Seize the Pole

Wooster Square’s hottest fitness space is an empty dance studio with ten-foot metal poles bolted to the ground and ceiling. On a recent Sunday, a friend and I visited the studio, which sits in a small brick building across the street from Sally’s Apizza. It was a hot and humid day, and the last thing I wanted to do was exercise—especially when that exercise was pole dancing.

A tall, lanky woman with pink-streaked, strawberry-blonde hair greeted us at the door. She wore a tight blue crop top and low-rise sweatpants with slits up the sides showing off toned, muscular legs. She introduced herself as Jessica Lynn, our instructor and the owner of the studio, PoleFly. We walked into a room with wall-to-wall mirrors, lined with stability balls, light hand weights, and yoga mats. It was a cozy space, private and serene. But the eight poles interspersed throughout the room made it obvious that this was not your traditional dance class.

Lynn gave us a rundown of the studio rules. Number one: no jewelry. It can scratch the poles. Number two: no lotion. While poling, your palms, among other things, can get sweaty, and lotion weakens your grip. As my friend said, “This pole is more stable than any relationship I’ve ever been in.” Nobody wants to complicate that with lotion.

PoleFly opened in 2013 and, in addition to pole dancing, offers aerial hoop, barre, and chair dancing classes. Lynn was surprised that my friend and I had never heard of the studio before; Yale students are some of her best customers. Visitors range from members of Yale Dancers to students at the Divinity School to players on the football team. But her most frequent patrons? Women at bachelorette parties.

Pole dancing has been popular since the nineteen-eighties, but its reputation and purpose are contested and evolving. In recent years, many pole aficionados have championed it as a non-sexual form of exercise. “Up until a few years ago,” Lynn said, “to say you did pole dancing was a taboo.” Before she opened PoleFly, Lynn worked as a bartender in downtown New Haven. She took pole-dancing classes in order to stay in shape, but when she mentioned her pole work, customers at the bar responded by asking her which club she danced for.

For these athletes, little about pole dancing is glamorous. They have callused hands, they get bruises, and their skin peels off.

At the same time, there are international amateur and professional competitions for pole enthusiasts, branded as purely athletic. Like at nightclubs, woman are usually the ones competing, and the uniform is often a glorified bra and underwear—but that’s more utilitarian than aesthetic. Skin contact with the pole is required for inversions because it creates the friction needed for flips and tricks (another reason for the “no lotion” rule). And for these athletes, little about pole dancing is glamorous. They have callused hands, they get bruises, and their skin peels off. Still, the US Pole Dance Federation—an organization founded in 2008 to organize national pole dancing competitions—boasts the tagline “The Sleek, The Strong, The Sexy.” Lynn said that the purely athletic focus ignores the fact that many women learn how to pole dance as a form of entertainment, not exercise. Now, most competitions have a separate section for “exotic dance.” And studios like PoleFly, popping up across the country, walk a delicate line between drawing customers through the activity’s sexy reputation and insisting on its serious athleticism.

We began the class with a light warm up to “Uptown Funk.” After we finished our squats and dynamic stretches, we started to learn a couple of basic tricks. Our first move was called “walking around the pole,” which consisted of walking around the pole. Then we moved on to some more complicated moves, the most intense being the fireman spin. Imagine a fireman sliding down the pole in the station to get to the truck. That’s the basic configuration of the spin, but instead of sliding down, you use the momentum from initially swinging your outside leg (the one farthest from the pole) to leap up and spin around the pole several times.

I did it, but I can’t say it was graceful. Lynn made it all look easy. She has been “poling” for about five and a half years, ever since a friend took her to a class and got her hooked. She loved the challenge of it, and she found it much more fun than working out at the gym. She supplemented her classwork by training at home on a pole she had installed in her living room.

“I have a ton of toenail polish scrapings on my ceiling from inversion kicks I would practice on the pole,” she said with a laugh. “It’s only about eight feet tall.”

Next we learned some “sassy floorwork” to combine with the pole tricks for a final dance combination. First up: the body roll.

“Imagine you’re squatting over a nasty toilet at a club and then you’re using the pole to help roll your body up,” Lynn explained. “Now slide all the way down the pole to the floor with your legs in a wide squat position like you don’t even care how dirty the bathroom floor is.”

Described as such, the moves did not sound sexy. Lynn went on to describe the first part of a turn as “sniffing your armpit.” She tries to make her language as desexualized as possible.

“Once you say the word ‘sexy,’ people get uncomfortable,” she explained. “Most people come here for a workout, and even the people that do come here to learn how to dance ‘sexy’ get anxious when they actually hear that word.”

PoleFly offers about twenty-five group classes a week, but instructors also lead private parties. And those, according to Lynn, get a bit crazier; at bachelorette parties, Lynn will often lead chair or lap dancing classes. In such cases, it’s clear that the participants are not there for a workout, so Lynn often uses more sexual language than she would use in a traditional class. Although the crowds are rowdier, she enjoys teaching them: it’s usually everyone’s first time poling, and the vibe is less morning-at-the-gym and more night-at-the-club. But the number one rule she gives to groups is that they are not allowed to attend the class under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“It’s a workout, so they can’t be drunk and trying to do it,” Lynn explained.

Not everybody follows the rules. “One girl was so drunk that I had her just sit in the corner and play with one of the stability balls,” Lynn said. “She still threw up.”

Pole dancing ‘doesn’t have to be a shameful thing,’ but it still wasn’t something I wanted to talk about.

We performed our final routine to Beyoncé’s “Me, Myself, and I.” It was about a minute and a half long, and combined the moves we had learned: walks around the poll, fireman spins, and body rolls among others. I can’t really say how I looked while doing it. I was watching Lynn the whole time, trying to mimic her movements. By the end, I was dizzy from all of our spinning and had broken a sweat. The next morning I woke up with sore arms despite the fact I had barely left the ground. I watched some videos of professional pole events, and I was struck by the athleticism of the women competing. Pole dancing is no joke: it’s a serious workout. Yet when I was on the phone with my mom later that week and she asked what I did Sunday afternoon, I didn’t tell her about my time at PoleFly. Lynn said pole dancing “doesn’t have to be a shameful thing,” but it still wasn’t something I wanted to talk about.

During the class, Lynn and the other women, including myself, wore their hair down. Being able to flip your hair while performing the dance makes it more fun. But I have never been in another fitness class where everyone kept their hair down. We were doing challenging moves, but at the same time we were being, well, sexy. PoleFly instructors don’t use sexual language because they don’t need to: people taking their classes know what they’re signing up for. While for women, it’s hard to be simultaneously sexual and athletic, for men there’s no such clear divide. What PoleFly and professional pole dancers are attempting to do is clear a space for women to be both. It’s no small feat.

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