When I said that it is hard to get information about Yvonne Smink, I had not yet tried to find something out about Heidi Coker. In fact, I only found a short mini-biography of Heidi, according to which Heidi started with Pole Sport in 2009 and became the Pole Art Champion in 2013. Also, she has done gymnastics until the age of 21 and thus belongs to the species of Pole Dancers, to whom we raise our hats in envy-free admiration.
I attended a workshop with Heidi earlier this year and was blown away. She is the smallest Pole athlete, I have met so far and one of the most impressive. I feel deep admiration for the various ways Heidi jumps onto the Pole, rotates, circles, and flips like a bouncing ball. She completely redefines acrobatics. At the workshop, I have also especially liked that Heidi, despite her great talent, is very capable of feeling with us ‘ordinary mortals.’ I have received some essential inspiration from Heidi that crucially shaped my own Pole training. So thank you, Heidi, for taking your time.
- Heidi, given the circumstances, tell us a little secret about yourself.
A little secret… hmmmm…. I struggle from incredible self-doubt and confidence in my abilities. It has been a struggle all of my life. As a gymnast, I saw a hypnotherapist to overcome the negative thoughts about my skill level. It took years for me to get to a place where I mentally felt comfortable with myself. Lacking self-confidence is a real problem in performance arts. As I began to compete in international Pole competitions, I felt that lack of confidence creeping back into my life. So it is a constant struggle to put myself on stage, in front of people, and be judged. I work very hard at accepting myself and letting the world see who I am…… and being ok that not everyone will like my art. Was that too deep? Haha!
- How exactly did you get into Pole Sport and previously, what was your discipline in gymnastics? Have you encountered prejudices when you exchanged your gymnastics career for Pole?
I was watching the Oprah Show on TV and saw Sheila Kelley do a Pole demo! She talked about the confidence it gave her as a woman, and how she was in the best shape of her life. I needed some of that! But it took me a few years to gather the courage to actually take a Pole class. But of course, after the first class I was hooked. I actually loved to dance in heels and be sexy. But my version was a bit more artsy than the usual, sensual Pole dancer for the time period. As a gymnast, I competed as an international elite. Meaning I was on an international stage and televised competitions. I competed as an all-around gymnast in vault, bars, beam, and floor. I also competed as a gymnast in college. I finished my gymnastics career at 21. I did not come to start Pole until I was 31. So there was a 10-year gap between sports. The only prejudice I have encountered is general ignorance about Pole. And I think all of us have met people who think all pole dancers are strippers. But I would say, most people after they see a video, quickly understand that what we do is more closely related to circus than stripping!
- I have seen the video on Facebook where your dad spots you. This video is not only very cute, but you also seem to make a very good team. How do you usually train and is your dad an integral part of your training?
Oh yes, the video of dad spotting me is quite funny. My father was a swimming and diving coach and then migrated to being a gymnastics coach. As a gymnast, he did not coach me. But as I began to Pole dance and to want to try moves that require a greater risk, it was easy to ask him for help! He understands how to spot and after I show him a video or talk him through the move, we can try it together. He has actually only spotted me on a few occasions. But once he saw the moves that I was trying, he had a special mat made. It is the same quality as the gymnastics mats that we used and is specially made for Pole. So I use the crash mat when I train and when things get serious and I am afraid to try something alone, I call dad! Typically, though, I train alone. And because of my gymnastics background, I can break down moves and try them safely by myself. Having a strong body awareness is very important. Once I can feel how the move works, I can try it at full speed or be more aggressive. Making it safe to try things alone…. mostly.
- You also post videos in which we can see you crash or being weaker on one side than the other. Do you think that it is your job as a professional to show a real picture of your training? Do you feel responsible for us?
Honestly, I struggle with social media. It is so integral in sharing our Pole community with the world. New tricks, new artists, new combos – but it also is only a quick snapshot of our success. What you do not see are all of the missed attempts, failures, and struggles. Most of my training is about experimenting and making mistakes. I am not perfect. My training is messy. But people do not see what happens while we train, so I like to show that I struggle too. I am not any different than you. I fall, mess up, get frustrated, am unmotivated at times, uncreative, you name it… So I like to post my failures and struggles. I know when I watch videos of other people and all the amazing tricks they do, I get depressed! And we used to show videos of ourselves dancing and enjoying the music and expressing our art. Now it is just trick after trick. I do feel responsible for those people watching my videos! I want them to be inspired, encouraged, excited, and maybe have a laugh at my expense.
- You have already performed a lot and have great stage experience. Are you still nervous sometimes? How do you fight your nervousness before performances? Do you have any mental tricks for us?
