Sara-May Monaghan is one of only 2 IPSF (International Pole Sports Federation) endorsed Pole Coaches in Australia and an IPSF Level 2 Judge. She’s a Certified Pole Instructor, Barre Instructor, Personal Trainer, and a Corrective Exercise Specialist. She is also the 2021 Australian Professional Masters 40+ Womens Pole Sport Champion.
I sat down with her recently to discuss how she got into pole fitness and how she keeps fit and healthy, both body and mind.
So, tell me about how you discovered pole. What drew you to it?
I actually took my first pole class way back in 2006 when the idea of pole for fitness was very new to Australia. I had read a write up of Bobbi’s Pole Studio (an iconic Sydney-based pole school) in a magazine and convinced my best friend that we should go and try it. We lived on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst at the time and loved the idea of pole dancing so much that we walked into an adult shop on the way home and bought a pole.
I stuck with pole for a few years, but in late 2008 I got pregnant and suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum and had to stop training almost immediately. During this pregnancy we moved out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains. Once I was able to safely return to exercise, I was too far away from any pole studios to be able to realistically return to regular training. (As you know, during this time I was working as a makeup artist and beauty blogger, which is how we met!)
Then, in 2015 I found myself living the expat life as a trailing spouse in the Netherlands, with 2 kids, morbidly obese and feeling like I had completely lost all sense of identity separate from my children. I knew that something had to change, and I knew that the last time I had really enjoyed exercise was when I was doing pole. There was a pole studio close by that I had passed a few times, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt for me to give it a try. My body was big, and weak, and heavy, but just being there, twirling around the pole, brought back that feeling of flying that I used to love.
Confession time: I don’t know anything about pole dancing. Like a lot of people, I think it’s something you do in a dimly lit club. What’s the difference between that kind of pole dancing, and what you do?
Well, you’re not wrong. And it’s important to acknowledge that pole dancing as a sport in western culture would not exist without strippers. The first pole studios around the world were almost invariably started by business savvy strippers who saw an opportunity to supplement their income by teaching women to pole dance. This was back in the early 2000’s, and pole dancing as a sport has evolved and grown so rapidly over the last 20 years. There are now as many styles of pole as there are styles of dancing.
As far as my own personal style of pole, I’m what many people in the industry call a trickster. I’m more drawn to the “feats of strength” aspects of pole and I just love being able to do really cool, crazy tricks. Dance and flow around the pole are probably my weakest skills.
As a pole instructor, what kind of women do you see coming in wanting to learn? What are their motivations?
There is such a broad cross-section of humans that come into the studio wanting to learn pole, and they’re not all women! For a lot of the newer members of the community, I think the idea of doing something a little bit “off the wall” is a really attractive proposition. There are a lot of people that perhaps don’t enjoy traditional workout environments but want to find a way to incorporate movement into their lives.
Of course, for a lot of people, pole is also a way to connect with their bodies, their sexuality, their sensuality and to feel really good in their skin. It’s actually amazing to see the transformative effect that pole can have on self-image and self-esteem. Oftentimes we find members join our community with a lot of negative self-talk, wanting to lose weight because they are unhappy with their bodies. We find that over time, their relationship with their body changes and they begin to love themselves for what their body can do.
It must be really tough on your body. How do you keep yourself healthy and fit, both physically and mentally? What’s your recovery process?
It really is! In fact, the incidence of injuries in advanced pole dancers is comparable to professional gymnastics. That’s one of the reasons that I became certified as a corrective exercise specialist, to learn better how to prehab and balance out the very lop-sided training that we tend to do as pole dancers.
Personally, in the longer term, I aim to schedule a “deload” week every 8-10 weeks of training, to allow my body to rest and recover. It requires a lot of discipline to stick with this deload schedule, because the tendency is to keep pushing through. I can almost guarantee though, the time that I push through a deload is the time that I’m most likely to get injured. So by taking a week to 10 days completely off any apparatus I find that my body recovers beautifully and I come back to training stronger and well rested.
On a week to week basis, there are a few recovery goals I try to hit as often as possible, including getting 9-10 hours sleep per night, eating a balanced diet with enough protein, taking time for self-care in the form of regular magnesium baths, and regular bodywork from either my physio or a remedial massage therapist.
