As we unveil Egypt’s 25 youngest entrepreneurs, Valentina Primo speaks to Manar El Mokaddam, the pole fitness instructor inaugurating a new era in the local fitness scene, where women not only learn acrobatics but also take ownership of their bodies.
A fearless young acrobat is disrupting the fitness world with an activity traditionally frowned upon. Defying taboos and taking responsibility for educating the crowds, Manar El Mokaddam rapidly built a fitness empire when she began to teach pole fitness to her friends in a studio in Cairo’s Garden City, inaugurating a tradition that has now converted hundreds to the wellness benefits of the often-misunderstood sport.
An architect by profession, the instructor also known as Mint started giving individual classes when she was 20, appealing to the curiosity of women, from 10 to 58-years old. “I just started teaching one-on-one classes, until it grew so much that I suddenly found myself opening my new studio,” the entrepreneur says in surprise.
Passionate about an art often misconceived – as the dance was traditionally linked to strip clubs and the seedy underbelly of the nightlife industry — the young entrepreneur opened the Polefit Egypt studio dismissing the negative comments that could arise around the sport. “I never thought about the reactions; I actually wasn’t thinking about launching it. It kind of just happened as more and more people got interested.”
El Mokaddam had started training while living in London, and once she came back to Egypt, the inexistence of this daring acrobatic dance sparked the idea in her mind. “Pole Fit has only been around globally for the past six years; it is a concept which didn’t exist as an acrobatic sport, and wasn’t something available for people to learn in Egypt,” she explains. “Usually people launch businesses and then try to generate interest; I did the opposite, I launched once I saw there was a need for it.”
Here's a snippet behind the scenes of @mint.pfe at @cairoscene's feature on entrepreneurs under the age of 25! Stay tuned we'll be sharing this masterpiece once it's out!! ・・・ By far one of the most comfortable shoots I've had, thank you for amazing company and laughs @cairoscene!!
A video posted by Pole Fit Egypt (@polefitegypt) on
Aware that she was launching an initiative that could garner backlash in a society where displaying the female body is often reason for shame, the young businesswoman admits however that she did not intend “to go against the world. A lot of people think that I opened Pole Fit and had to fight a lot, but it was actually the other way around. I was very careful with the marketing at the beginning: careful to only market the fitness side of pole, and build a reputation for it,” she says.
“I was very strict with people who wanted to publish photos or something they had written; when posting on social media, certain poses would be acceptable and others are not,” she illustrates. “I was that severe because I don't blame people for not understanding what pole is. If you have only seen pole in a strip club, why would I expect you to understand what I do? It is actually my job and my responsibility to show you otherwise, and then if you are not OK, then you are not OK.”
Her marketing strategy proved successful, not only in raising awareness and changing perceptions regarding an activity once considered a taboo, but also in helping women take control over their bodies. “At the beginning, my students would say: ‘Don’t tell anyone that I am here.’ But now, we have turned it into such a strong society that girls come just so that they can tell their friends they are part of this really awesome thing,” she adds. The initiative has garnered so much attention, that three students at the American University in Cairo offered the instructor to build a marketing plan as part of their research.
“My aim for Pole Fit is not to change girls so that they suddenly walk up and begin grinding of taking off their clothes. I think of it as a belly dance class; if you go to a belly dance class, nobody says anything. But that doesn´t mean you will become a belly dancer,” she considers, pairing the sensual activity to the “belly dance of the Western world”.
#ChairDance 🚩#GardenCity Last minute spaces just became available for tonight's Chair Dance workshop! ✔️9PM ✔️NO previous pole experience required ✔️Suitable for all levels/bodies/fitness abilities 📞01065517134 👆🏻👆🏻👆🏻👆🏻👆🏻👆🏻 #poledance #workshop #cairohappenings
A photo posted by Pole Fit Egypt (@polefitegypt) on
A pioneer and an amateur in the business world, El Mokaddam affirms that instinct is the best guidance when making decisions. “As a businesswoman, I have no idea how other women run their businesses because I am only 22, but I let my instinct guide me and things have gone uphill so far,” she says. The main difficulty, however, is to coordinate activities when partnering with other organisations. “With my communications team, we work in a Western fashion, where things get done at the established time, but the hardest part of handling business is doing things with other organisations, because we usually have a certain plan and it never follows through,” she says.
As she began discovering the struggles young women face regarding their relationship with their bodies, El Mokaddam realised the activity was an unmatched opportunity to changes a girl’s lifestyle and the way she relates to her own body. “Pole Fit is an entity that tries to bring women together from many different places to support each other but also to try to explore their bodies and gain comfort with themselves. But the other part is not about sexuality: a lot of girls have physical fear, they are afraid to touch the pole,” she explains.
Tireless and persevering in pushing a different conceptualisation of the activity, the young entrepreneur stresses on its importance in a society where the body can sometimes feel like a stigma. “In Egypt, when you walk around, you are always told to cover up, and it makes you feel that your body is a bad thing. But when you do pole, you gain self-assurance and explore how much you can do with your body. Pole doesn’t teach you how to take off your clothes; it teaches you to be comfortable with your body,” she concludes.