'Pole fitness isn't sleazy ... you come in wearing sports gear and leave with it all still on'
Pole dance athlete and body builder El Fegan from Co Down tells Lee Henry how there is so much more to this sport than its sexy image
It was during a gap year travelling in Australia that Hilltown native El Fegan first discovered pole fitness. While her friends relaxed on sandy beaches, took in the sights and sounds and enjoyed some extended downtime, the then 20-something fire safety management graduate read a feature in a sports magazine and saw fit to take the plunge.
Intrigued by this unusual fusion of pole dancing, core fitness training, gymnastics and aerobics, Fegan signed up for a class without telling a soul, fully aware of the stigma attached to pole dancing and, in turn, an embryonic fitness regime that few had hitherto heard of.
While her friends soaked up the sun, Fegan slinked off to a local dance studio "excited and nervous and not knowing what to expect". Within the first five minutes, with the music pumping and in the company of other women similarly fascinated and enthralled, she was hooked.
"I didn't tell anyone I was going for a couple of weeks because yes, you had the whole stigma attached," recalls Fegan, referring to the often sleazy, off-putting world of striptease that pole dancing has long been associated with.
What Fegan experienced that day, however, was another world altogether, one occupied by strong, inspirational female fitness instructors who had reclaimed pole dancing for their own. "And when I discovered what pole fitness was all about," she adds, "I told anyone who would listen."
Fegan left that first class exhilarated. "It's hard to describe the feeling you get after your first pole class," she explains. "It's a mixture of confidence, coyness, mischievousness and accomplishment. And, as well as that, you're damn well sore after the kind of complete workout your body has never experienced before."
Over the next number of weeks, Fegan continued to attend pole fitness classes, learning a wealth of tricks and techniques that she would never have been introduced to in a standard gym, with the pole intrinsic to her new regime.
"I ended up training for 12 weeks in Australia before it was time for me to return home, but by then I had very much fallen in love with the discipline. I knew there was nothing like it in Northern Ireland, so when I got back home I travelled to England for further training over the course of a year and within a short space of time I had opened up my first Polercise studio in 2005. It's been my life ever since."
Polercise currently has studios in Belfast and Dundalk, and offers one-to-one or eight-week group classes in pole, aerial hoop and flexibility. Fegan and her team of instructors also offer themed dance party sessions for hen dos, birthdays or "night out celebrations", and she encourages women and men of all ages and abilities to try it out for themselves.
"No activity is ever easy, you have to work at most sports. It depends how far you want to take it, but pole can be adapted for all shapes and sizes. You can get an amazing workout from just dancing, incorporating transitions and spins, but if you want the elite moves, which involve a more gymnastic element, well then you have to put the work in.
"I love to see how pole has changed people's lives and career paths, but my favourite thing about pole is teaching ladies and guys their very first class and watching their confidence boost almost instantly.
"The usual misconceptions of pole dancing put people off attending. People think they are too big, too weak or too old to do it, not flexible enough. They don't want to go on their own, they need a friend to accompany them.
"It's the unknown, so understandably they're nervous, shy, lacking in confidence. But this is the whole reason you should come to a class in the first place, to build your strength, flexibility, confidence, to lose weight, have fun and make lifelong friends while doing so."
Given the sexual connotations often associated with pole dancing, Fegan appreciates that many women will be apprehensive to attend a Polercise class. With burlesque becoming ever more mainstream, however, and a raft of alternative group fitness classes now available in towns across Northern Ireland, she feels that women have long since come to embrace pole as an acceptable form of fitness.
"There's nothing sexual about it," Fegan argues. "I think that perception is now a little old hat now, to be honest. There are women from all backgrounds who attend our classes and leave their comments on our Facebook page, and it's always inspiring to hear their stories.
"We hold taster sessions every few weeks. You come wearing your regular sportswear, we start you off with an aerobic warm-up then stretches, squats, pull-ups, pole tricks and spins, and finish off with a bit of a routine and cool down. You leave with your sportswear still on," she laughs.
