June 28, 2011

Tomb Raider Pole Dancers Raise the Bar for Fitness

Just about anybody who's played video games or watched television in the past 15 years is familiar with Lara Croft and her iconic mix of bravery, intelligence, athleticism and good looks. Most of us have probably seen fans dressed as Lara for Halloween, at game conventions, or just for fun—and maybe even tried on a costume ourselves. Today I'd like to introduce a pair of women who take cosplay to a whole new level.

Emy and Bex are students at the University of Bristol and accomplished pole dancers. Their Tomb Raider themed routine recently took first place in a local U.K. Amateur Pole Performer competition. The pair will go on to represent Bristol at the UKAPP finals in September. When Emy posted about their win on my Facebook page, I asked her to do a little Q&A for the fans. I hope you'll find our chat as interesting and enlightening as I did.

Team Tomb Raider
Bex (left) doing a twisted grip Ayesha, while Emy (right) is doing a twisted grip Straight Edge. Coordinating two people on the pole is a lot harder than one, but it looks more impressive. Photo by Eddie Winthorpe.

Stella: I think most people are familiar with pole dancing but tend to associate it with strippers. Not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily, but I'll bet a lot of people don't realize the skill, strength and training it actually takes. Could you talk a bit about the activity in general for people who aren't familiar with it?

Emy: Pole dancing is a novel form of fitness that everyone has different perspectives on. Some consider it to be a sport and prefer to call it Pole Fitness, whilst others prefer the dancey side of the activity, and want to reclaim the phrase "pole dancing" from seedy gentlemen's clubs.

Most people may be surprised to realise that pole sports originated long before gentlemen's clubs.

"The history of pole dancing can be traced back over two thousand years to dances that were performed by women for women and to an Indian sport called Mallakhamb, Chinese Pole, and also side shows in travelling circuses and more recently 'Gentlemen's Clubs'."  –"History & Future of Pole Dancing" ThePolePower.com

The activity has become increasing popular in recent times, with many women finding it a brilliant alternative to the gym, as once you try it, you realise there is NO denying how hard it is; after your first session simply performing a couple of spins your arms ache so much for days after! If you want to tone up (especially upper body and abs) then pole is for you. I can personally testify that as I have noticed such a change in my body since I took up the activity.

The pole community is growing all the time as it is now being offered in most developed countries, with hundreds of studios popping up all the time due to large demand. As a result there are now so many national and international competitions. UKAPP was the first one I entered, however I supported my instructor and friend at Miss Pole Dance UK in Brighton this past weekend!

What a lot of people don't understand about it is that we are actually performing tricks on the pole, often inverted with only arms holding ourselves upside down, which requires an amazing amount of strength and balance. We are not simply grinding around the pole in underwear.

My personal view on it is that it is simply gymnastics on a vertical bar; it is such a shame that it has the connotations it does, and it's also a shame when people refuse to open their eyes to realise quite what it is we are doing! What I enjoy is introducing new people to the sport, and then seeing them get as passionate about it as I am. Showing off on thin lampposts is always fun too, when a group of men walk past and try to recreate the trick, and fail miserably. ;)

With the sport comes many bruises and aches, not to mention the danger of falling on your head! Despite this, the satisfaction of achieving a new trick or the adrenalin rush from performing at showcases/competitions/in public is awesome and totally worth it!

Team Tomb Raider
Here, Emy (on top) has flipped over Bex (on the bottom), caught the pole in what is called a thigh hold, and is then supporting Bex as she holds a no-handed Superman move.

What makes up a good routine and what are some of the challenges you faced in competition? What do you think set your winning routine apart from the others?

In UKAPP this year there were 4 categories: Performer, Intermediate, and Expert for singles entries, then a new Doubles category. In a competition environment, there are often strict judging criteria.