How do you wind down after a long day working out, home-schooling kids and with the mental workload that all parents carry? What things make it easier for you?
Honestly, working out is part of my wind down process. Sure, I teach, but that time is not focussed on me and my training goals. It’s rewarding work, but it’s more emotionally draining than physically draining. When I can work one on one with my coach, or participate in a class, or just find some time for movement, it's a really satisfying and healing thing. Although I am also the person that stays up way too late, scrolling on my phone, just to have a bit of alone time!
Female Empowerment is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Is what you do is empowering? How do you feel about that word?
Absolutely what I do is empowering, and I think it’s an excellent word to describe the impact pole has had on my life, and the lives of many people in the pole community.
Pole is empowering in a few ways. It’s a way for people to empower themselves to feel comfortable in their sensuality, when that aspect of our lives (particularly as women) is socially repressed. But it’s also empowering, even if you never practice the more sensual side of pole. When you hang unside down off a metal pole by one foot (for example) you feel a certain type of power, trust and confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Pole has been a major career change for you. Do you have any advice for people wanting to do something different?
Pole has been a major career change but it also feels like it has brought my career full circle. My first job in high school was managing my parents' gym and teaching group fitness classes, which I did for YEARS. Then, when I left my parents business to pursue a corporate career, I was still teaching a few classes each week for a gym in Bondi. I stopped working in fitness when I changed my side hustle to wedding makeup (still while working a Monday to Friday 9-5 job). Then, after having babies, I stayed at home during the week and worked weddings on the weekend.
After rediscovering my passion for pole it seemed like a natural progression to go back to group fitness. Life has led me through a number of big career changes, and big life changes. To anyone wanting to do something different, I say: you are not too old, and you CAN do this. A big change requires careful planning and preparation, and only fools rush in, but with planning, part time study around your other life commitments, and good networking skills, you can generally make a career change happen.
What do the next 12 months hold for you?
Oh if only I had a crystal ball to know if I’ll even be able to leave the house! Next year rather than competing in IPSF competitions, I’d like to be sitting at the judges table. If pole ever makes it into the Olympics, it will be under the auspices of the IPSF, and I would love to be a part of that.
I’d also like to take on an active role in the Australian Pole Sport Federation Committee, if they’ll have me. Before we locked down, I was apprenticing as a Lyra (Aerial Hoop, like in Cirque du Soleil) instructor, and I’d like to be able to finish that training and teach this apparatus as well.
Let's get personal…
1. What else are you passionate about besides your work?
Obviously my kids are the most important thing to me. Between them, training and teaching, I don’t have much time for anything else.
2. What is your most treasured belonging?
It might make me sound incredibly boring, but honestly, it’s probably my home pole. If there’s something that making a couple of major international relocations has taught me, it’s that I don’t really need much *stuff* (sure, it can be nice to have, but you can totally live without it). But when we moved overseas, I shipped my pole over with us. I upgraded to a better pole while we were over there, but then, when we moved home, I shipped my (new and improved) pole home with us as well.
3. If you weren’t a pole instructor, what would you be doing?
Pole is so much of my identity, I don’t even really know how to answer this. Before I started teaching pole, I was a frustrated and unfulfilled housewife. Trailing my spouse with 2 kids in a non-english speaking country made my work prospects very small.
4. What’s one thing in your home you can’t live without?
I’m going to cheat and say three things - because we’re in lockdown, I’d be lost without my laptop, my Oodie and my coffee machine.
5. In 10 years, I'd like to be...
Abe to once again travel the world and share that experience with my husband and children. Professionally I’d like to be judging pole sports at the Olympics!
Want to find out more? Follow Sara-May here:
The images in this post were taken by Emma Salmon from The Black Light.
Every Monday, Clare Makes sits down with an Aussie creator or business owner to discuss their life and work. These articles are curated with you in mind, to enjoy alongside a cup of coffee and your favourite scented candle. If you'd like to be interviewed for the blog or know someone else who would be perfect, please email firstname.lastname@example.org