Did stereotyping hurt fledgling business?

Fitness Exotica owner says risque premise is too much for some

Former bodybuilder and collegiate gymnast Yolanda Heying’s cardio-exercise business, Fitness Exotica, has raised a few eyebrows since its opening last year, as some assumed it was some type of strip club or just didn’t approve of what they considered its risque premise.

Heidi Schiller
   For some, the combination of women’s empowerment, isometric stomach exercises and a brass floor-to-ceiling pole is the perfect workout.
   Others — not so much.
   When Yolanda Heying opened Fitness Exotica — a pole dancing and cardio-strip-tease fitness studio on State Street — last year, her purpose was to introduce a fun, empowering and sexy form of exercise to the women of Bellingham. But along the way she has encountered challenges from some in the community who have been less than enthusiastic about this purpose; who feel the idea is too risqué for the City of Subdued Excitement.
   On a recent weekday afternoon, Heying began her Sexy Flexy fitness class by closing the studio’s opaque orange curtains.
   Amid the eight polished-brass poles connecting the hardwood floors to the high ceiling, she and her students’ moves were undoubtedly sexy, but her emphasis was more on adjusting a student’s posture and cardiovascular workout than on skin and sensuality.
   This is a new kind of fitness, and with it comes a new set of both physical and political challenges. Heying has worked out a way to keep her business moving, despite some opposition from local ill-wishers.
It’s a lot harder than it looks
   Heying had always been involved in sports and athletics since she first practiced gymnastics in Murfreesboro, Tenn. as a girl.
   After working as an amateur and professional bodybuilder and a personal trainer for 20 years, she injured her Achilles tendon and had to reevaluate her career. Heying’s own personal trainer encouraged her to take a new direction.
   “At that point, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to listen to my trainer,’” she said. “She told me just to forget about (competing) and do something else, so I thought, ‘What do I want to do?’”
   She had attended a pole-dancing fitness class in Los Angeles five years prior. At the time she thought it was fun, but it wasn’t until her injury, coupled with seeing a segment on Oprah about pole fitness, that she seriously thought about pursuing pole fitness as a job.
   She was attracted to its ability to build confidence in women.
   “I’m all about girl power, so after I took a couple of classes, I thought this is really it,” she said.
   She did more research on pole fitness and cardio strip tease and took classes at a pole fitness studio in Vancouver, where she eventually received her pole fitness certification. Her instructor, a Ms. World Pole Fit champion, who won the best contortionist category, became Heying’s good friend and mentor.
   She appreciated the sport’s physical, as well as psychological, challenges.
   “It’s a lot harder than it looks,” she said. “At first, I was a little on the self-conscious side, like when it came to being sensual. I was like, ‘Okay, who is watching me.’ And now it’s second nature.”
   Pole dancing takes a lot of upper body and core strength, and while it is a unique way to tone up and lose weight, it’s also about getting to know oneself, Heying said.
   “We get so caught up in the hustle and the bustle and the every-day routine that we have a tendency as females, especially when you have kids, to forget about yourself. You put everyone before you,” she said. “In pole dancing, you reconnect with your sensual side. It’s about building confidence and self esteem.”
   Heying said students don’t have to be in tip-top shape to do it.
   “It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, or your age,” she said.
   Fitness Exotica opened in August 2006, offering two to three classes a day, including Sexy Flexy, Pole 101 and 202, Booty Camp and Lap Dance.
   Satira Brunhemer, a local designer and artist, said she has been attending classes at the studio almost every day for the past month.
   She appreciates the fun approach to exercise and Heying’s wealth of fitness knowledge, as well as the studio’s female-only policy.
   “It’s all ages, all shapes and sizes,” Brunhemer said. “It’s wonderful.”

   Unfortunately, not everyone thinks the studio is wonderful.
   At the beginning, business was a little slow, and not everyone in the community embraced the concept.
   For example, QWEST grappled with her over where to list the business in the phone book, and when she registered Fitness Exotica with the city, the woman who helped her was skeptical.
   “She said, ‘I’m not sure the city is going to allow that,’” she said. “She just had this puzzled look.”
   The woman thought she was attempting to open a strip club, but Heying eventually dispelled the misunderstanding.
   When she applied for a booth at the It All Ends in Fairhaven festival during the Ski to Sea race, the committee turned her down, saying it would be too provocative for the festival, she said.
   Anna Williams chairs the It All Ends in Fairhaven committee and said the committee’s five members unanimously decided a Fitness Exotica booth was inappropriate for the event.
   “Pole dancing is suggestive, I don’t care how you want to make it,” Williams said. “I know it’s the newest exercise craze, but out in the open with children and families around it didn’t seem appropriate to us.”
   Luckily for Heying, she hasn’t encountered too much of that mentality in the last six months. Most of the owners of bars and nightclubs where Heying markets the studio have been supportive.
   The people who are judgmental automatically associate Fitness Exotica with provocative pole dancing and stripping in nightclubs, she said.
   “People just need to be educated about what it is exactly,” Heying said. “It’s not that we take off clothes or anything. It’s done in really good fun and it’s a really good workout.”
   Recently, Heying has been doing more advertising as well as passing out her business cards, inviting women to attend a free “teaser” class.
   In March, she was a judge in the Canadian Ms. Pole Fit competition, and has been toying with the idea of starting the first national competition in the United States.
   Business at Fitness Exotica has picked up as well, and 20 students regularly take classes. Heying takes comfort in the fact that these women are gaining confidence and a positive attitude about their bodies despite others discomfort with the business.
   “It is helping women to feel empowered,” she said. “How sensual they want to make it is up to them.”

Miss Universe: Heying’s adventures in bodybuilding
   Heying began bodybuilding at 17 when a professional wrestler named Hillbilly Jim discovered her.
   It was the early ‘80s, when bodybuilding was just starting to gain popularity among women. Heying was practicing gymnastics in college when Jim spotted her and thought she had bodybuilding potential.
   He trained her for four weeks, during which she had to go on a strict diet.
   “I think about the second week I said, ‘To hell with it,’ and cooked up some fried chicken,” she said.
   Despite her diet lapse, she placed second in her first competition.
   After college, she moved from Tennessee to California, where she met her future husband, a carpenter on vacation from Germany.
   The two married and moved to Germany, where she competed as an amateur bodybuilder. In 1992, she earned her pro card after winning the Miss Universe title at the World Amateur Championships in Spain.
   As a pro bodybuilder, she competed in two major competitions a year, and won titles such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger Muscle Classic in 1997 and placed second in the Miss Olympia competition in 1998.
   As a professional, Heying traveled all over the world — to China, Israel, and throughout Europe and the United States.

Some of her more than 15 titles include:
   1998 — Winner of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Muscle Classic
   1998 — Winner of the Ms. International competition, sponsored by the International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness (IFBB)
   1997 — Winner of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Muscle Classic
   1997 — Winner of the Ms. International competition, sponsored by the IFBB
   1992 — First place heavyweight at the World Amateur Championships, sponsored by the IFBB



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