Fegan's achievement in introducing people here to pole by opening and expanding Polercise within its first year of operation was immediately recognised by the judges at the Women In Business Awards, and Fegan admits to being "surprised" by the reaction from the business community, as well as the general public.
"I was like, 'Really? What for? Doing something what I love?' I didn't feel worthy, almost. But I had no doubt in my mind that pole would be a hit in Northern Ireland and the number of pole schools and studios that have opened throughout Ireland since then is proof that we can produce world class competitors and champions."
Thanks to Fegan's work in founding the All-Ireland Pole Dance Championships at the Mandela Hall at Queen's University every September, those competitors have had a stage on which to perform. Three-time world champions Terri Walsh and Lisette Krol, from Dublin, have Fegan in part to thank for their remarkable international success.
Fegan too is not averse to a little competition, and has in recent years dipped her toe into the world of professional bodybuilding. Encouraged to take part in an event by Martine Spence of the Northern Ireland Fitness Model Association, Fegan again took the plunge.
"There was a sports round where you could demonstrate your discipline and I thought I would show people what pole was about.
"I ended up doing well, so I decided to see how I would do if I actually did some weight training with a clean eating plan in place. I ended up winning the next time I entered."
At this time of year, with the nights beginning to draw in and the temperature falling fast, it's easy to ignore our better judgement and give up exercise altogether. But Fegan is having none of it.
Every October, she makes the commitment to undergo an extreme fitness challenge in aid of charity, and after scaling the heights of Slieve Donard every day for a month last year, this month she is attempting to top the highest peak in each of Ireland and Northern Ireland's combined 32 counties - never could the 36-year-old be accused of resting on her laurels.
"This year's chosen charity is the Alzheimer's Society," Fegan adds, "and I'm very grateful that I am in the position to help raise awareness for the causes that matter to me. This year's challenge was inspired by last year's, and I aim to summit Ireland's county high points consecutively.
"Some of the peaks I consider small, however, so any hills or mountains that are less than 500m tall will be completed while wearing a 10kg weighted vest."
With her Polercise business growing year on year, ongoing bodybuilding and charity events to contend with, Fegan obviously lives an incredibly dedicated and disciplined lifestyle.
"As with any sport, be it pole or bodybuilding, when competing you need to be committed and focused on the goal at hand," she agrees.
"You need a good diet, which generally means no junk food or alcohol. A lot of time is spent around food, thinking about food, prepping food, when and where your next meal is going to take place, making it fit into your daily routine."
In that, Fegan has a supportive network of family and friends to rely on for assistance and encouragement, though she admits that in the midst of training her "social life can be non-existent. If you aren't a really strong-willed person, it's easier to avoid social events altogether".
On the rare occasion that she does get out and about on the town with friends, Fegan admits that many men whom she comes into contact with invariably find her "intimidating" - here is a woman, after all, visibly stronger than most, men included.
Not that that will ever put her off doing what she does best and enjoys most - namely spreading the gospel of pole to all corners of Ireland. For the time being, at least, Fegan is resolute.
"I love myself," she concludes. "Does that count?"
A form of exercise that no one is barred from
Pole dance is trying to shirk off its roots which are largely in strip clubs.
While it is a performing art, which combines dance and acrobatics centred on a vertical pole, now it is a popular form of fitness.
And there is also a wide range of amateur and professional competitions held around the world.
Since the mid 2000s, promoters of pole dance fitness competitions have been trying to change peoples’ perception of pole dance and to promote it as a non-sexual form of dance and acrobatics.
Pole dance requires significant strength, flexibility and endurance, and in a fitness context involves athletic moves such as climbs, spins, and body inversions using the limbs to grip.
Upper body and core strength are required to attain proficiency, and rigorous training is necessary.
The use of pole for sports and exercise can be traced back at least 800 years to the traditional Indian sport of mallakhamb, which utilises principles of endurance and strength using a wooden pole, wider in diameter than a modern standard pole.
The Chinese pole, originating in India, uses two poles on which men would perform “gravity defying tricks” as they leap from pole to pole, at approximately 20 feet in the air.