In her first ever pole dancing lesson, Emma was asked to roll her tights above the knees and almost burst into tears. She had only agreed to show up because two friends had said they would too—but they had bailed, leaving her to face the unknown. She thought about leaving, but another woman had noticed her and broken the ice, so there was no backing out—she had been spotted. Incredibly shy and self conscious at 23-years-old, Emma was absolutely mortified at the idea of showing any skin whatsoever.
“I turned up dressed, well, jokingly I describe it as a scuba diver,” Emma says. “The instructor begged me to roll up my leggings. I nearly cried, the idea of showing my knees was impossible.”
Three years later, she’s come a long way from the awkward girl who was afraid to be seen. Emma is now a pole dance instructor and competitor who posts much of her fitness journey on her Instagram, @thedefiningmoment. The changes didn’t come easily, but they fit her like a glove—or maybe a pair of fishnet stockings.
From a young age, Emma avoided sports and fitness “like the plague” and jokes about pretending to be asthmatic to escape gym class. There was a sense of alienation from her body, that it wasn’t enough, it didn’t look like the magazines, it couldn’t do what other bodies did. In her early twenties, she felt anxious around crowds and (funnily enough), dancing.
“It would just be sensory overload,” Emma says of nights out in the club with her friends. “You kind of feel like you’re dancing for other people, that’s not my dig.”
Cue: her first pole dance lesson ever, her friends standing her up, the Victorian trauma of the “over the knee” leggings incident. In that moment, something made her dig deep and stick it out. Maybe it was pure grit, or maybe she had already paid for a block of classes. Either way, instead of wasting her money, she kept going, one hour each week for six weeks. She got hooked.
It wasn’t long before she was showing up early to help set up and staying late to help take down after lessons. Then she started helping out in the lower level classes. Next, it was training as a teacher.
By day, she’s a hairdresser who says she is “really boring” and loves “nothing more than a cup of tea at the end of the night.” Meanwhile in the evenings she’s teaching students to get in touch with their sultry, sensual sides and mastering moves like the overhead box, where the dancer holds themselves up on the pole and brings their legs up and over their body. Is it easy? Hell no.
“It took me three years to get that, and most students get it after maybe 8 or 9 weeks,” she exclaims with exasperation.
Watching the video of this achievement on her Instagram, you’d miss the emotion of the moment if you didn’t know there were years of work culminated in it. You can hear words of encouragement of her peers as she works up to the move, the room takes a quick collective breath—and then she nails it. Cheers, tears, and satisfaction.
“The nectar always tastes sweeter when you’ve earned it. I actually cried, I was so pleased,” Emma says. According to her, her own stubbornness kept her on track.
Crying is a recurring thing too—Emma says it happens every time she performs. She even wept after a sexy comedy routine where she dressed as British baking icon Mary Berry, and rolled around in cake on stage for about 40 people.
“I was dirtily dancing in cake on the floor, and I got up and everyone was clapping. I just burst into tears!” Pole dancing, it seems, was the beginning of an appreciation for her body and its capabilities she had never had before. Even though there is a large performance component, the poetry of it for Emma is all about being alone in the movement.
“It’s you and the world alone, together, dancing.” Emma says. “I definitely don’t ever feel as free as when I dance. It’s just a release.”
In March 2018, she’ll strut her stuff for about 200 people—her largest audience yet—in her second-ever pole dancing competition. Even though part of that crowd will be the people she’s competing against, she’s not nervous. In fact, she says the air of a pole dancing competition is so positively charged it’s nearly electric.
“You’ve got your competitors on the sidelines, screaming for all the moves you do. It’s such a positive place it’s unreal,” Emma says.
“It’s given me a huge network of supportive people,” she adds. Pole helped her build real friendships and break out of her shell. She says it would do the same for anyone, and that all are welcome in the dance studio. “We come in all shapes, sizes, colours, genders. I’ve got guys in my classes. There’s a 70-year-old pole dancer someone was telling me about just earlier today.”
Emma is a key example of what happens when you love your niche, and your niche absolutely loves you back. She speaks with warmth and humour about her sport, and is its unflinching advocate. She insists pole is something everyone should try, even (especially) if they’re intimidated by it. Think you’re not strong enough? Think again.
“If you can push yourself up on a table, then you can officially hold your body weight long enough to hold yourself on a pole,” she presses.
Just like anyone consumed by their sport of choice, she’s not currently interested in trying other kinds of movement. She’s focused and knows where she’s going. If you ask, all her future goals are related to pole dancing. She started hitting the gym to build strength and cardio endurance to improve her competitive game. She’s made new years resolutions to nail new moves. She and her doubles partner are rehearsing top-secret competition routines. The future feels bright and focused.
What’s more, in pole, she’s found an outlet to channel all the emotions of life, no matter who’s watching—awed newbies in her classes, competitors, or the world of social media.
Before pole, Emma says her Instagram was filled with selfies exclusively from the shoulders up, hunting for that elusive “perfect” angle. Now, she uses hashtags like #Sundaybumday and describes herself as “the loudmouth who can’t ever stay clothed.” In her own words, she has become “the anti-Old Emma.” She’s turned her world literally upside down.
The name of her Instagram, “the defining moment” is a photography term, which was her major in university.
“It’s the moment before something big happens,” she explains. “I felt like I was in … the middle part of something big happening. I feel like I’m that flower about to blossom,” Emma says.
Speaking to her, you get a strong sense that her true defining moment is now.