Senior Stephanie Bedard found her own form of female empowerment when, last fall, she took the initiative to finally do something she had considered doing for years: taking pole dancing classes. She found a new exercise regimen and, along the way, said she discovered a love for her body she never had before.
“Before I started pole dancing, I did not own shorts,” Bedard said. “I did not own a bathing suit, dresses, anything like that. I just wore athletic clothing because that’s all I felt comfortable in — I felt like I needed to hide my body.”
Bedard had wanted to take pole dancing classes ever since she passed a local studio in downtown Burlington her first year at Elon. It piqued her interest, but she said she kept putting off joining.
“I finally told myself that there’s no more putting things off,” Bedard said. “If I want to do something I need to attack it and do it now.”
Finding pole dancing
Bedard started searching for classes and found that the local studio had since closed, and the closest — Descending Angels — was in Trinity, roughly 40 minutes away from Elon. She ventured to a class and loved it and has taken classes with this studio ever since, even following it as it relocated to downtown Greensboro within the last year. Now, Bedard says that the studio provides a great workout and is a great place to express herself and find her confidence once more.
“It was really something that I wanted to do for my own self-confidence,” she said. “I had never taken any kind of dance class before in my life. I’ve never been primarily athletic, but it’s something I chose to do to get a self-esteem boost.”
Bedard, an international business major and Honors Fellow, had always been the studious type. And now, she’s been able to develop an artistic flair that she said she hopes to take with her in her post-grad life.
When the Descending Angels studio moved to downtown Greensboro, Bedard was asked to be body painted as part of the grand opening activities. There were no clothes besides undergarments — she would be painted head to toe. Bedard happily agreed, noting that her willingness was because of her newly obtained self-confidence from pole dancing. It turns out, this moment led her to another artistic avenue — modeling.
“The person who painted me asked if I’d ever gotten into modeling, and when I said no, he told me he thought I’d be really good at it,” Bedard said. “He added me to some different Facebook groups that are for North and South Carolina models and photographers, saying that if I was interested, I could join and maybe get some photographers interested in me, too.”
When the first photographer contacted her, Bedard quickly verified him and, in early September 2016, she had a blast at her first professional photo shoot.
Bedard is an international student from the greater Toronto, Ontario, area, so she is unable to receive payment for her work without a work visa. Instead, it’s designed to be a portfolio booster for both the model and photographer.
After her success in September, she has gotten several more offers, and even started doing boudoir shoots, which are commonly known to portray romantic settings.
Once she gets a work visa, she said she may seek out paying modeling jobs on occasion.
Journey to confidence
Bedard wholeheartedly believes her current body confidence came from her involvement in pole dancing and modeling. Through these activities, Bedard said she has been able to combat the part of herself that restrained her from feeling comfortable in her own skin. Bedard said that coming to Elon was a “shock” in terms of her perceived lack of fitting in.
“I remember thinking all the girls here are just gorgeous … I don’t look like them,” she said. “So my self-esteem from first coming to Elon just totally plummeted. But when I started doing pole dancing … it really helped me learn that there’s really no one ideal for beauty. You don’t have to look a certain way to be able to wear a bikini. You don’t have to look a certain way to love your body.”
She also credits much of this changing attitude to her instructors — one of whom, Ashanti Gray ’09, is an Elon alumna.
“They are just so positive and embracing of everybody,” Bedard said. “They’ve obviously seen how pole dancing can transform their lives. They’re so happy to see you grow and embrace yourself … They’ve made a huge difference.”
Gray graduated as a psychology major with a biology minor, and after taking a pole dancing class in 2010, quickly rekindled her love of dance and turned it into something more lucrative. She’s been instructing for more than four years, and joined Descending Angels in May 2016.
“In my mind, all bodies are beautiful and have the ability to create divine movement,” Gray said. “It’s normal to hear: ‘I’m not strong enough, I’m not thin enough’ the list of reasons not to try is ridiculously long and steeped in fear and doubt. I urge everyone to accept their doubts and try pole dancing, or anything new, anyway.”
This “can-do” mindset is one that Bedard quickly took on, claiming it changed her life for the better.
“Now I look a lot more at how I feel about myself and how I look at what I can do — that’s beauty,” Bedard said. “You gain so much strength and flexibility as you go that you start to really love your body for what it can do.”
Since she has found so much enjoyment and success in both pole dancing and modeling, Bedard said she hopes to do something to encourage other women to follow in her steps. She often posts on social media about her experiences and is considering making a blog soon.
“If I can have a small part in helping even just one other woman discover her potential, then I would love to do that,” she said.
She hopes to have candid conversations about how women don’t need to feel limited in their potential, knowing very well that this mindset caused her to spend many nights during her first two years at Elon not leaving her room to socialize on account of feeling the pressure to look perfect.
Gray hopes her encouragement in class will be a voice of reason for some of her students.
“Fear is a powerful oppressor,” Gray said. “Most of the time we limit ourselves, we prevent ourselves from going further and doing or being more. I can’t help but tell anyone who will listen to acknowledge their fears and doubts and then continue to move forward — it’s the only way we can truly thrive.”
This is exactly what Bedard has done — move forward. Out with the negativity and in with finally getting those bikinis, shorts and anything else she can enjoy.