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Health and wellness

Pole dance club founder on 10 years of empowering women and keeping them fit

  • Hong Kong’s Aerial Arts Academy offers pole dance and aerial acrobatics with silks and hoops
  • Co-founder Vee Lea talks about overcoming social attitudes to pole dance
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 3:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 5:05pm

Vee Lea smiles as she recalls opening her Aerial Arts Academy (AAA) 10 years ago this month. Then, pole dance and aerial acrobatics with the aid of silk swathes of fabric and hanging hoops were more novel, associated more with strip clubs than gyms. But her efforts to overcome barriers and gain acceptance paid off and the academy now has three outlets – in Central, Causeway Bay and Wong Chuk Hang.

Today countless dedicated studios and gyms offer similar classes, focused on pole and aerial activities.

Lea, AAA’s director and co-founder, recalls one of its first success stories. A nervous first-timer arrived at a pole dancing class, clad in a jumper, turtle neck, skirt and black tights, while other students had changed into active wear. She was encouraged to take part regardless.

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“She had this look … like some part of her was allowed to be expressed, like someone gave her permission to feel feminine, or empowered to do something about it,” Lea says. AAA encourages its students to let those feminine qualities shine.

The newbie became a regular, ditching her office wear for yoga wear. “It made all of my sacrifices worth it for that little moment, this activity made her feel allowed to be herself and express her individuality and femininity,” Lea says.

Lea discovered circus arts in her teens as an extra in a British film where she met circus acrobat Michele Laine. A passion for aerial activities blossomed and Lea went to the New York Circus Arts Centre in the US to train.

On her return, Lea continued to attend circus classes in London, but later moved to Malaysia to connect to her roots. There were no pole dance classes in this conservative country, so she installed a pole in her flat and found training friends on forums.

Soon, her following outgrew her flat, so Lea found a dance studio nearby and rented a tiny space. Her success attracted much attention, and she was asked to speak at conferences on the emerging craze including a Hong Kong event where she met her business partner, Ania Przeplasko. The pair co-founded AAA in Hong Kong in early 2009, sharing their first space in Central with another dance studio.

Lea was taken aback by attitudes toward pole dance in Asia, possibly stemming from prostitution and strip clubs in Thailand.

She took a fresh approach, promoting AAA’s classes as non-lewd, safe exercise activities. Launching a pole fitness syllabus and training course with the Asian Academy for Sports and Fitness Professionals put it squarely into the fitness domain.

It worked. Women flocked to classes and many found the sessions empowering. “Pole [dancing] hit that demographic where you could explore [these movements] in a safe space, but also tone your body and work out; pole dancers have nice figures,” she says.

Fast forward to today: in tribute to the organisation’s 10th year, AAA is staging a major graduation show at The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts on January 19, in which students and instructors will perform acrobatics, burlesque and pole and belly dancing.

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Lea hopes the performance will inspire attendees. A year of hard work can turn them into aerial artistes. “The show says: if you give enough time to what you want to do, you can actually do it,” she says.

AAA offers a one-year programme to train amateurs into professional performers culminating in a show. Those without superstar ambitions can take part purely for fun and fitness.

There are many health benefits. Aerial and pole arts build core and upper body strength from all the lifting, and flexibility from the constant movement of hips, joints and lower limbs, Lea says.

Pole dance also appeals to men. For them, the in-vogue move is “The Flag” popularised by street workouts and parkour, in which they hang from the pole in a horizontal position, like a human flag. It can take a rookie a year to condition their body to accomplish this move, depending on their fitness level.

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Learners are encouraged to work towards lifting their body weight, starting at 10kg then gradually heavier loads. “The Flag strengthens your [abdominal] oblique, lateral and core muscles,” Lea says.

Lea hopes the future brings changes on the gender front as her clientele is still predominantly female. “You see circus acts where guys on silks are gorgeous, strong and flexible,” she says.

Many men are deterred from pole dance, in fear of being seen as “sissies.”

“I’d like to see a bit more equality for all sexes and individuals to explore stuff and not have to maintain a certain image or identity,” Lea says.

Aerial hoops 

On a warm morning at Trybe studio in Wong Chuk Hang, Christine Wong, 37, is pulling off “Woman in the moon” moves at the centre of the ring. “It took me two weeks to perfect the inverted move,” she says. Wong does another move, this time with the hoop spinning.

After the birth of Wong’s first childfive years ago, she had gained 60 pounds (27kg) and struggled to shed the weight through yoga. Wong took up her sister-in-law’s suggestion to join AAA’s classes for toning and core strengthening in 2014, and found the aerial hoop most suited her.

While learning the Woman in the moon move, an instructor asked her to raise her left leg. She was so disoriented, she couldn’t tell her left from right. “I literally got a different perspective,” she recalls.

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She realised there were still many things she had yet to experience, and “different parts of my body I thought I used but had not,” she says. Beside increasing mind and body awareness, hoop work helped Wong shed 50lbs in six months.

In 2016 she performed in an AAA show at the W Hotel, including a five-minute nerve-racking solo she was disappointed with.

She is training for the graduation show and hopes to deliver a “perfect” performance.

Aerial Arts Academy Graduation Show, Hong Kong Jockey Club Amphitheatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai, January 19, 7.30pm. Tickets from HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 31 288 288; aerialartsacademy.com