Pole-dancing is book-keeper Gemma Hopkins’ secret vice...
She’s a chubby, bespectacled mum of three, a book-keeper by profession.
And standing amid a flurry of pink feather boas and frou-frou net underskirts, she is proudly holding up a pair of teeny-tiny shorts, smothered in sequins.
“These are my favourite things in the world,” says Gemma Hopkins, twanging their elastic. Her eyes are sparking as brightly as the shimmering knickers.
Never in her life did this voluptuous, size 16 woman dream of wearing something so skimpy, so outrageously sexy.
It’s hard to imagine any of her business clients could picture her in them, either.
Gemma’s company, Little Gems Business Support, keeps many a trader in line.
But the woman who arrives at their offices once a month to take away huge boxes of invoices, receipts and order sheets?
She has a secret life.
When she’s not balancing their books, she’s balancing in the most precarious of positions from a shaft of gleaming chrome.
Gemma is a pole-dancer.
“When I tell people I’m a book-keeper they expect me to be quite boring,” says Gemma.
“They could never imagine what my hobby is. And I quite like the fact that when they do find out, I’m changing their perceptions.”
She can understand their surprise, though.
The day job and evening hobby are, if you’ll excuse the pun, poles apart.
“My hobby is unconventional, even if I wasn’t a book-keeper. I suppose they are the opposite of each other. And I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds,” she says.
“I love dancing because it makes me feel free, and I love my job because I love working with numbers, getting things neat and organised, restoring order.
“When I get my clients’ monthly book to balance to the penny, I have been known to let out a whoop of joy!”
She discovered her passion for pole four years ago and says her hobby has transformed her.
For most of her life, she had hated the way she looked.
On the outside, she was the jolly plump girl. But she was playing the part. So well, few would have guessed that, on the inside, 27-year-old Gemma felt self-conscious about her size.
But when she accepted a friend’s dare to take a pole-dancing class, everything shifted focus.
“We went to lessons at a pub in Heeley. I was hooked from the first spin,” she enthuses.
“I have never been comfortable about the way I look. I’ve been a size 16 for as long as I can remember. But pole-dancing changed that.
“It sounds cheesy to say it, but it’s empowering,” she says of the dance normally associated with sleazy gentlemen’s clubs and images of women gyrating provocatively for the titillation of men – and a fistful of tenners.
“I felt weightless and, for the first time in my life, graceful and feminine.”
She began going to lessons twice a week – and before long she was spending six hours a week at lessons and practising at home. Husband Will, who is training to become a teacher, was so proud and pleased she was gaining confidence, he installed a pole in the living room.
“It was the only room with enough space,” she giggles. “Visitors were surprised. One actually believed Will when he told her it was scaffolding holding the ceiling up.
“Fortunately, we moved house and I’ve now got my own pole-dancing room in the attic.”
As she practised, she found muscles developing in unusual places.
“My body shape has changed dramatically,” she says. “My shoulders are like a rugby player’s. I’ve got really strong biceps and my legs are much firmer. I’ve got a permanent dent in one shin from where the pole presses into it during spins, too.”
At my request, Gemma consents to showing me a twirl. She rolls up her trouser-legs – only bare skin will provide the right grip – and shimmies up her sleek silver pole like one of those nimble little kids you used to hate in P.E.
Then, after the slightest adjustment to her position, she’s swooping and twirling, graceful as a ballerina.
When she gets back down to earth she’s puffing a bit, but beaming: “A lot of it hurts like hell and you get covered in bruises, but you forget the pain because, for those few minutes, you’re spinning, light as air.
“I love the fact that I weigh over 14 stones and I can hold my own bodyweight upside-down in mid-air. That feels so amazing.”
She realises that her image – both physically and professionally – does not sit with the conventional one of the professional pole-dancer. That, quite literally, she’s turning it upside down.
“People immediately think: Spearmint Rhino. When they come to classes they expect to see slender girls with shorts half-way up their bottoms, pouting and posing.
“That’s the way girls are in the clubs and I’ve nothing against them. If men are daft enough to hand over their money, then more fool them.
“But if they walked into the classes I go to, at Butterfly Fitness and Dance Studio in Heeley, it’s totally un-erotic.
“Women of all shapes, ages and skin colours are there, looking sweaty, battered and bruised but having a great time.
“More and more ‘ordinary women’ are switching on to pole-dancing because it is such great exercise and great fun.”
Such is the growth of this new hobby, competitions have sprung up throughout the UK.
And the Pitsmoor mum has a clutch of awards.
In 2008 she danced her way through Pole Divas UK’s heats to Jive Bunny’s In The Mood.
Two years later, having had her daughter Bethany in-between, she came third in the national final of the UK Amateur Pole Performers competition... to the strains of Queen’s Fat-Bottomed Girls!
This June, she won a new accolade – and another pole – at the Buckinghamshire Pole Fitness Contest.
“It’s such an escape; I pack my outfit, wave goodbye to the husband, the kids and the book-keeping and head off to free-style my way through some wild routine,” she laughs.
She competes in the UK Amateur Pole Performer final 2011 on September 24, but this girl knows her limitations.
She won’t be competing in heats of the Miss Pole-Dance UK. “They expect you to be able to fold yourself in half and cling on with your toenails,” she tuts. “I’m never going to be able to do that.
By the same token, I know my bum will never be the size of Kylie’s,” she shrugs. “But I’m finally really happy with the one I’ve got.”
Gemma overcomes a tough start
Gemma is a resilient character who has swung back from many a setback.
At the age of nine her home life spiralled into chaos when her mother and step-father became addicted to speed and amphetamines.
“It had started when I was five. By ten I was having to look after my little sister,” she recalls. “I’d take her to school and cook her tea. I think my weight problem is down to the poor diet I had a child.
“It was a really difficult time, but when I turned 15 mum got herself clean and we all demanded my step-father did the same.
“To his credit, he did – and we all got through it.
“I carried on at school, managing to get five GCSEs despite an attendance of 66 per cent,” she says.
She came to Sheffield at 18 to start a nursing degree but left the course. She gained a partner in Will, who was studying archaeology, and by 19 the couple were expecting their first baby
Gemma trained in book-keeping while working for engineering company and on being made redundant in 2010 she set up in business.
She has also set up charity event Pole For Purpose.
Dancers pay a fee to perform for a ticketed audience and cash goes to the Tickled Pink breast cancer charity. Already £350 has been raised and another event is scheduled for December 2.