Seventy-year-old Mary Bendsen of Qualicum Beach

The ‘Gretzky’ of pole dancing visits Qualicum Beach

Fawnia Mondey started pole dancing the old-fashioned way; her 70-year-old Qualicum Beach aunt enjoys the fitness aspect

Retirees Paul and Mary Bendsen have been remodeling their Qualicum Beach home with all the usual updates. New drywall, plumbing and fixtures, paint, flooring and, in a place of honour in the foyer, a dancing pole.

“It’s quite a conversation opener,” Paul Bendsen admits.

No, the couple is not planning to open a strip club. But Mary Bendsen, who turns 71 next month, has embraced pole dancing as a fitness workout since attending the 2015 PoleExpo in Las Vegas in September. Last Thursday, she joined Fawnia Mondey, the founder of PoleExpo and one of the world’s pre-eminent pole dance trainers, for a photo shoot at Pole Sisters Studio in Qualicum Beach.

Mondey, who started out in Victoria before relocating to Las Vegas, happens to be Bendsen’s niece. But Pole Sisters owner Sandra Pomponio and a half-dozen other dancers and trainers invited to Thursday’s session saw her as a rock star in their field.

“She’s my Gretzky,” said Pomponio, who opened her studio in May and who already has 90 students. “She’s the creator of all this. She’s the founder of pole dancing. It’s been incredible to have her come to my little studio nestled in the woods.”

The event was a visit by Campbell River photographer Lynda Allen, herself a pole dancer and studio owner, who is photographing dancers across B.C. for a planned calendar. She couldn’t pass up the chance to capture Mondey and Bendsen sharing a pole.

The aunt and niece are a study in contrasts. The statuesque Bendsen is a lifelong volleyball and basketball standout who was the first female winner of the University of Victoria’s Athlete of the Year Award and who continues to play — and win — in world championship tournaments.

“It’s daunting; it’s intimidating,” Bendsen said of a pole fitness workout. “You need to overcome that fear and develop flexibility, which is not my forté. I don’t care about pointing my toes when I’m making a basket.”

Mondey is a petite 40-year-old who got her start on a pole the old-fashioned way — as an exotic dancer in Victoria beginning in 1994. In 1998, she got the idea to create a series of instructional videos to teach women its techniques. The videos began emphasizing the “sexy” factor, but also noted the fitness benefits.

“I know that for me, after losing 40 pounds in four months, it was an amazing workout,” said Mondey. “It wasn’t my direct idea to do it as a fitness video, but the Internet was being born and a company in Fresno (Calif.) had just started marketing a pole that people could put up in their homes. It was interesting what opens up when everything comes together like that. The ’90s were very good for pole dancing.”

The result was what Mondey calls a “major global shift” in pole dancing in about 2000. She was already out in front with her video series, and by the time she moved to Las Vegas in 2005 to open her Pole Fitness Studio, the instruction was all about fitness.

Pole dancing has continued to evolve into a sport, with judged competitions, male and female competitors and even a call to make it an Olympic Event, Mondey said.

Not that the exotic factor will be going away any time soon. Her studio also hosts private parties offering pole and lap dancing and stripping lessons, for birthdays, bachelorette parties and other special occasions.

“I’m a big fan of where it came from,” Mondey said. “I hope that never goes away.”

Just don’t expect to find that range of activity in the Bendsen’s foyer. Mary will continue to work out at home and at Pole Sisters Studio, but it’s all about the core workout and flexibility for her.

“What’s most fun about having the pole is explaining to people the transition happening in pole, from a strip thing to a recognized sport,” Bendsen said.

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