[Here she gave a detailed explanation of the standards for each level, among them being smoothness and proficiency/ease of tricks, fluidity of routine, confidence, costume/theme, dance routine, crowd interaction and fun factor. Some categories emphasize certain areas over others. The Doubles category also gives marks for dancer interaction and teamwork.]

Neither of us are particularly dancey or flexible; our strengths are power moves, or the fancy tricks on the pole. A well balanced routine is more likely to win a competition so we genuinely were not expecting to win, having seen who we were up against! Our main challenges were timing—hitting the moves on the beat of the music—and grip. After a while the pole gets sweaty from hands, and we had a hands-only move—the double twisted grip—near the end of the routine which we were worried about!

There was no bitchiness between competitors backstage. Everyone in the pole community is so supportive.

I think we won because we had a wicked theme! (Although it has been done before by amazing people, check out Chelle Hafner from Australia and Russian Ekaterina Gostevskikh.)

Did you get a trophy or some kind of prize, or is just being the best reward enough?

We got a sash saying "UKAPP Heat Doubles Winners 2011" and a certificate for getting through our heat. :)

Team Tomb Raider
Emy says this pose doesn't have a name, but it was their big finale. As Bex holds up most of Emy's weight with her feet, she then takes one hand off the pole as the music fades out!
Photo by Eddie Winthorpe.

Tell us a little more about the competitions themselves. I guess there are solo and pairs routines. Are there different skill levels as well? How many people compete? Women only?

There must be hundreds of competitions worldwide but generally their structure is similar. UKAPP has never done a doubles category before this year but Miss Pole Dance UK has always had that category. Most competitions will separate out competitors into categories, limiting their moves at each level. (I know all about that since I, along with the Bristol University Pole Society committee, are currently organising a HUGE Inter University Pole Competition for March 2012.)

Competitions are generally for men and women, it's just that it is mostly women who do pole for fitness; which is a shame since men naturally have more upper body strength and therefore are a lot better at lots of the moves than women are. (Grr...jealous! Haha!) However, there is a Mr Pole Fitness competition just for men!

However, at the elite levels, there is generally just the one category, such as in Miss Pole Dance UK, Pole Art, etc. Guidelines are generally similar and focus on flexibility, strength, floor-work/dance, and spin combinations. In fact I just got back from Miss Pole Dance UK 2011 and the winner was incredible. (Jess Leanne Norris only just turned 18 and now holds the title.) The top two singles winners and the top double act (my instructor and my friend, the two Kates, who did an amazing Alice in Wonderland routine) will now be competing in the World Pole Dance competition in Budapest in October.

So you've won the Bristol doubles competition on June 18th. Does this mean you go on to compete at a higher level?

Yes, now we have won our heat, there are several more heats across the UK, and the winner from each category from each heat goes on to compete in the final in St Albans on September 24th. Now we need to come up with a new routine and theme, any ideas are welcome. We want something equally iconic!

Are you affiliated with Spin City? I found their web page, spincitypolefitness.com, when searching for background info. Are there many other pole fitness clubs/schools? (I live in the U.S. and had never heard of this before, but now I see there are pole classes in many cities.)

Indeed, the University Pole Society was set up in October 2009 in conjunction with a local pole school in the area called Spin City, which teaches pole to anyone. They have a fantastic dedicated studio which has two rooms with 6-8 poles in each. Spin City also teaches dance, aerial hoop and Burlesque dance as fitness, so it is a definitely a good place to go if you're looking for a novel way of getting fit!

In fact, three [UKAPP] winners from the 4 categories all train [there]. Spin City and its instructors are awesome!

How did you get interested in this? Why have you chosen pole dancing, as opposed to, say, other forms of gymnastics or some other sport entirely? What do you like about it?

