International Women's Day 2023: Meet Hester Campbell

8th March

Gymbox Aerial Master Trainer. CircusFit pro. Occasional activist. Full-time inspirational Mama. To be honest, there’s not many things Hester Campbell can’t do – but whatever role she’s taking on, you’ll always find her embracing her power to help others shine.

As the world creates some noise for Embracing Equity this International Women’s Day, we couldn’t think of a better person to speak to about how their unique experiences have become a valuable asset to who they are today. Read on to hear more about how she does her bit to make everyone feel included (especially if it involves signing them up to dangle upside down…)

Hester, you’ve worked at Gymbox since 2004 - that’s almost 20 years! What made you join the company and how has your job role changed over time?

In 2003 when Gymbox began, the first studio manager/creative was Troy Dureh. I knew him from the fitness events circuit as my mum was a group exercise instructor (80s style, Jane Fonda days) and her work grew into her company, FitCamps. Troy Dureh presented at FitCamps and many of the first instructors at Gymbox (like Pierre Pozzuto and Zoe McNulty) were international presenters. I started out as cover-teaching at Gymbox for Troy and the other teachers. My first permanent class was a Pilates class when Covent Garden Gymbox opened in 2006.

During studies at [dance school] Laban, I supported myself by teaching fitness, pilates and dance. I trained up in every course that was available and as each new Gymbox opened, I was offered new classes. In January 2012, I decided to go into full time circus training and performed at the Gymbox Urban Circus party later that year.

Over time, my roles changed from a pilates instructor to a member of the Gymbox instructor demo team, to a Gymbox party entertainer, to Creative Studio Manager.

In 2018, I officially became the Aerial Master Trainer at Gymbox and this is where I’ve felt most at home. There's nothing I love more than facilitating learning for instructors. The Master Trainer team at Gymbox is very special and I often think about the way the club sets trends. The communities that trainers create here in their categories is something unrivaled in other gyms.

As well as working at Gymbox, you’re the director of CircusFit Aerial Fitness and Tribe Fitness UK. What were your goals when starting these two companies?

In 2012, during my full-time circus studies at Aircraft Circus Hangar Arts Trust, I had a vision of making professional aerial training techniques accessible to the general public in gyms. I wanted to share what I was learning and was passionate about the idea of offering absolute beginners a way to experience the benefits of aerial in a way that was affordable, safe and unintimidating.

I made Tribe Fitness UK as an umbrella fitness education entity to hold CircusFit Aerial Training. They were created at the same time in 2013.

Exceptional education is something I strive to offer others in the fitness industry. A lot of fitness courses out there tick boxes but have no heart and soul - Tribe Fitness is about passion, community, curiosity and the human need to be part of something greater than ourselves.

My overall goal was to put something that was high quality out into the fitness world, and that would also fill a gap created by enthusiastic fitness studios embracing aerial on a whim! I also wanted to offer aerial strength and fitness training to the masses.

On Instagram, you describe yourself as a “dancer, aerialist, activist, fitness instructor, mother and director of CircusFit Aerial Fitness and Tribe Fitness UK.” Clearly, you are very good at juggling! What do you enjoy most about taking on so many different challenges and roles within your life?

I’ve always had a lot of interests but got led by the creative ones. I went to art school, then film school, then dance school, then circus school. Fitness was the background to my life because of my mum…she is a workaholic so I may have picked that up from her!

What I enjoy most is being a mum. It’s hard and it’s no joke, but it’s the most rewarding thing. I feel like me and my kids are a team. We have family meetings, we talk about being supportive to each other, we try to listen and be positive to each other instead of being grumpy and mean.

It’s varied to juggle so much, but it can also be manic. I'm working on being ok with doing less, not feeling guilty, and doing some radical self-love and self-acceptance. I strive to do better at being in the moment, being loved and being loving. So referring to all the mad juggling and the Instagram description…it’s probably about time I cut back and simplified things. Inevitably, something gets put on the back burner to simmer.

That said, I can still be a dancer on Friday, an activist on Saturday and a company director on Monday. Mother is full time though - can't drop that ball!

How, if at all, do you think these different roles compliment or inspire each other?

Being a mother definitely influences how I teach! I tell the teachers I am training, "imagine you have 15 babies in the air and you have to take care of all of them.” I also think about how my teachers taught me and I try to make them proud.

…I started training in dance professionally when I was 22, during my extreme eco-warrior phase, and thought I would make dance and theatre about climate change and other issues. I never did that in the end, but I love looking around now and seeing how much dance is about politics, and how much theatre is being made that explores the climate crisis, our response to it, and other troubling problems of our times.

