Interview with Akila Cristiano

Akila Cristiano is the owner of one of London’s newest, most successful pole dance studios. She is also a friend, a fantastic boss, a self-taught pole queen, a neurodivergent instructor and an all-round ray of sunshine. I’m super honoured to finally have here on the blog. Read on to find out how Akila Pole Studio was born and what to expect from this unstoppable boss babe. Here’s what she told me when we sat down for a very indulgent hot chocolate in Fitzrovia last week.

How I met Akila

Akila and I have followed each other on Instagram since before lockdown, but we only actually met when I started teaching at her brand-new studio in September 2021. She is one of those very few bosses you can actually be friends with: she does everything above board, she is respectful of your art, experience and practice, she celebrates the shit out of you and she is extremely considerate in crisis situations.

Too often I hear of shady business practices in studios, but Akila sent me a contract before we even started planning my classes, asked me what I needed to feel comfortable with teaching, and never attempted to change me as an instructor or as a performer. I would recommend her to anyone who fits the Akila Pole Studio ‘vibe’ (more on that later).

Even when I had to pull a last-minute get-away from an Omicron-infested London last December, all she said was: “You have to do what is best for you and your family babe, stay safe.” And as much as a hard worker she is, the commitment to her craft and to her studio never comes before her humanity.

When I had to tell her I had to stop teaching regularly, it felt like a break-up and I was distraught. But Akila was supportive as always, meaning I am still a honorary Akila Pole Studio instructor (watch this space for my 2023 workshops there!) and that I am typing this ahead of getting ready for an Akila instructors training day.

In short, Akila Pole Studio will always be my London home, and I wanted to give its owner and founder the love she deserves on the blog.

Akila’s pole journey

I was shocked to learn that Akila is only just over four years into her pole journey, despite being the floaty, fairy sexy goddess she is.

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Akila shot by @ray.marsh at the studio

Her passion for pole is a result of her artistic upbringing: she went to drama school, where working with her body was part of her training. “One thing drama school taught me,” she says “was how to connect with my body, doing stuff that wasn’t just your typical acting – there was a lot of creative movement, embodying elements like water and fire back then.” She found that aspect of acting very interesting, and took a lot of intense extra-curricular classes: “I’d be there 8 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday, and I would stay there til 9 o’clock at night, coming up with pieces.”

But after she left drama school and began acting, she found it wasn’t fulfilling her. “I wanted to do more with my body, work on expressing myself, but wanted to find something that wasn’t necessarily technical dance because… I wasn’t really good with that. I’d never trained dance.” So when she found an ad for a pole class online, she thought she had to try it out.

“I went to one class, and that was it – I fell in love. And I only took about four or five classes before I got my own pole, and then I just self-taught. So I would say I’m a self-taught pole dancer, because I’d only ever taken those few in-person classes before learning at home.”

Akila joined drama school to get into acting, but it took her on a completely different, more enriching and freeing path. “When I found pole I was like, I need to do this for the rest of my life! It’s still a form of performance, and if anything I’m expressing myself more now, because with acting you always play someone else, while with pole you’re… yourself. It feels more freeing.”

Her very first instructor was Cat Lee, who is now part of the Akila Pole Studio family – a full-circle moment.

Opening Akila Pole Studio

A lot of you will know of Akila Pole Studio as one of London’s cutest, most popular pole dancing spaces. Some of you may however be surprised to hear of how new it still is, given its unstoppable growth.

Akila began teaching pole before lockdown, when she expressed the wish to share her passion for pole dancing with other people to her partner Peter.

If you train at the studio or follow Akila on Instagram, you will know Peter. He is such a supportive partner he still gives me hope about men. And he is not supportive just with his partner – he supports us, the instructor team, and our students too because, Akila says, he is in awe of what we do. He quit his job to manage the studio full-time, and he is a studio manager as much as a sort of happiness officer. Actual footage of Peter when anybody at Akila Pole Studio does the bare minimum:

Before Akila Pole Studio was even born, Peter suggested Akila should hire a dance studio, over the weekend, to do a class. So Akila rented one in Clapham, where they would go together and Peter would help her bring over five poles, taking them all down after a one-hour class. “That was fun but stressful, and then lockdown happened, and that crushed the dream of having more classes,” she says.

