Are there many things more certain to ignite controversy among a certain class of feminists than the idea of pole dancing for fun and fitness? The controversy has ebbed somewhat in recent years, but it still pops up from time to time, usually in the form of lectures about young women searching for empowerment by posing as strippers and how they are Doing Feminism Wrong by spending their time “pole-dancing, walking around half-naked, posting drunk photos on Facebook, and blogging about your sex lives” instead of fighting for reproductive rights.
As a woman in her 30s who has been immersed in online feminist communities since I was a teenager, I’m pretty well-familiar with the arguments against pole dancing. I’ve read “Female Chauvinist Pigs” and I understood the point Ariel Levy was making. But I couldn’t really find myself getting too worked up over the fact that some women found it fun to put on clear heels and shake their butts while swinging on poles. Sure, it wasn’t something I was particularly clamoring to do, but I figured that was just because pole-dancing wasn’t in my personal wheelhouse, not because there was something fatally flawed about the entire enterprise. Live and let live, you know?
My opinion started to change a couple of years ago, when my best friend Brandi took up pole dancing. Actually, she didn’t just take up pole dancing – she got really into it. I mean, reaaaallly into it. This is how into it she got: she began teaching, she quit her job as a technical writer, she opened a dancewear-and-shoes boutique, and now she owns a pole studio in Tampa. Like I said, she is really, really into pole dancing.
Naturally, when one of the people I love and admire most in the world gets really, really into something, I am inclined to find out more about that thing (unless, of course, it involves thetans or crack cocaine or something similar). Brandi and I talked about her experiences with pole, what she loved most about it, how it changed her attitudes toward life and herself. We talked about the way so many people seemed to regard it in a variety of negative ways: silly, retrograde, damaging, embarrassing, shameful. She told me that she hated the way some people acted as though she did pole to please her husband, and not something she did for her own enjoyment.
Best of all, she shared videos with me of pole dancers doing the most incredible things, spinning and climbing and lifting themselves, and doing so in a way that was graceful and sexy and feline and powerful. I admired the aesthetic of the dancers and the way they, like so many acrobats and aerialists, were capable of exercising such exacting control over their bodies. Over time I became intrigued, and I decided that I would give it a try.
A couple of weeks ago, the pole-dance stars aligned. I am not in training for any specific race right now, and Brandi decided to offer a beginning pole-dance boot camp that lasted five weeks. I signed up. My first class with Brandi was last Friday.
I showed up at her studio, and since it was the first time I’d seen it, I spent the first few minutes squeeing with her over the studio as she showed me around. She introduced me to the other ladies taking the class, who were sitting on a couch strapping on their heels. I did not own a pair of stripper heels, so I planned to take part in the class while barefoot. I did, however, wear a pair of booty shorts, since Brandi had told me how the skin of my legs and inner thighs will provide me with extra grip when climbing on the pole.
We all took position standing next to a pole facing a wall of mirrors. We started off with some exercises to warm up our shoulders and arms, then Brandi walked us through the basic terminology and moves involved in pole. She showed us where to hold our arms and how to position our shoulders so they remained firmly in their sockets. She had us walk around the pole and explained that she would use phrases like “inside leg” and “outside arm” to instruct us. Then she had us do a couple of non-tricky moves, starting with the “body wave,” which involves rolling your body in an upward wave against the pole.
As I tried to do the body wave for the first time, I started feeling an uncomfortable sensation that I quickly recognized as embarrassment. “I feel like I should be alone with the pole for this,” I joked in a weak-ass attempt to mitigate my awkwardness. I tried it a few more times, and each time I was mortified by the way my body didn’t seem to roll as much as it stuttered, which I knew was happening only because I was feeling embarrassed and self-conscious. Brandi said it was okay, that everyone feels awkward at first, and to just keep practicing.
Next was the “moneymaker,” where we bent over at the waist and used a variety of techniques to – you got it – shake our moneymakers. The idea isn’t so much to move our actual butts as it is to make our butts jiggle. Again, I failed miserably at this. It was during my attempt to make my booty jiggle that some random creepy guy opened the front door, poked his head in and started laughing and leering at us. We all started screaming at him to get out, and I briefly considered walking over to him and physically shoving him out of the studio, but fortunately he left before that became necessary. Seriously, bro, NOT COOL. (And hello, we are in Tampa – it’s not like there aren’t places where the women are happy to do this for you just down the street. Of course, that’s provided you aren’t a cheap piece of shit and are willing to give them some money.)
