The Unique Way This Female Fitness Instructor Uses Movement and Compassion to Support Women

The common threads in Caroline MacGillivray's approach to health and happiness? Connection, human touch and helping others feel beautiful and comfortable in their bodies.

Caroline MacGillivray believes in the healing power of movement—from the way she moves her body as an instructor for pole dance, barre, and aerial hammock stretch classes, to the movement she started when she founded Beauty Night Society. It’s a Vancouver-based organization that empowers women and children living in poverty and staying in shelters and recovery centres with care, compassion and free wellness and aesthetician services. And it’s the work that’s closest to MacGillivray’s community building heart.

Now 51, MacGillivray wasn’t always athletic—she says she was a shy, geeky kid with poor hand-eye coordination who was picked last in gym class. But she studied ballet, and at age 12 she began helping with beginner skating lessons in exchange for free classes. She loved the freedom she felt on the ice, and she finds a similar sense of whirling, spinning weightlessness and suspension— along with feel-good endorphins and a confidence boost—in pole dance and aerial fitness.

She first discovered pole dance when she was researching a dating column she wrote for a now-defunct community newspaper. At the end of class, she crawled up to the pole and demonstrated what she learned and was soon invited back as an instructor. MacGillivray is someone who exudes love and care for others, even though her own health has been up and down lately: A year ago, she was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and had to take a temporary step back from her busy teaching schedule and from her in-person beauty events to protect her compromised immune system. (She still worked behind the scenes, running the organization and doing outreach.)

One pandemic silver lining has been virtual classes: MacGillivray leads qi gong, meditation and self-massage workshops from her Cambie Village apartment, setting up her laptop and yoga mat next to her fireplace. Her hairless Sphynx cat, Ripley, often wanders into the Zoom frame. She finds inspiration through a fellow CML patient she met who had recovered enough to plan a multi-day hiking trip along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The idea that, one day, she too could be strong enough for a hiking adventure has given MacGillivray hope.

In the meantime, she takes care of herself with rest and guided meditation, especially when she’s doing lots of teaching. Here’s what a day in her life looks like.

Caroline Macgillivray 2Image: Jackie Dives

7:30AM MacGillivray still teaches an average of 15 to 17 fitness classes a week, though her CML diagnosis has forced her to take it easy when she needs to. “I’m blessed that, with medication, it’s a manageable condition. There are side effects, but I’m stronger than I think,” she says. “And I need to celebrate life, because I’m alive.”

Caroline Macgillivray 3Image: Jackie Dives

11:30AM MacGillivray works primarily out of the Mt. Pleasant location of Tantra Fitness. She says that the balance work, spine decompression, mobility and restorative poses of aerial hammock stretch are a great counterpoint to pole dancing, which is more active.

Caroline Macgillivray 4Image: Jackie Dives

1:45PM MacGillivray is rarely without a book in her hand, and devours 10 to 15 books a week, so she’s a frequent visitor to her public library and many of the Little Free Library drop-off and pickup locations in Vancouver. She only keeps the books that are dearest to her (like her copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret).

Caroline Macgillivray 5Image: Jackie Dives

4:00PM MacGillivray spends about 25 hours a week teaching classes and holding private sessions with her fitness clients, but anywhere from 25 to 40 hours weekly on her Beauty Night Society work. As executive director, she manages orientations, recruiting, volunteer coordination, grant writing and paperwork.

Caroline Macgillivray 6Image: Jackie Dives

5:45PM Set-up for Beauty Night begins, with clients arriving just 15 minutes later. “We’re a well-oiled machine by now,” MacGillivray says. Before the pandemic, the organization was serving as many as 300 women a week, but numbers (and shelter capacity limits) have reduced a bit since then.

Caroline Macgillivray 7Image: Jackie Dives

6:00PM MacGillivray is half Chinese Canadian, and Cantonese was her first language (her great-great grandparents came to Vancouver during the railway-building era). She practices qi gong, a branch of traditional Chinese medicine that combines massage, acupuncture and at-home exercises, and has recruited qi gong students to volunteer at her events.

Caroline Macgillivray 8Image: Jackie Dives

6:30PM MacGillivray originally got the idea for Beauty Night as a volunteer at a Downtown Eastside drop-in centre for sex workers. She remembers a client in distress who wasn’t able to lift her arms to do her hair or makeup after showering, so MacGillivray helped the woman feel better about how she looked.

Caroline Macgillivray 9Image: Jackie Dives

7:15PM Words of encouragement are displayed on sticky notes during a February Beauty Night event at a Union Gospel Mission shelter on East Cordova Street. In addition to beauty treatments, MacGillivray’s organization offers wellness programming and life-skills training sessions.

Caroline Macgillivray 10Image: Jackie Dives

7:30PM Volunteers like Samantha Tong (pictured above) are at the heart of Beauty Night, but during the pandemic many volunteers moved away from the Vancouver area. MacGillivray says the organization is slowly rebuilding, and they’re looking for hairdressers, fundraisers, grant writers and marketing specialists.

Caroline Macgillivray 11Image: Jackie Dives

8:10PM The team packs up their supplies at the end of the night. “I think one of the biggest pieces has always been about the community building,” MacGillivray says. She dreams of someday spreading the magic of Beauty Night beyond Vancouver. “My next chapter is to look at sustainability. How do we move forward and heal more people?”

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada