Meet our Gymbox Pole instructor, Julien Roussel, who has recently won Mr Pole 2016. Not only that, during his 13 years career as a dancer, he has not only danced for the likes of Madonna, but has met Michele Obama... "That blew my mind!" he says. We meet him.
You recently won Mr Pole 2016. Congrats! How does winning feel?
When they announced my name I went numb. I looked to the floor in disbelief and I thought 'Me? Do I deserve this?!' I'm never satisfied with what I do. I want to be perfect. Then I heard the clapping and looked up at everyone smiling and cheering and it felt amazing. Having danced for so many years, not many people get to change paths and get rewarded, so it literally felt like a rebirth.
Tell us about the competition, what is involved?
The competition is called Miss Pole Dance (MPD), and there is Mr Pole Fitness which is a special category. It's in its 11th year now. It was held at the glamorous location of Bognor Regis (clearly the capital of the Pole world). The female categories include amateur, semi pro, advanced and instructors – according to experience, years of poling and qualifications. For the guys, literally anyone can enter. I had the least amount of experience compared to everyone else, so I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I know people were looking at me like 'only two years of pole and you're instructing already?'
How do you train for a contest like this?
It's hard. You have to be in the studio as often as possible. I'm in there six days a week for four hours a session. Strength and stamina has to be built up, but the actual tricks and dancing are about 35%-40% of the judging. For example, there are set moves that are done a certain way, and there are certain alignments that need to be correct (full splits, pointed toes, straight knees, locked elbows throughout the movement). But after that there are so many other factors to consider, and there is so much that goes into creating your piece. I looked back at all the winners and runners-up, both male and female, and really tried to understand what it was that made them stand out.
Did you have to be strict with your diet also?
I wasn't overly strict. I eat pretty well already because I'm constantly training. Mainly, I had to up my carbs and fruits. I had to cut a few things out like fried chicken – they're my weakness! I also had to stop partying. I'm not a party person so much these days, but if I don't go out at all I do miss my friends... so now and again I will go out.
Do people view pole fitness as not a real sport? If so, what would you say to those people?
Pole is a tricky one because of its connection with stripping. I like to use the term 'pole fitness' as it sounds more about the technique and the strength of the art. It's a real art form that originally started in India where boys and men would climb to show their virility. It's no different to hoop or trapeze, it just has this negative attachment. Being a dancer I'm using my body a certain way to pave my career, and so does someone who strips. It's about creating a fantasy for someone who normally wouldn't even dream of doing anything out of their comfort zone and I love how Gymbox is giving that opportunity to members. I think deep down everyone male, female, young and old have at some point looked at a pole and thought 'I wanna do that'.
If you see poles out and about, on the street or on the tube, are you ever tempted to jump on them?
Every time I see a lamp post or scaffolding I do have this wicked temptation to just climb it and do some insane move for a little photo opportunity. But I'm very strict not to do anything, as we all get brave after a drink, but then the risk of injury is a lot higher. When I'm in the studio trying to create something I usually think 'how spectacular and dangerous can I make this?' If I'm out I won't think, I'll just do with a high probability of crashing. We've all seen that person in the club that gets a little too confident on the pole and it doesn't end well!
You were a professional ballet and contemporary dancer before you went ‘pole’ – what were the highlights?
I was, and still am, a professional dancer. It's been 13 years and I feel I've had such a blessed career. I was in The Lion King. We performed at so many award ceremonies, we got to meet so many celebrities. Michele Obama was one of my firsts. I remember she came back stage and said she loved the show and said we were an inspiration! That blew my mind. I was a featured ballet dancer in Madonna's directorial debut Filth & Wisdom. I performed at the Nobel Peace Prize, the O2, Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall. However, the most memorable experience was performing at 2012 Opening Ceremony for London Olympic Games. Being a Londoner born and bred I felt very patriotic. I went through so many rounds of auditions thinking I've got no chance at this size of a show. I lost my mind when I found out!
How have these dancing skills helped you with your pole skills?
My dancing has help my pole incredibly. In dance you have to be aware of the alignment of my legs and feet, have core strength, performance, grace, strength, musically, style and these are all important factors in pole. But pole is another technique so there is a lot that I had to learn in a short space of time. I'm still learning. Isolation is a very underestimated skill in pole, too (hook the right leg, straighten the left leg, twist the right hand, lower the left hand) – even now I'll go upside down and forget what day it is. I used to do gymnastics which also really helps. Not every dancer is comfortable going upside down or good with not feeling the floor. You need to be fearless for this.
What makes you unique as a pole dancer?
A combination of being athletic, gymnastic and artistic, but also combining the correct elements to create a pole persona. It has to be all down to you, and what you do best as it has to look effortless. And most importantly, tell your story!
How does learning a skill like pole impact on your fitness and feelings of general well-being?
Pole is about functional training. It's using your own body weight and develops the muscles from your neck to your toes without you even realising it because you're focusing on something else and it's so much fun. The muscles are all worked together when holding a position and specific muscles groups are isolated when negotiating from one movement to another. So you're getting a dual workout in the one class. It works your flexibility and the strength of your flexibility because you're holding the extreme positions. It's also a perfect link to CrossFit, callisthenics, rock climbing... Every class there are new members that have never done anything like this, so members should never feel like they cant join in because they've never done pole. You don't have to be flexible or strong to start off with. These things will come naturally and develop the more members come to class. I want everyone to try pole at least once in their lives. I always keep my classes fun because I want everyone to relax and really enjoy the work that they do.
What’s the biggest buzz you get from teaching Pole for us at Gymbox?
I'm very protective of members when it comes to learning the technique. If it's not taught properly then injuries and bad habits can occur. I really want to get you from A to B perfectly, rather than A to Z and have a OK-ish level in pole. I absolutely love watching someone, and remembering when they first came to class and they said 'I can't do it, I'm not strong enough and my hands are slippy' – and then l see them climb the pole, hit about 3/4 positions solidly, gracefully descend with pointy toes and look at me like 'yep, nailed it, what's next?' That's a really proud moment.
More about Pole right here