Army veteran's pole dancing studio mixes fun with fitness

rmanley@macon.comMay 9, 2010 

Yolanda Cornelius grabbed on with both hands, whipped a leg around a pole in her studio, then whirled around and around and around. Finally, gravity prevailed, and she floated gracefully into a crouch.

The move, she explained, is the “sundial,” one of the first she teaches students in her pole-dancing fitness class.

“Once you learn the mechanics of the moves, you learn muscle control,” she said.

Cornelius, a 38-year-old Macon native and Army veteran, opened the studio, Diva Zone, on Mercer University Drive in 2007. Pole dance is gaining popularity as a form of exercise, as numerous states and countries have formed pole fitness associations and federations. Competitions are held on regional, state, national and continental levels.

There’s even a push to include it as a sport in the 2012 Olympics.

Cornelius and her students say the pole is a great way to get and stay in shape. Still, there’s a stereotype that comes with it. Most people see pole dancing and think: “Strippers.”

“My whole first year was just, ‘We’re not a strip club. We’re not a strip club’,” recalled Cornelius. “That should have been my slogan.”

Another kind of basic training

Cornelius was stationed in Fort McPherson when a friend in Atlanta encouraged her to come and take a class a few years ago.

“I loved it on the first day,” she said.

She loved it so much, in fact, that she took more classes and eventually trained to become an instructor. She began a home-based business, traveling to different locations to hold classes and special events, such as girls-night-out parties.

Cornelius, who’s quick to point out that she’s never been a stripper, said lots of fitness clubs and gyms refused to rent her space. When she decided to come back to her hometown, things didn’t get any easier.

“When I first tried to come here, I only had my business cards. I went to several dance studios and facilities, and nobody would let me rent,” she said. “It was like, ‘We don’t do that here.’ I couldn’t get them to see the fitness aspect or look beyond pole dancing. And then there were offers to let me do it, but I had to change the name.”

Cornelius finally found space on the second floor of the Mission Plaza shopping center, where she installed laminate flooring, two poles and mirrors on one wall. Outside the studio, students are invited to “Discover the Diva in You.” Inside, a wall in the foyer is decorated with displays of colorful shoes — with six-inch heels — available by order for students who dare to wear them.

“It’s better to do it shoeless,” Cornelius advised. “You picture yourself in the heels, it just doesn’t work out that way.”

The studio draws most of its students from around Macon, but some have come from as far away as Milledgeville, Hazlehurst and Augusta.

“Something spicy”

Iysha Hillard of Macon, a student for about a year, said the class is a fun way to get fit.

“I’m a real fitness-type person,” the 22-year-old said. “It really helps you with your abs. If you’re looking to get a workout, you can have fun doing it rather than just go to the gym. It’s not only learning the turns and spins, but it’s the workout.”

Veshia Stephens, 27, of Macon, has taken classes at the Diva Zone for about four or five months. She said pole fitness is a “calorie-burner.”

“I’m married. I just wanted to do something spicy to lose weight,” Stephens said with a laugh. “I absolutely fell in love with the class.”

The mother of a 3-year-old said she’s even adopted an “alter-ego” during the classes. She calls herself “Diamond.”

Sheena Harris of Macon described pole dancing as “a good form of exercise.”

“You use every muscle in your body, even the muscles in your feet,” she said. The 25-year-old has taken classes for seven months. Harris said Cornelius is not just there showing the moves. She stays close by to make sure no one gets hurt.

“She pays attention to what you’re doing. She makes sure you don’t break your neck,” Harris said.

Artavia Freeman, 35, of Macon, started out taking the “Six Weeks to Sexy” aerobics class under Cornelius. She got married in 2007, and says her husband has no problem with the pole fitness training.

“He loves it.”

She admits, however, that “the poles are not my forte.”

Expanding with parties

In addition to fitness classes, Cornelius offers parties, complete with food. Themes range from bachelorette nights-out to “Suddenly Single” celebrations.

Lacreshia Hamilton had a birthday party with about 20 girls. She’s since taken three classes.

“We had a lot of fun.” said Hamilton, 25, of Macon. “She shows you the moves, and we do the moves and add your own little style to it. At the end, you perform your own show. ... I was ‘Cotton Candy.’ ”

Cornelius said the goal is to teach students enough moves to dance to an entire song.

“You’d be amazed at how hard it is to keep moving, keep spinning for three and a half minutes,” she said, half-jokingly adding that “no mix tapes, no extended versions” are allowed.

Cornelius’ sister, Cynthia Booker, is a partner in the business. She focuses mostly on fitness instruction and booking and arranging parties.

“She does the other 10,000 things that are required,” said Cornelius.

The two also serve as judges at the parties, rating dancers during performances fashioned after the popular “American Idol” TV show. And which one plays the role of Simon Cowell, the shows brutally honest critic?

“She’s more Simon than I am,” Cornelius said, grinning across the studio at her sister. “She’s the least benevolent.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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