The Potential of Pole
I remember the first time I saw pole dancing. Real pole dancing. I had received a discount to take an intro class at a big-name company in San Francisco. It’s more accepted now, but this was back in 2009, and I only knew pole dancing as the thing that strippers did. Was this a legitimate thing?
This intrigued me, partly out of curiosity, but also due to a desire to expand my horizons. I recently moved to the big city and was trying so many new things. Swing dancing, opera, and Michelin-starred fine dining were all novel experiences. But I wasn’t having much luck finding something I enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong. I love San Francisco and always will, but I am an introverted girl from the Midwest and this was a very new scene for me. Pole dancing seemed like a solo activity, which was a plus in my book, so I took a chance and went.
The class itself was disappointing. It was a small group, only myself and two other girls, in an intimate, dim room with no mirrors. We spent half the class “learning” how to walk around the pole. The other half involved getting in touch with our “inner goddess.” The high point of the class was learning a simple fireman’s spin. You walk around the pole and then hook your legs around it in a cross-legged position. The momentum sends you twirling down until you collapse on the floor in a giggling heap.
I was already convinced that I wouldn’t return, but the two instructors had an ace up their sleeve. They wanted to give us a demonstration of what pole dancing could be. One of them turned down the lights further, and the other turned up the music. They then proceeded to give us a show worthy of Vegas. It was fast, it was powerful, and it was athletic. These girls climbed all the way to the top of the pole and hung off it in ways that I didn’t think possible. They were strong, they were sexy, and they oozed confidence. I wanted in.
I didn’t join that studio. I knew I wasn’t going to be in San Francisco much longer, and it was way out of my budget. So I put it on the back burner and went about my life. It wasn’t until months later that my thoughts turned back to pole. I had moved to San Diego after a particularly rough breakup and was alone in a new city. Isolated, feeling depressed and unhealthy, I knew I had to do something. I thought about those pole dancers then. I needed some confidence, so I looked into local pole dancing studios. To my delight, there was one close by, and the prices weren’t that extravagant, so I signed up for a class.
Intro to Pole
I walked in expecting the same. A small shadowy room. Soft music and shadows begging me to let my hair down and unleash my inner beauty. But it was the exact opposite. This was a well-lit studio with the entire front wall consisting of floor to ceiling mirrors. The only concession they made to modesty was to put curtains on the windows. I immediately preferred this vibe. I didn’t get into pole dancing because it was sensual; even though it very much can be. I never thought of myself as sexy and wasn’t interested in that aspect of it. Instead, the athletic side excited me. Watching the pole dancers invert and push off, legs jutting out into space. They held the pose with sheer upper body strength. I wanted that power! I wanted to be strong!
The first studio only had two poles in the room. We all took turns, so you can imagine we didn’t spend a lot of time actually learning anything. But this place had ten poles and each dancer got their own. Our instructor was a delight also. She was the owner of the studio and she had the type of toned body that I wanted. I credit her enthusiasm for igniting my passion for pole dancing. We were the most uncoordinated group of beginners, but she made us feel like fierce queens. In that first intro class, she taught us how to walk around the pole. But then she showed us how to climb and perform a few simple spins. Oh, did I mention that I accomplished this in 6-inch heels? I had a blast and got a great workout.
A New Revelation
I had never cared much about fitness before, but this didn’t feel like exercise. We had so much fun; the classes flew by. Here was that nurturing, safe environment that I had yet to experience. We were all so bad and this all so new that we had to leave our egos at the door. Everyone helped one another and cheered on each small victory.
I remember one of the hardest newbie moves-Superman. It looked like the flying superhero. You faced the ground, legs stretched out behind. One hand gripped the pole behind while the other reached out in front. Our instructor made it look so easy but none of us could do it. Over and over, we would slide down, unable to hold ourselves up. Until one day one of the girls did it. We were all amazed; she most of all. We cheered and gathered around her like she had scored the winning touchdown. I had never experienced such camaraderie, usually large groups of women annoyed me. But something about pole made me feel vulnerable and exposed. I was open to the new experience in a way that I have never felt since.
I got better. My rarely used muscles in the arms, back, and shoulders got stronger. Now the challenge was shifting from physical strength to mental toughness.
Inverting. The act of lifting the legs off the floor using only body strength and bringing them up over the head. Got it? The next step is hooking the pole behind the knee. OK? Now let go with the hands and fall backward. The only thing keeping you from hitting the floor is the grip of the knee. Talk about scary. The first few times the instructor held us, and we had the safety of padding underneath. But it was still unnerving. You had to trust and let go.
We did have a few tricks to succeed. No lotion on the skin; we wanted to stick not slip. Alcohol spray-dried up sweaty palms. Show as much skin as possible. We wore “booty shorts” and sports bras. We had to, clothing didn’t stick to the pole, but there was no embarrassment. No judgment. We all radiated body positivity.
I eventually left San Diego. When I arrived in my new city, the first thing I did was look for a new pole dancing community. The studio I chose was in a warehouse, much grander in size. That’s what caused my next mental challenge. They used professional-grade permanent poles. These suckers soared 20 feet into the air.
I had never gotten much height before. The San Diego studio was in a normal-sized room, and we usually practiced our tricks at mid-level. But to be successful now I had to climb up to a decent height then descend while performing the various moves. I would run out of room if I started too low. Plus, they were teaching drops here. Which is exactly like it sounds. You climb up and let go of the pole, executing a controlled drop. The audience holds their breath. Did she fall? But no, at the last minute you reconnect. It looks astonishing, but it hurts like heck.
Which brings me to a side note about pole dancing. It hurts. A lot. I had bruises all over my body. The calves and behind the knees were particularly vulnerable. They were the key contact points with the pole. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory but it does get better.
I’m not big on heights, so I started to get nervous a lot more than I used to. But the confidence that came with being able to do the big moves was enough to keep me going back. Keep practicing, keep getting stronger, I told myself. And I did….but there was another thing that was starting to impede my progress.
I didn’t have it. I never had. But the girls at this level were bendy chicks. They could hook legs behind heads and slide into full splits. The Russian Split was my favorite move that I couldn’t do. Invert and face the ceiling. Leave one foot flush against the pole and extend the other out to horizontal perfection. It looks so elegant and graceful.
My pole dancing journey had come to an end. I had reached the point where I was beginning to lose those things that I had loved so much in the early days. The dancers got more competitive, and the moves became more technical. There were also the flexibility issues and the fear of heights working against me.
But I still carry the experience with me. The exhilaration of dangling from one leg, arms stretched toward the floor below. The confidence that I could climb a 20-foot metal pole. The reality check that groups of girls could be fun and supportive. The boost in fitness that it gave to my body. These are all things I can’t imagine having gotten anywhere but pole dancing.