Interview with Hanka Venselaar

Posted: Jan 31 2012

We're excited to start the month by talking to the European Champion of Champions Hanka Venselaar ahead of her visit to the UK where she'll be judging at the Pole for yoU aNd I Inter University Pole Competition on 18th February and teaching a masterclass at Ecole de Pole in London on 19th February. 

1. How and when did you first get interested in pole dancing and what made you become an instructor and performer?
That's a funny story. I used to do gymnastics and was member of a student gymnastics group. One day we were organizing the so-called "Funastics" a fun-filled day with different types of gymnastics-related activities. The highlight of the day was a pole-dance workshop and I loved it from the start. I found out that being a gymnast is a major advantage for pole dancing. You're strong, flexible, and used to going upside down. I found a new studio in my hometown, and passed my beginners exam after 3 classes. I also started teaching workshops around that time, basically because they really needed someone to do it. After few months they asked me to teach the group classes and one thing let to another. I started with training 1h in the week and ended up teaching the most advanced students, a demonstration team, loads of workshops.

Performing started out the same way. They needed someone to show something during open days, so I did a freestyle dance... and again, one thing led to another and I started performing. Unfortunately, things did not work out between me and that school, we had a different opinion about certain things and I had to stop teaching there. But I found a new place, the University Sport Centre (USC) where I had been training other sports (including gymnastics) ever since I started my studies here. They decided that I could teach pole dance over there, a big step because there is no other University Sport Centre in the Netherlands that is teaching artistic pole dancing (a few are doing pole fitness which in our country is a branded name and very different from artistic). But because they had known me for such a long time they trusted me with this new sport. So far, it's been a big success!

About 1 year ago I started my own company called Studio Ad Astra ( I teach private lessons for 1-4 girls in my own home-studio. I do not own a big studio-place, but don't need it because I really like my groups at the University. I also teach aerial silks, workshops and courses. And I do performances in both disciplines for my own company now.

2. What is it about pole dancing that you enjoy the most?
Pole dancing is one of the most complete sports I know. You need power, flexibility, body-control and technique. And if you want to perform or compete you also need grace, flow, a good feeling for music and creativity. I've always said that gymnastics is the most complete sport, but gymnastics has many rules and does not allow you to be creative. Everything is in the rules and all moves are already invented. 

Pole dance is freedom. The sport is still evolving and I really love to be a part of it by making up new moves or combinations and by coming up with new ideas for acts and shows. Besides that it has also given me the most amazing opportunities. I simply love the pole world! All pole dancers are so supportive and the events are getting bigger and better every time. I still feel honoured when people ask me to be part of a show, convention... or simply to come over to do a workshop. I have friends all over the world now and I'm really thankful for that.

3. In 2011 you won the Champion of Champions category at the European Pole Dance Championship 2011 and were 3rd in the World Pole Dance competition. How do you feel about your achievements and will you be entering any more competitions in 2012?
Winning a competition feels really special. I'm usually happy about my performance and at the same time I never know how to act...I can be a very shy person and when I'm standing there holding a trophy I never know what to do! Worlds was a big surprise for me. I was sure I had screwed up my act in qualification, but made it to the finals. I was super happy about that. And then I ended up 3rd! Super happy! My family was there and I was so glad that they could see me, because they were not allowed to watch the preliminaries. 

Europeans was a completely different story. I was the 2010 champion and after Worlds I was the favourite to win this one too. It was held in the Netherlands so many of my friends where in the audience. I really wanted to show my very best, but at the same time I was so tired after training for competitions for almost the whole year, travelling, etc. I missed one of the most important moves in that act...and the rest of it was just not good enough. I won, but I don't know how that happened. I was disappointed in myself. I don’t go into a competition to win...I go in a competition to show the act I've been training for weeks and I want it to be perfect. I know, that's almost impossible, but I have always been very ambitious.

4. Where do you get your ideas for the routines and costumes when you compete?
Anything can inspire me! Usually it starts with music. I'm always listening to music. Once I found the song for an act when I was celebrating 2nd Christmas Day with friends in a bar! The song I used as an intro for my Worlds act was a song I found while surfing on Youtube for something else. And one song was used in a gymnastics montage I found somewhere. 

Sometimes the circumstances direct me towards a certain song. For instance, I once did a performance in the middle of a pond, so I needed something about water. I ended up using "the humbling river", a song that I heard in one of Alethea's stretch classes. And the combination of songs I used for my act in the Miss Pole Universe competition was adjusted to my outfit. I have a cool red, metallic coat and I wanted to do a competition in it... so I needed something sexy and slow, but it had to have something to do with a movie. I ended up using Roger Rabbit's "Why don't you do right?" I also love musicals and Cats is one of my favourites, therefore I used songs from that musical in 2 different competitions.

At the moment I have a few more ideas that I need to work, more to come in the future!

