Some athletes wear shin guards and cleats. Others wear helmets. Heidi Coker? She gets lean and strong in the tiniest of booty shorts, because she’s a pole fitness expert with several international titles and a teaching gig at the Pole La Teaz studio in Atlanta.
Though many incorrectly assume she must also be a stripper, Coker—a former teacher who now travels for, competes in, and teaches pole dancing full-time—shrugs off the stigma. “It’s fitness and a sport, not exotic dancing,” she says.
Indeed, many of the teachers at Pole La Teaz are reformed gym junkies, with one abandoning CrossFit for the pole and another finding that it was the best workout after leaving a long and joint-punishing career in basketball.
Below, Coker chats with us about the workout and the fear associated with getting on the pole to get fit.
What’s your fitness and athletics background?
I was a gymnast from a very young age and competed until I was 21. I was an international elite. Then I stopped—took a 10-year break and did yoga off and on. I really enjoyed dancing, but nothing serious. Then I saw a woman on TV who talked about how, after doing pole, she felt empowered and in the best shape of her life. I wanted all of those things. So in summer 2009, I started pole and fell in love. At the time, it was a little more taboo and misunderstood.
What changes have you seen in your body since starting pole?
I was going between one and three times a week to Pole La Teaz, usually for 60 to 90 minutes. When you go to the gym, [you generally use] weights and using other forces to build muscle. On the pole, you have to control your body and your movements, but also make them look fluid and use your body very precisely. My arms became more developed, my core was getting stronger, and even my legs [were stronger], even though you don’t use your legs as much as you would in a traditional workout. This is a head-to-toe total body workout. I also felt more confident and expressive.
Do people assume you’re an exotic dancer from a club?
When I first started pole I was very cautious to tell people because I worked in a school system at the time. Almost 100 percent of the time, [people] look at you and think stripper. There’s nothing wrong with [being an exotic dancer], but that’s not what I was practicing. It’s fitness and a sport.
Tell me about pole competitions.
I watched YouTube for ideas and tricks and noticed that people all over the world were not only pole dancing, but competing, and what they were doing was art. So I started trying to do the tricks I saw them do. After a short time I realized that I was accomplishing the same movements.
I entered [my first] competition in 2010 and was competing internationally by the following year. It became something to use as a tool to see the world. What changed my life and career was winning Pole Art 2013. At the time, it was one of the most renowned competitions, and it really launched my name. I also was the 2015 Australian Pole Fitness Champion. In the U.S., I’ve placed second and third and been named artist of the year a couple of times. To me, it’s not necessarily about the titles. It’s just a way to show my art, since in pole there are not as many opportunities to perform.
What advice do you have for beginners, who might be intimidated by pole?
I think just stepping into the door is the hardest feat. Just show up as you are. The studio will recommend athletic clothing, but go with what you’re comfortable in. If you want to go in your sports bra and hot pants, do it. If you want to work out in high heels or go barefoot, that’s great. We use smaller clothing because we need our flesh to make contact with the pole. So there’s a reason for dressing in less. But you should do what works for you. Just show up, get in the door, and try it.
Curious what it’s like to take a class at Atlanta’s Pole La Teaz? Here’s what happened when we went. We also wrote about them in our Best of Atlanta 2017 issue.