The rest came from Akila’s cheekiness – aka subtly ‘wondering’ about whether more teaching could happen – and Peter’s encouragement.

“When lockdown was lifting, I was like, ‘I wonder if I can start teaching at the house.’ So I started teaching privates, using Instagram to plug them, ’cause I’ve always been big about promoting stuff via social media. They went very well, so I was just like, ‘I wonder if I can clear out our living room and put up three poles and teach more people at the same time.’

Obviously I had to ask my partner for permission because it was… like… our living room. And then I did that for about four or five months until I saved up enough. My partner was the driving force throughout this, he believed in me from the get-go, thought I could do it, and was like, ‘Why don’t you keep doing this, save up so you can get your own studio space?'”

Akila Cristiano

One day, by chance, Akila was looking at commercial properties online, and an estate agent got in touch saying there was a space for a studio within walking distance from her house. “The guy was like, ‘The pink building.’ And I’d been curious about it, I never knew what was in there, but when I saw it I was like, yes, let’s go.”

The rest is history.

Akila says: “I didn’t know if it was gonna work out. I thought there were only gonna be like, four classes a week. I thought I would teach the most, and then you would teach a few. And I never thought it’d get as big as it’s gotten. I was just hoping for the best.”

A lot of Akila’s confidence came from her support network – not just Peter, but also from her mum, Maria Nicola, who has been telling her she could do anything since she was born. So you could say that Akila’s secret is her PMA.

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And as much as Lawrence Chaney would disagree, for her, it’s really worked: “I have a very positive mindset. I just think something can happen, hope for the best, and oftentimes it has worked,” she says. But Akila adds: “That’s also because I’ve got a very good support system, especially my partner. He believes in me more than I believe in myself. So that has cemented in my brain, and I just went for it.”

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Akila and ADHD

Akila also credits her recently diagnosed ADHD for her success. “It affects the way I teach and how I created the business. I am extremely focused when it comes to the business and when I’m teaching I’m always OTT energetic! If anything it’s been a helping hand with anything pole related.”

She was diagnosed around when the studio opened last year. “So many pole dancers are neurodivergent – a lot of people with ADHD like me, are super creative and have only recently become diagnosed as adults so we are now seeing how many of us there are!”

For Akila, ADHD is more a tool to harness than a hindrance: “I act on things before I think, which is sometimes a negative but it’s good in a business sense, because you come up with a lot of ideas and solutions, and make decisions fast before you start worrying about it.”

Just like ADHD has helped her open the studio, pole dancing has helped her with ADHD. “I think pole is an amazing tool to help me with my ADHD,” Akila says. “It’s always giving me endorphines, keeping me stimulated. Exercise in general is helpful for that.”

Managing a successful new business and the newly diagnosed ADHD has also meant that Akila is still trying to balance her passion and her business with her energy levels.

The only thing I’m still working on is the balance of giving so much to my students as a teacher – and I’d never wanna give less – but give as much back to myself. But I’m slowly working things out. It’s still early days, the actual studio has only been open for a year and a bit, so a lot has happened in a short amount of time. Only now I’m learning to delegate.

Akila Cristiano

I’ve always been in awe of how ‘on it,’ how professional Akila is, and I am so glad she is now growing the team and hiring more to take more time for herself.

Studio values

Akila’s struggle to delegate came from her attachment to and protectiveness over her beginners. A lot of our studio regulars started out as beginners from her home days, in a very similar way to how most of my regulars came from my online lockdown classes. But with very stable and shared values amongst the instructor team, it’s becoming easier to spread the workload and the fun amongst different team members.

Crucial to working with Akila, as we’ve always said in our training chats, are ‘vibes’.

“The most important thing for me above your certifications or experience – which are amazing and important – is ‘the vibe,’ as cliche as it sounds. I need to know we share the same values to make everyone feel so welcome, supported and in a safe space, and that you’re a good, positive person,” she says. Akila adds:

“You can have people who work for the studio who have won big competitions across the world – and that’s great, I believe in having world-class instructors – but that’s not the most important thing to me. We’re not churning out students to the next olympics.