5. What are your 3 favourite pole moves and why? 
That's difficult. I love so many different moves, and mainly it's all about combinations. Personally, I think that, in contrast to isolated tricks, combinations really show that you have mastered a move. One of my all time favourites would be something I call "the wokkel" (there is no English word for that) It's the swinging drop thing I do starting from a ballerina with a few rotations around the pole. That thing developed over time and I love it because it's unique and has lots of variations. As soon as you get the swing-idea you can make your own drop.

A good second one would of course be the Chinese flips, or Fonji's. I trained so hard on that one and was so happy when I finally got it. The first flip from shoulder mount to flag is not that difficult, but going back to shoulder mount was a problem. I can't remember how many times I ended up on my back on the crash mat! I wanted to be the first woman in competitions to do that combo... I'm not sure I was... I think it's my signature trick now.

The third one is tricky, there are so many cool moves! I love spins and it feels a bit like we are forgetting about those nowadays. But it requires a lot of skill to make for instance a good back-grab spin. So I think that is my 3rd favourite. I really like it because you can make a big straddle and gain a lot of momentum... it really feels like flying. This spin is in almost every act I make...

6.What are the main fitness benefits of pole dancing and how have pole dancing improved your fitness, strength or body shape?
Pole dancing improves strength, that's obvious, you need strength in your hands and shoulders for even the simplest beginner move. After that it depends on your type of training. Some teachers will focus on flexibility too, so that means you will be getting more flexible. Others will focus on freestyle and dance, that will improve your endurance. But the most important thing I see in my students is that they are gaining confidence. They are doing things they never even imagined they would be doing! It's not a real fitness benefit, but I think it is one of the most important results of pole dancing.

7.Pole performers are athletes like in any other sport. What is an average day’s training for you?
I have another job too, I'm a scientist and do research as a bioinformatician. That means that I work a lot with my computer. I try to combine working with my head, with working with my body. Sometimes my computer is driving me crazy and I have to go to the sport centre (only 5 minutes away) to get rid of my frustrations. So basically I try to combine 7-8h of work with 2h of training. I prefer to work from 10 to 2, then I go for a training from 2-4 and then I go back to work to finish my work for that day. But sometimes I have an appointment during the day and I have to wait till the evening before I can go for training. My boss sometimes tells me to go and run around when I have to get rid of my energy :-p

BTW...I have the best boss in the world, he is totally supportive about pole dance and he allows me to work when I want as long as I make enough hours in the week.

8.What’s your favourite move for strength training on the pole?
Everything you do in a pole is strength training. You are holding on with either your hands or your legs so you are using muscles. But for strength training I like to do climbs without legs, slow shoulder mounts, pull-ups, press handstands, leg raises, flags and of course Iron-X variations.

9.What pole performers do you admire or inspire you?
Aaah... difficult question, there are so many amazing pole dancers out there. That I really admire the amazing duo of Jenyne Butterfly and Felix Cane is no surprise, but besides that each and every person has something I admire. Take the real dancers like Laurence Hilsum, Justine McLucas, Michelle Stanek and Marlo Fisken, the super-technical Oona Kivela and Anghela Kulagina, the strong Zoraya Judd and Pantera, the passionate and sweet Marion Crampe and Phoenix Kazree, the flexible Anastasia, Alethea Austin, Bendy Kate and Rebecca Starr, the creative Alesia Vasmitsel, Rafaela and MAria Luz and the positive-energy-on-stage from Sally-Ann Giles, Crystal Lai and Bendy Kate.

And I forgot about the men! I'm inspired by Evgeny Gresilovs and Timber Bronws skills and creativity, by Steven Retchless's dance, and by the skills of almost any other chinese poler. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone...

10. If someone has never tried pole dancing before how do they get started?
I always recommend to go to a studio in stead of trying everything at home. You need someone who can guide you trough the first basic skills and who can spot you when you are doing your first inverts. Besides that, a group class is fun! You'll make new friends easily. If you have more studio's near you try them all and go to the place that feels best. In the Netherlands we are not that lucky, you have to go to the one in your hometown, so no choice at all, except for the big cities like Amsterdam/Rotterdam/Utrecht.

Even for more advanced students I'd recommend to go to someone who can help you with the more difficult moves instead of fooling around on your own.

11. What’s next for you in the coming year?
Many things are coming up! Currently I'm training for Aerial Pole International. I'm working on a new act and this one will be very intense. I like to do different things. I tried musical, I tried dramatical songs, I tried technical acts and I even tried a bit of a sexy song (didnt work out well...) Now I'm trying to focus on dance and flow, you'll see the result in March in Bern.

I'm also going to the Pole Convetion in LA. Last year was such a good experience and i really want to be a part of it again this year. Luckily I was asked to do workshops again! Maybe I'll travel in the USA for some days after that. 

Pole2pole is also organizing a European Pole Convention in October where I will be teaching more workshops and privates, and of course there will be more competitions in september/october, including Worlds and Europeans.

Find out more about Hanka here

Watch Hanka's performance at the 2011 European Pole Dance Championship



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