I was always curious about the sport of pole dancing/fitness. Like most I was a bit apprehensive and treated it as a joke. However, I was bought a taster session as a Christmas present and tried it, and loved it, so joined the pole society as soon as it started up at my University. Since then I realised the benefits it has both physically, to my body, and socially. It does wonders for your confidence too! This year I got really into it and have been on the committee of the society, performed in shows, bought my own removable pole for my house, a freestanding pole, travelled to pole events, done masterclasses with pole superstars and champions from all different countries, etc! I'm lucky that I didn't let it take priority over my degree. ;)

Obviously you need to be really fit and acrobatic to do this. Do you do any other types of training?

Honestly, I have NEVER been a sporty type; as someone who is really obsessed with computers (hence my Tomb Raider addiction and my Computer Science degree), I always found it hard to get into any sports and keep it up for a long time. This however is totally different as it doesn't feel like a chore...lessons and pole social nights out are the highlights of my week!

Team Tomb Raider
Here Emy is doing a pose called a Remi, which she referred to as a 'pain move,' meaning it hurts...a lot!

Do you guys play the Tomb Raider video games and, in any case, why did you choose the Tomb Raider theme?

I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE the Tomb Raider games. I have merchandise, DIY costumes, the Anniversary costume, posters, figures, all the games, etc. It was the early Tomb Raider games that got me into computers in the first place when I was little! I even live near Wimbledon, and Lara's character history says she went to Wimbledon High School, a partner school of the one I went to. Even now, I play through the original games to pass time when I'm bored. This year alone I've played TR 2, 3, and Last Revelation...probably should have been doing coursework though...haha!

Bex and I decided to enter UKAPP as a double act but we couldn't think of a theme. She knew I loved Tomb Raider and she does too. So as soon as she suggested it my eyes lit up and we both knew it was the right theme for us! She even dyed her hair from very light peroxide blonde to dark brown for the occasion...that's dedication!

Team Tomb Raider
Here Bex and Emy explore a more traditional Tomb Raider cosplay setting.

Team Tomb Raider
This hapless dude looks strong, but he's no match for Lara and...er...Lara. ;)

I'll admit I'm not familiar with pole fitness. So can you think of anything else I should have asked but didn't?

Umm, I hope I've covered everything. I'm sure by the sheer amount of stuff I've written that you can tell how passionate about pole (and Tomb Raider!) I am and I love sharing that with others. There may always be a stigma related to pole, but the more people we can tell about the reality of it the better!

I'd also like to mention Kate Johnstone and Cath Payne, and everyone else at Spin City who has helped me progress in pole and helped along the way, and of course my pole partner in crime Bex Brady!

Emy and Bex are both students at the University of Bristol, in the UK. Emy just obtained a First Class Masters of Engineering in Computer Science degree. Bex is going into her third year at University and studying Veterinary Science. She is also President of the University of Bristol Pole Dance Society, and Emy is the Society's webmistress. They started pole-ing in October 2009 and both now have our own poles at home to practise on. They're going to need them to prepare for the UKAPP finals in September. We Tomb Raider fans wish you the best of luck, ladies!

Team Tomb Raider's Winning Routine



  1. I love it! Thanks so much for the blog post Stella!! :D xx

  2. Thank *you* for sharing all this great info with us, Emy. Good luck to you and Bex...both in the finals and in setting up your own competition for next year!

  3. I think this so awesome I never knew that much focus and strength went into pole fitness ( Thats what Im gonna call it from now on)Ill be rooting for them at their competition

  4. I'm the hapless dude! :D Dead-chuffed to appear on a Tomb Raider blog alongside the legendary Bex and Emy!

  5. Hey, Keir. Sorry I didn't credit you in the photo caption, but you can blame Emy for that. Guess she was having a girl-power moment and completely forgot to mention the poor guy on the ground. ;)

    Nice web site, BTW.

  6. Heh, 'poor guy', 'hapless dude' - you make it sound like it isn't utterly awesome to be the lucky guy in this picture!! :D (and thanks!)

  7. Got this link up from Stella's Tomb Raider site. Awesome routine! Congratulations, and hope you're enjoying your new celebrity! Great job.