AS a little girl growing up in Echuca, Erin Hokin was enchanted by the sight of a rhythmic gymnast twisting and twirling with her mesmerising ribbon at a local club display.
Just six years old at the time and already learning classical ballet and regular gymnastics, Erin immediately determined to try her hand at rhythmic classes, too.
“I just loved it and said to my mum, I want to do that,” she recalls.
“The ribbon just took my breath away and it was also the gracefulness of the dancing.
“It is a very artistic and creative sport - rather beautiful and rather intricate and very hard to learn to handle the apparatus as well.”
From humble beginnings in a small country town, Erin went on to become one of Australia’s elite rhythmic gymnasts, making weekly nine-hour return trips to Melbourne to train under Olympic coach Tatiana Loukianenko, representing Victoria and winning national titles.
She recently moved to Bendigo and opened the Belle Etudes dance and gymnastics school, one of only two centres in regional Victoria that offers a specific rhythmic program.
It also includes classes in a range of dance styles and Gymnastics Australia-affiliated disciplines such as sports aerobics, cheerleading and sport acrobatics.
“I wanted a rural company because I did not want my students to feel like they have to go all the way to Melbourne for specialist training,” the 30-year-old explains.
“They should not have to do what I had to, getting up at 4am to be down there by 8am on a Saturday or during the week for camps and other things - they should be able to access their elite training in their home town or close to it, near their families.”
Erin made her first state gymnastics team at the age of 12 and joined Loukianenko at the Victorian High Performance Centre soon after.
“The girls in Melbourne were training 20 hours a week and I was only doing four hours in Echuca, so my mother and I designed a program that would give me some sort of balance.
“I was doing classical ballet at the same time and the two go hand in hand, as there are a lot of synergies between them. It is about 80 per cent ballet and 20 per cent the gymnastics and apparatus component.
“So Monday nights would be ballet, Tuesday nights was training at the gym, Wednesday night was rhythmic, Thursday was ballet again, Friday was at the gym and my own training and Saturday was elite training in Melbourne.”
Enormous commitment was required to perfect her skills.
“It is not easy to ask your body to perform certain movements and elements and at the same time have beautiful hand-eye co-ordination with clubs, hoop, rope, ball and ribbon.”
But Erin enjoyed great success throughout her teens.
“Our Victorian team results were very good and we always placed on the podium,” she says. “Clubs was my best apparatus and I placed quite often at nationals with them.
“My favourites were the clubs and ball. I enjoyed doing them and from a ballerina world, the ball is very graceful and goes hand in hand with the elegance of it all. It is a very connective piece. The clubs are quite tricky and I would call it a cheeky apparatus.
“The ribbon is quite graceful and beautiful but also hard to conquer!”
Asked about career highlights, Erin nominates the year 2000. She was in year nine at school, a level nine gymnast and earning accolades for her ballet.
“I won at state titles and placed really nicely at the Australasian championships. It was also a year I did very well at dancing in ballet and getting lead roles, and it was my first year of teaching dance and gymnastics in Echuca.
“It was a great year of leadership for me. I realised I loved teaching kids and wanted to keep doing it.”
After finishing high school, Erin completed a bachelor degree with honours in public health at La Trobe in Bendigo, an advanced diploma and associate teaching degree in Cecchetti ballet, and a certificate IV in dance management and training.
She is now nearing the end of her PhD in philosophy, investigating ways of understanding the health of young adults with acquired physical disabilities from a rural setting in Victoria.
Working with children and young adults with disabilities is a major passion for Erin and she prides herself on providing a dance company that caters for special needs participants.
“We are trying to get funding to keep a special needs and Special Olympics rhythmic gymnastics program going,” she says.
“We have also been running a DanceAbility program for children with various disabilities, including stroke and cognitive learning issues, and the results have been remarkable.
“It is beautiful to see the balance of ballet and gymnastics helping these kids with their co-ordination and their basic daily living abilities are improving."
Belle Etudes has been operating as a fully fledged company since February 1 and has about 75 students aged three to adult, with roughly 10 per cent having some form of disability.
Its rhythmic gymnastics students are working towards competing in the Prahran Invitational competition next March, the sports aerobics students aim to contest Aeroskools next year and the cheer and sport acrobatics groups are focused on 2015 state titles.
Erin, a qualified judge, also teaches artistic gymnastics at Jets in Bendigo, heading up the state squad program. She previously worked as a ballet master for Loukianenko at Glen Iris Rhythmic Gymnastics but is now looking for a local health promotion or teaching job.
She finished competing herself when her year 12 studies took over, but kept dancing until her early 20s when she decided her body “was pretty much saying that’s enough”.
She says her close-knit family - mum Louise, dad Gordon and brother Adam - were a huge source of support throughout her sporting and post-academic careers.
“Mum especially has been a big driver for me for gymnastics, dancing and also pursuing disability as a major aspect of my teaching passion.
“She has a physical disability and has all her life. She has always said, 'if I can do this, you can keep your inner drive going, too'. That is very strong in me and it does keep me going.
“Sport is one of those fabulous things that provides you with lots of highs and lots of lows, but you have to keep going to achieve your goals. If you know where you want to go, you can get there. I am happy to be doing that for my students now.
“I have all this knowledge and have trained elite gymnasts in Melbourne and know what is expected of them and how to get them to where they want to go.”
Sharing that knowledge with country kids and encouraging them to be physically active and engaged in their community is her main motivation.
“I love what I do and that adds energy to my life. Fostering children and seeing them grow into these amazing people is wonderful, knowing that you have been part of their life and their passion has partly come from you.
“You are giving them something that is priceless - your knowledge and skills and wisdom - and you become their role model.
“If I can help them become better at whatever they choose in life, I will have done my job.”
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