‘Fitness with a twist’ boosts women’s confidence

Written By Faith Cotter

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Half hidden in a string of yellow and brown brick buildings in the South Side in a room overlooking the city, women have a place where they can feel sexy, have fun and bond with their friends while strutting their stuff around a pole, all in the name of fitness and dance.Near the dance floor stood Vanessa Connell, the woman behind the business. She  looked striking in her high heels, sunglasses, curly hair and a frilly, white shirt matched with a flashy black belt, even while standing next to feathery pink boas hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of strappy decorative heels. “Classic look-at-me shoes,” she said.Much like John Steinbeck’s character Dessie Hamilton in “East of Eden,” Connell has fashioned a business out of creating a haven for a woman to be herself. “Fitness with a Twist” boosts women’s self-confidence and sexuality, taking a dance style that typically exploits their bodies and turns it into something empowering.The idea for a pole-dancing class emanated from Connell’s desire for a new exercise routine and an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show she caught on television shortly before her birthday. “I was approaching 40 and wanted to get in shape,” Connell said. “I live my life a little outside the box and thought, ‘Oh! How fun!'”Unfortunately, a pole dancing class could not  be found in Pittsburgh. Connell’s solution was to start her  own. Formerly an event coordinator with a law firm, Connell said she knew plenty about throwing parties and creating an environment in which people can have fun. “Fitness with a Twist” opened in 2006 as a side project, and remained so until 2010, when Connell left her position at the law firm to run the studio full-time joining a team of instructors with backgrounds in dance and physical fitness.”It’s a thought that came to life,” Connell said. “It’s giving women a unique way to celebrate. I found a niche [in Pittsburgh] that no one else figured out.”Originally from a close knit family in the Penn Hills, Connell stressed the importance of promoting her business tastefully. “We have fun with the names of the classes, but we keep it clean,” Connell said. “I want to project a positive image of fun, female fitness, without showing the [activity’s] dark side. Between two people behind closed doors—that’s different. But here, I [want to] give all women in the city the opportunity to take one class and feel amazing for just a second. That’s what we do.””Once you start, you can’t stop,” said Denise Cunningham, 27. The Lawrenceville resident has attended classes since November 2009. “It gives relationships spice and boosts your confidence. If you have two kids at home, when do you get to act like that? Vanessa is doing a great job. She’s available to every student and not hard to reach [if you need her.]””I’m the leader, ‘the idea girl’,” said Connell, who finds joy in being able to share that happiness with others. “My grandmother was my biggest influence. She was an amazing, beautiful person, who was beautiful on the inside and the outside. She just projected that. She took care of herself and was very flashy, [as] I am. She wore a gold bow in her hair and was always dressed up, and always was ready for an adventure. “Connell acknowledged that her grandmother also instilled in her self-confidence and the thrill for the unknown, and said that her grandmother proved that even impromptu trips to New Jersey could be exciting.”I’d say ‘Hey, want to go to New Jersey?’ She’d say ‘Yeah’, and I’d take her,” Connell said.Connell’s open attitude toward new ideas has also changed her view of professional pole dancers since pole-dancing, she said, is anything but an easy feat and requires great athletic ability.”I have a completely different view of dancers because what they do is amazing. They’re very athletic, strong and fit, and in shape,” Connell said. “They’re not [dancing] for fitness; they’re entertaining men, and the men don’t appreciate that athleticism. But here, when you’re swinging around on a pole like a kid on the playground, it’s liberating.”Ebony Seskey, an instructor at “Fitness with a Twist,” said the classes are “addicting” and that all of the instructors and Vanessa are committed to working together.”Vanessa’s great,” Seskey said. “She wants to give, she wants everyone to have fun and that’s why she created everything.”For Connell, the possibilities are endless. After instructors and students have left for the day, she said that she sits alone in her studio, coming up with even more ideas to translate into reality.”I can make it happen,” she said.

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