I want people who come to class to have a space to feel inspired, to feel liberated, to be in touch with their sexuality, to be conscious about other people and to have fun. And the bonus is that you can get really good at a sport you thought you couldn’t do before, you could get really strong, feel fierce, feel sexy, but it’s not this regimented strict place. You just come and have fun if that’s what you want.

That’s why the team are so great, I wanted them to be a representation of that.”

Akila Cristiano

Diversity and inclusivity are also very important towards running Akila Pole Studio, and not just as a box-ticking exercise: “We have a diverse student base at our studio, and instructor team, and that is really important to me because I come from a mixed background – my dad’s Indian and mum’s Italian – so it’s important to me that it’s reflected through the team we have, the students we have,” Akila says. This commitment is reflected even in the studio’s location – Brixton, which she chose because it’s a bustling, diverse area.

“I want to be able to welcome in people from all backgrounds, all shapes and sizes.

We’re a very sex worker positive studio, too: lots of our students work in the industry, and we welcome them in class and in privates.

Neurodivergent people are welcome as well. I’ve been teaching so many privates to people with autism, ADHD – a portion of our instructor team have ADHD, four out of our instructor team are neurodivergent (me included). Anyone who identifies as a man is welcome to come too.

Basically I want everyone to come, have fun, have a home away from home, forget your problems outside, enjoy pole and that’s it. Everyone – whoever the fuck you are – you can come, unless you’re a dick.

Akila Cristiano

And I can honestly say I’ve never taught in a studio that feels this welcoming, this diverse and this gorgeous. Akila really has done wonders with both Studio 1 and Studio 2, which both have great lighting, an open and airy feeling, sexy and wholesome vibes, and even a guest fox that says hi from the windows outside.

I have never felt so celebrated as an instructor as I was when I was working with Akila. I loved watching my students shut down any weight talk or negative talk in our space and embracing our values. I loved that my students could openly pole dance in their sexy underwear without being told to wear ‘fitnesswear,’ and that people could come and openly say they were sex workers and be at ease as they should be.

Akila Pole Studio is as dreamy as it looks like, and it keeps growing. After opening Studio 2, the team has grown even more, with more classes and two new instructors being added in. By the time I left, we had full classes and even longer waitlists. Her doubles workshop with instructor Rachael Gisella sold out in less than 24hrs, so they had to include another, equally sold-out one.

But what’s next for London’s cutest studio?

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What’s next for Akila and the studio

In 2023, Akila wants to focus on further developing her style, which she defines as ‘fairy’ and ‘cute’ with a touch of spice, and all about spinning pole. She pole dances in tiny underwear, and she blends wholesome, pretty flows with spicy vibes.

“I’m still exploring my style, it’s an ongoing journey. I have loved Cami Arboles’ style for years, which is why I loved it when she came to teach workshops at our studio and trained with us. That was the dream. She’s now a very good friend, so the stars have aligned.”

She adds: “In 2023 I wanna get more onto choreo, to combine it more with my tricks. I have been wearing heels a lot more recently – I didn’t use to wear them in my videos before – so doing more choreo is very much a goal for the new year.”

Competitions have never been at the top of Akila’s list, so she says it’s unlikely we’ll see her compete: “Anyone who competes is fucking incredible. I personally don’t think I can, because I love pole a lot – and when I love things I’m very sensitive to criticism. If I were to go into a competition, I am scared it may take away the joy of pole for me. I don’t want to put pressure on myself and on something I love.”

“I am not trying to be the strongest or sexiest person in the world, I just wanna do what I enjoy doing, combine different aspects of this art – and it is art, which is what I try to carry into my video editing as well. Pole can be what you want it to be: it can be strong, sexy or wholesome, calm, crazy, all the things. It’s a way to express ourselves.

Akila Cristiano

But she does have a few tricks up her sleeve for the new year: she says we can expect a showcase for 2023, where she may even perform. Fans of Akila and her studio can also expect her to grow the team even further and hire more instructors in 2023, as well as more community-based free pole jams for people to come hang out with their friends, and more workshops (including some by yours truly). So watch this space!


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