior.

Ashley Russell, a biology major from Amelia, Va. (with concentrations in pre-health and molecular science), picked up a hula hoop for the first time since childhood about two years ago. She was inspired by a performance that had enchanted her with its graceful display of dance involving the spinning plastic rings.

"I just had this feeling, watching this girl do these amazing tricks with the hula hoop. I knew I wanted to make people smile like she made me smile," said Russell.

Her life hasn't been the same since.

She immediately bought a hoop and immersed herself in online dance tutorials, practicing for several hours each week and finding her groove. Her efforts culminated last fall in "Untamed Elements," a show in the style of Cirque du Soleil that was held at Longwood's Jarman Hall.

Russell organized and headlined the show, which benefited the Southside SPCA and featured other talented student performers, including belly dancers, a gospel choir and other musical acts. Highlights of the show are available online.

"Untamed Elements" generated $1,000 for the SPCA and launched a career for Russell. Her weekends are booked with performances in other cities and universities around the region, and she credits Longwood with her success.

"I can't think of a single element of the show that wasn't influenced by what I've learned at Longwood," Russell said. "My biology classes taught me about the body and its capabilities. Physics and architecture helped me build and design an aerial rig that could support 1,000 pounds of torque. Art classes helped me tap into my creativity."

She's found support from Longwood faculty and staff every step of the way, too.

"Ashley is a remarkable young woman," said Dr. Rodney Dunning, associate professor of physics and a key collaborator in Russell's construction of the show's aerial rig. "She's discovered a true passion and is intensely motivated to not only bring it to life but to use it enthusiastically for the benefit of others."

$1,000 for the local SPCA today. $1 million for national cancer research tomorrow?

As long as the hoops keep spinning, Russell is dreaming big.

Highlights from "Untamed Elements" show benefitting Southside SPCA (Youtube)