After this, we moved onto spins, which are moves in which the dancer hooks one leg and her hands around the pole, then spins until she glides to the floor. At least, that’s what a spin is supposed to look like. I, on the other hand, looked about as graceful as a marionette held by a drunk puppeteer. I could not get my legs to behave. It was like my legs interpreted my attempts to glide gracefully to the floor as stumbling and falling, and bless their hearts, they were like, “girl, we’re here to save you!” and then shot out of nowhere, causing me to land awkwardly on my ankles. More than once, I banged the inside of my right knee so hard against the pole that I am still carrying around a blossom of greenish purple on my leg.
It was just a huge clusterfuck, made even more clusterfuck-y by the fact that every other woman in the class was executing the spins quite nicely. And Brandi – well, let’s just say that girl looked like she was born with her legs wrapped around a pole.
It was at this point that I noticed my bare feet were not doing me any favors when I tried to pivot, so I broke down and rented a pair of white vinyl six-inch heels from Brandi. I pulled them on, then stood up and surveyed the view from my new NBA-ready vantage point. I walked around for a bit, got myself comfortable with my altered center of balance, then went back to the spins. Finally, I almost successfully pulled off a herkie spin. Almost. Kind of. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
The last part of the class was an introduction to pole sits and climbs. The pole sit is a move in which you squeeze your thighs together so you end up sitting on the pole while in the air. We wiped down our poles with some rubbing alcohol, then Brandi walked us through each step leading up to the pole sit. I followed each step, then got myself into position, pressed my thighs together around the pole, and voila! I was pole-sitting! I couldn’t believe it. I had actually done something right. I came back down, then got back into the pole sit again, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, and it wasn’t. I could actually do it. I could even lift my legs straight in front of me.
The climb is similar in that you use your arms and legs to hold yourself in the air. Brandi showed us how to line our shin up with the pole, then flex our feet so the front strap of our shoes was gripping the pole. Then we put our hands on the pole over our head and pull ourselves up. By this time, my hands were sweaty and I kept slipping, so Brandi had me put some grip-aid on my hands. The grip-aid basically serves the same purpose as chalk for gymnasts and weight-lifters, and within a couple of minutes, my hands were dry and tacky. I got my leg into position, grabbed the pole, and pulled myself up.
And holy shit, I did it. I pulled myself right up onto that pole, and I stayed there. I stayed there long enough to see myself in the mirror, and I have to say, I looked amazing. My arms were flexed, my legs looked strong – I looked amazing. It was the closest my tall ass was ever going to get to being an acrobat.
I did it a couple more times, each time marveling at the sensation of having pulled my body up into the air like that. I would have kept doing it all night long had the class not come to an end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the class since it ended. I’ve thought quite a bit about how much fun it is, and how I’m looking forward to my next lesson this week. I’ve thought about how I am decent at things that require brute strength (pole sits, climbs) and how I suck at things that require grace and elegance (everything else), and how the only way I will not suck at those things is to practice.
I’ve thought about how it’s possible to enjoy things you would have never thought you were capable of enjoying. I mean, I’m kind of a tomboyish jock who doesn’t really do femininity and sexiness all that well. I’m one of the last women you’d expect to see in a pole class. Yet I ventured outside of my comfort zone and found myself experiencing something quite remarkable.
And I do feel like there was part of the pole-dancing thing that was remarkable for me, and I don’t necessarily mean exploring the realm of public sexiness (with which I am admittedly very much uncomfortable). Rather, it was during the part of the class where we focused on climbs that I had an epiphany about myself. I knew I was doing something that required a considerable amount of physical strength, and that the fact that I was doing these things meant I was strong.
I am very used to thinking of myself as a work-in-progress – as someone who is trying to become strong – that I often lose sight of where I am right at this moment in time. I have a bad habit of comparing myself to other people and finding myself falling short. I don’t think about how fast I can be, just that I am not as fast as other runners. I don’t think about myself as strong, just that I can’t deadlift as much as some other lady lifters can. It’s hard for me to conceive of myself as myself, not in relation to other people.
But as I hung there on that pole, suspended in the air using nothing but my arms, legs and a strap of vinyl, I realized that there is no “becoming” strong – I already am strong. I can become stronger, but I’m already strong.
It was a tectonic shift in how I thought of myself, and it didn’t happen in the weight room with chalk flying through the air. It happened on a pole with Lucite heels strapped to my ankles and a pair of booty shorts. If you had asked me where I’d have that epiphany, hanging off a pole would have probably been damn near the bottom of the list of possible places for this to have occurred. And yet, that’s exactly where it happened.
P.S. About the shoes…they really are comfortable. I swear.