The most influential thing from my activism is probably a desire for radical honesty and authenticity. I learn new things about how I am in the world and am constantly challenging my preconceptions. There's a balance between trying to live ethically and being annoying and patronising! With all the crazy and the seriousness, I need some lightness and joy.

So maybe, thinking about your question again, what compliments is having a balance between being responsible and steady, free and wild, creative and problem solving. Overal,l I think there's no limit - none of us should limit our perceptions of ourselves, of others, or the possibilities we are capable of!

What have been some of your proudest achievements?

My kids, definitely. They are really impressive little people

I find it hard to feel proud of myself, but I'm working on that. I've come through some pretty challenging times, so I can say I am proud of still being here.

As it’s International Women’s Day…what women have inspired you throughout your life?

Oh, so many!! I found out about Frida Kahlo when I was about 13 or 14. I was so inspired by how she made what could have been the most devastating and debilitating event of her life into something life-changing and defining. She never let anything hold her back and put her life and soul onto the canvas. I was captivated by her art.

I'll put drag queens in the list of women I find inspiring. I was confused that Rupal wasn't actually a woman - I watched him throughout the 90s and he was one of the most beautiful people I ever saw! Also…Grace Jones, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Tracey Chapman. Music for me was inspiring and felt like it was from another world.

Women in the 'real' world that inspire me are my friends, mothers I know who struggle along everyday: Mercedes, Bella, Nadia, Soumya, Alfie. My younger sister has also been a massive inspiration, but in a way that's very sad. She joined the women’s' protection unit in Rojava, Northern Syria and died there when Turkish airstrikes were raining down on civilians in Afrin, which has also been decimated by the recent earthquakes.

Kurdish women inspire me; Iranian women inspire me; Yemeni women inspire me; Columbian women; Ecuadorian women; women basically holding communities and people together. When women join together in resistance to oppression, I think they are unstoppable.

How do you hope to inspire other women through your work?

There are some inherent stories I was fed as a girl, like being headstrong, stubborn, physically strong and agile, and how these weren't desirable things for me to be. I was taught to associate my worth with my physical attractiveness. I was also taught that I had value only if I was useful to others, not if I stood alone, and I was told not to put myself in the spotlight. It was all a bit of a head f***k.

I don't think I learnt what femininity was until a few years ago, because I had rejected what I thought it was for years. I thought it was being weak. That's not right after all. We all have feminine attributes and they are freakin’ awesome parts of ourselves!

I hope the women I work with are inspired to be unapologetic, to take up space with their brightness and to love the light and shadows of their personalities. Truth is, women are up against a barrage of shit every day and we deal with it all with patience and grace. I would like to inspire women to see each other not as threats but as loving siblings who want wins for one another. Because collective thriving of women means all of us thrive.

While there has been progress in regards to women’s equality, we still have a long way to go. What do you think men can do to be better allies for us?

I leant a few years ago through my friends and educators Martin and Kevin that men could be feminists too. I didn't know that was even a thing! Men can investigate their thinking, behaviours, habits and belief systems. Women's equality is everyone's responsibility because, like I said before, when women thrive, everyone thrives.

It's not just about equal pay, it's about noticing coercive treatment of women, it's about care duties falling to women as default in a family, it's about noticing women de-valuing themselves and encouraging them to know their worth. Women are less likely to ask for a raise, less likely to bill clients as often as their male counterparts.

In parts of the world that are historically exploited by the Global North, women are the ones responsible for working, caring for children and feeding their families. Women are disproportionately affected by the climate and biodiversity crisis worldwide. I think we should all be looking at situations that are unfair and instead of ignoring them, speak up about it - I don't just mean for women's equality, but speaking up against all inequalities. I hope that I leave the world a fairer place for my kids than it was when I was born into it.

In terms of men being better allies, I know a lot of men in my life who are already amazing allies. What they do well is that they listen, they reflect and they learn. We aren't born to treat other people unfairly, it is taught to us, so it can be unlearnt too.

Patriarchal behaviour harms men and women, so whatever the alternative is (perhaps a nourishing and caring matriarchy where there is fairness for everyone) it would be really fun to figure that out together.

Finally, if people want to join one of your classes, where and when can they find you?

Right now, I am hopping around the clubs doing aerial equipment audits, aerial health and safety workshops and I will be running the next Aerial Foundation Instructor course in a few weeks.

A year ago, I was working 7 day weeks and never seeing my kids, so I had a re-set, spent time being a full time mum, and now I'm giving all my energy to Gymbox and bringing some more amazing aerial teachers into the studios. I will be back teaching member classes soon though, no doubt!

Follow our blogger Kat here and Hester on Instagram.

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