I have had to a decent amount of stage experience, but it is still nerve-wracking! I am ALWAYS nervous! Usually, the day of the performance I can barely breathe when I wake up and the nerves sit with me all day. Once I get into the theater, I usually calm down a little more. But I do not think the nerves will ever go away. When I first started to compete/perform I was more concerned with people liking my performance. That just added more pressure and more anxiety. Now I try to focus on enjoying the moment on stage – being in the routine, letting the audience into my performance, and sharing those 3 minutes with me. To make that connection and hope they feel it. I try to take deep breaths and keep relaxed as much as possible. I do mental visualization of my routine and try not to obsess about what might go wrong. Performances are living things. You never know what will happen, so you just prepare yourself for anything and hope for the best.
- What is/was your favorite moment in Pole? What is your favorite choreography of yourself or don’t you watch yourself?
I can honestly not say that I have a favorite moment. Obviously winning Pole Art was a very special moment, but so unexpected, that it is hard to put a feeling to it other than pure shock! My favorite Choreo would be from both of my Pole Art performances, Aerial All Stars in Australia and my recent performance in the Vertical Arts showcase. And they are my favorites because I took the risk of being true to myself and doing the kind of Pole I love to do. Those performances are not perfect, but they left me with a sense of personal fulfillment. I do have a few performances that I won’t watch. Maybe things went wrong, or I was so nervous of what others would think that I did not live in the moment. To watch the routine is to have those unwanted feelings again.
- I fell in love with your Pole style during the Pink Panther Performance. For me this is one of the finest choreographies that I have ever seen, because I find it incredible how perfectly every single move goes with the choreography. I did not even notice that you slipped shortly before the finish. How do you deal with disappointments? What is your trick to keep focused during a choreography when you make a mistake?
Thank you!! You know, that routine was a lot of fun for me. I knew the competition would be full of serious music and themes, and I just wanted to bring something fun and silly. I knew it was a risk, but I did not care. I just wanted people to smile and enjoy the silliness! And it was terribly disappointing to fall at the very end of the routine. As a gymnast, if you fall, you get back up and finish. That is just what you do. You try to keep your composure and cover up any mistakes or little problems that you have as you go. And Pole is the same way. Nobody knows your routine except you. So, if you mess up or things change, you keep going and pretend that everything was supposed to happen! As long as you are on the stage, you never let the audience see your mistakes on your face. I cannot tell you how many times my Choreo has changed mid-routine. Your job is to keep going, and never show that you messed up, or forgot, or are disappointed! Back stage you can cry, be upset, laugh, whatever…. Just not ON stage. I do remember after I finished that routine, I stood up and gave the audience an I tried my best, we all make mistakes shrug and smile. A few minutes later, after the shock wore off, I cried. And not because it meant I did not place or win, but because I was overwhelmed, tired and all that pressure had built up inside and needed to be released. We are human, we make mistakes…. And sometimes they happen on a world stage for all to see.
- You are the queen of handstands. Which instructions would you give someone who wants to learn a handstand?
Ha! Samantha Starr is the queen of handstands! I just like to do them for fun. I have met a lot of people who are terrified of handstands and going upside down. I would suggest starting slowly and take your time progressing. Your goal is to be comfortable and aware of your body so that you can control the handstand. There are different techniques in teaching handstands and they all offer benefits. You want to be sure you are building strength in your shoulders, forearms, core and wrists. And try to feel your muscles working and engaging. That is how you can control and balance the handstand. Also be sure to use your fingers against the ground. Just like you balance on your feet, you use your toes to help you when you’re off balance, same with your fingers.
- What do you think about cross-training? Do you believe in doing other sports to support the Pole training?
I think cross training is important, and I wish I did more of it. Pole can be hard on the body. Finding other ways to strengthen your muscles and build body awareness is great. I love to supplement my training with capoeira, yoga, hand balancing, general workouts, breakdancing, and anything that moves my body in challenging ways. But as much as I find cross training important and beneficial, so is rest. That was one of the biggest challenges for me. We always want to push harder, do more, and really exert the body to max capacity. Learning how to take your time, limit your numbers, have “off” days is equally as important for the body and the mind. Plus, too much of anything can be boring, stressful and stifle creativity. Mix it up.
- And one last question: What is your Pole motto?
My Pole motto? Be You. We are so very different as people and as artists. Do not try to replicate someone, be true to yourself and show the world! It is ok to be different. Keep trying, believe in yourself, have fun, get creative, and be ok with making mistakes. <3
(all photos by Tuula Ylikorpi)