Like all of us, Jeff Yu is many things: a son, a boyfriend, a student, a researcher, a former MMA fighter. Jeff also happens to be one the best male pole dancers in Canada.
Now, before your eyebrows start raising, or your eyes start rolling, let's start with some hard, cold facts:
Fact 1: pole dancing is a legitimate sport, whether performed by a male or a female. It combines strength, agility, endurance, and skill. It requires hours of training and buckets of skill. It is far from easy.
Fact 2: from North America to Asia, from Australia to Europe, Pole Dancing is taking off as a sport. At the latest World Pole Sport Championships, held annually in London, hundreds of athletes from more than 30 countries competed in a variety of divisions. Recently, a petition has been made to the International Olympic Committee to include Pole Dancing as an Olympic sport. That's legitimate.
Fact 3: When Jeff Yu was crowned Canadian Male Pole Dancing Champion in 2014, it was the culmination of a lot of hours, a lot sweat, and a lot of determination. It was earned
When Jeff first walked into Tantra Fitness in January of 2013, on the recommendation of a friend, he was a little unsure of what to expect, whether he might feel a bit like a fish out of water. But thanks to his own open mind, and a welcoming community of athletes and instructors, he immediately knew he had found something and somewhere special. Three years later, he would not change a thing.
We sat down with Jeff to talk about the evolution of pole dancing, erasing the stigma, and what it takes to be a champion.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: why Pole Dancing, as opposed to any other sport?
I think it comes down to personality. And my story begins with a new year's ever resolution. I believe that all guys should learn how to dance in some way, shape or form. So tried my hand at foxtrot, waltz, those kind of dances. Then I talked to a friend who was studying in Copenhagen, and she was taking some pole dance classes. So she came back to Vancouver and asked me, "Hey, do you want to try this out?" And being a person who tries anything once, I said, "Yeah, why not?" I am definitely more of a "why not" guy than a "why" guy.
And what made you continue in the sport once you started?
When I first began a couple of years ago at Tantra, I was also doing MMA training. So I was sort of doing these polar opposites at the same time: something that was highly masculine and something that was perceived as highly feminine. Eventually, it got to the point where I was just doing too much, doing too much to my body - working out and training 7 days a week in 2 different sports. Something had to give, or my body was going to give. So I had to make a choice.
Honestly, the reason I chose pole dance over MMA was the community aspect of Pole, and the self-discovery aspect as well. Unlike MMA, in Pole, you are fighting against yourself. You are figuring out your own body. Yes, we have some of the best instructors in the world, but they don't know your body as well as you do, and as a novice, you don't know your body very well either. So I really enjoyed that self-discovery component, that "wow" moment when I nail that move, when I astonish myself. That's a huge aspect of the appeal of Pole.
Did you know you would be breaking boundaries? Was that a consideration at all?
Yes and no. I mean there are other men in the sport, but in Canada it is definitely not as big as in Eastern Europe or the United States. When I first started getting into it, I noticed that I was generally the only guy in the gym, and at competitions, there were not as many male competitors as the other divisions. But I always did it for myself and for my studio. I really wanted to make myself and Tantra proud, so I didn't really think about whether I was breaking any boundaries. At the same time, however, I do understand that I am perceived as a bit of a "special case."
Now that you are a national champion, do you feel any responsibility to expand the sport further, to spread the word, so to speak?
Absolutely. It really comes down to the stigma, which is that Pole dancing is only for women or for homosexual men. But I am able to bring my own personality, my own background to the sport, and there are a lot of men with a similar background to mine who might want to pursue the sport. I may bring something different to pole dancing, but I always respect the history of the sport. I have an appreciation for all styles, but I would never try to emulate something that did not fit my body type. I have to stay true to myself and my own style.
So a guy is sitting at home, thinking he would like to give pole dancing a try, but doesn't really know where to start. What should his first step be?
Call the studio - that's what I did! The most important is to have an open mind and ask lots of questions.
Would it be fair to say that Pole Dancing is in the gymnastics family? Or is it a truly unique sport?
The sport has definitely evolved over the years, from a more lyrical aspect to a more acrobatic aspect today, and this has brought it closer to gymnastics. Now, as competitions are getting bigger and the sport continues to evolve, tricks are getting more and more extreme and the acrobatic aspect of the sport has become more important.
We must never forget, however, that there is also a dance component to Pole. There is the pole aspect, which is the fitness and the acrobatics, but you need to connect everything together; you need a flow. And that is where the dance aspect comes in to play, be it lyrical or jazz or hip hop or whatever style you choose.
What about the future of pole dance. Do you see a further evolution over the next five to ten years?
Definitely. It is one of the things I find so exciting about the sport. It is a little bit past its infancy, but not much. At Tantra, we have started something called Advanced Pole Lab Workshops, because there are so many new moves coming out of the pole community that we couldn't put it into our regular curriculum. And personally, I am always growing, improving, inventing and perfecting new moves. I have my own signature, combination move, but the sky is the limit. As the sport becomes more "gymnastical," the tricks are just going to get bigger and more technical. It is exciting to see the sport grow so quickly, and to be a part of it.