by Len Lear
For most people, the words “pole dancing” would probably conjure up images of scantily clad young ladies moving sensuously around a pole while hard-breathing men try to stuff money (not change) into their garter belts while a nearby behemoth who looks like an Eagles’ offensive lineman stands guard in case some drunken lowlife tries to grab some flesh.
Well, gentle reader, Awakenings Pole Dance Fitness Studio, founded almost 10 years ago by a Lafayette Hill former TV personality, Heather Day Slawek, bears as much resemblance to the above description as a lightning bug does to lightning.
“In addition to eradicating the stigma associated with pole dancing, my goal is to help as many women learn to love themselves, help them heal physically and emotionally through fitness and dance in order to live their best life possible,” Slawek, 46, said last week from her studio at 4151 Main St. in Manayunk. (She has a second studio at 217 West Church Rd. in King of Prussia.)
Heather, who grew up in Glen Mills, graduated magna cum laude from Temple U. in 1993 with a degree in communications and from Harcum College in Bryn Mawr in 1999 with an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. She won a boatload of academic honors at both schools, but Heather has always been a fitness buff as well, having been a Certiﬁed Group Fitness Instructor since 1989 and a Certiﬁed Personal Trainer since 1997. And she won first place in the Miss Fitness Philadelphia contest in 1997.
Heather had formal training in dance (jazz, tap, ballet) and was a competitive swimmer and gymnast throughout her childhood and through high school. And Heather had an early taste of fame when she was spotted dancing at a local teen club and went on to dance as a regular on two TV shows. One was a nationally syndicated show that she wound up co-hosting from 1989 to 1991 called “Dance Party USA” on the USA Network, where she was known as “Princess.” She conducted on-air interviews with celebrities like Jodi Watley, New Kids on the Block, Mel Blanc, Mark Wahlberg, Vanessa Williams and Gilbert Gottfried.
“I was nicknamed ‘Princess’ on the show because I was a fan of Prince, the singer, and could be seen wearing dresses or other outfits that reflected my devotion to him. I ‘sort of’ met Prince in 1994 two years after Dance Party USA ended its run. We were not formally introduced, as the unspoken rule in the room was ‘Don’t speak to him unless he speaks to you.’ He stood right next to me, shoulder to shoulder, for about 45 minutes and spoke to my friend instead of me.”
For the last 28 years, Heather has been a fitness instructor at more than a dozen studios and clubs in the area, including A-Game Fitness and Performance in Flourtown (2009-current), Balance Fitness Studio in Chestnut Hill (2009-2011), Aerobics, Etc., in Flourtown (2007-2008) and L.A. Fitness in Andorra (2005-2006).
Heather also starred in and choreographed four aerobics videos, was a fitness instructor for Caribbean resorts and worked as a dental hygienist.
But Heather started taking pole dancing classes in 2006 at Mitch’s Gym in West Chester after giving birth to two children. “I didn’t think of losing my baby weight as a goal, but it was a side effect of the pole dancing classes I took.
“Physically, pole dancing increases overall muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility. On a psychological and emotional level, we have found that pole dance fitness is therapeutic for women. It is a skill/goal-based workout that increases self-confidence, self-esteem and empowers women. It is just what the doctor ordered in these days where women’s health care and rights are jeopardized.”
Do people come in who are simply not fit enough or strong enough to do workouts on the pole? “There is no such thing as not being ‘fit enough’ or ‘strong enough’ to do pole workouts at our studio. That’s like telling someone they aren’t fit enough or strong enough to start going to the gym. Everyone has to start somewhere. Our students start at a beginner level, and we build their strength and fitness levels as they progress.”
With all of her success, though, you may be able to guess what Heather’s biggest pet peeve is. “When it comes to my business, my pet peeve may be the snarky comments and uneducated reactions to pole dancing we sometimes encounter.”
Donielle Jones, 37, of Cheltenham, is an effusively enthusiastic student at the studio. “I played basketball for Cheltenham High School and rugby at Temple,” she said, “but I am plus-size now, so this is really important to me. The first time I took a pole dancing class was in Indiana, and I fell in love with it.
“I was searching for a good studio in this area. I tried a couple, but I feel so comfortable here (in Manayunk) that I could not go anywhere else. I come twice a week and after six months am doing aerial yoga in addition to pole dancing. It is very challenging, but it is also so much fun! The atmosphere is great, and the instructors are great. They back me 100 percent. It is like gymnastics and is very empowering for women. I feel that if I can do this, I can do anything.”
Another student, Carla Germano, 32, of Manayunk, told us, “I started off doing aerial arts but soon added pole and acrobatics classes to my repertoire. Each activity provides its own challenges, and there is always something new to learn, which is such a great incentive. I almost don’t realize I am ‘working out.’ When doing something so expressive, it is easy to be self-conscious, but everyone at Awakenings is on their own journey, and we are all so supportive of each other.”
Heather is also currently teaching a course on pole dancing for Mt. Airy Learning Tree. More information at www.awakeningspoleﬁtness.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.