me on a pole in a dance studio me on a pole in a dance studio You can see I actually was above the ground in the mirror, I promise! (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Here's what happened when I tried pole dancing

I'd always wanted to try an art caught between nightclubs and gyms.

"Pole dancing!" exclaimed my Uber driver as I got out of the car at a pole dancing studio. "You're making me wanna come in there."

"You could take a class," I replied.

His tone changed. "I would not do that," he said sternly. "What do I need to swing on a pole for?"

Noticing that pole dancing was becoming yet another practical skill turned fitness craze, I'd decided to try a class at Awakenings, a pole dancing studio in Philadelphia. My teacher was Alex Ander, a pole champion from Israel. Because you're supposed to try new things, right?

The Uber driver's reaction to that choice pretty much encapsulated the strangeness of pole dancing classes. People tend to associate pole dancing with sleazy strip clubs, so pole dancing studios spend a lot of time trying to convince everyone that sliding on a pole is actually a squeaky clean art. The Awakenings website, for instance, says the company wants to bring "self-confidence" and "self-empowerment" to its students, which seemed a little strange for the only sport on the planet with heels in the uniform.

"We do not require our students to wear any shoes for classes and do not recommend heels for beginners unless you are comfortable dancing in them already," the website continued.

That being said, I'd always been attracted to pole dancing. It seemed so sleek, so impressive – gymnastics with rhythm. I fantasized about casually flipping around a subway pole like a New York breakdancer.

That's not an exaggeration. If you've never been to New York, you might not know that groups of guys come on the train, blast music and do gymnastics on subway poles for tips. Once I saw a 10-year-old-ish boy breakdance and hang upside down from a handrail. He tried to fist-bump a woman reading in the seat in front of him. For the next awkward minute, she kept reading, pretending she couldn't see the child upside down in front of her. She literally left him hanging. That's New York for you: half the city is trying to get noticed, and the other half is trying to act too cool to notice anything.

The studio reminded me a bit of a circus.The studio reminded me a bit of a circus. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

I half expected to walk into a boring fitness studio full of soccer moms in pastel pink sweatpants. But when I got inside, I discovered a room full of red mood lighting and fabrics hanging from the ceiling. Young women with unusual, brightly dyed haircuts were warming up. I realized that the people who got into pole dancing were probably the same people who got into burlesque, fiery hula hoops and Victorian tea parties.

Though one thing reminded me of every other fitness class I'd ever been to: mirrors lined the walls. I could never figure out why fitness studios always have mirrors. I assumed it was one of those things people would tell me when I grew up, like why the sky was blue or who decided who got on TV.

The instructor was a middle-aged woman with short, bleached blond hair and the torso of a casual bodybuilder (not the alien-looking Mr. Universe kind). She wore an electric blue sports bra and matching, teeny-tiny shorts over her almost uncannily smooth, tan legs, all pretty unexpected for a woman in her 50s (60s?), and eyeliner like it was part of her uniform. Her shoulders looked like they could crush diamonds. I wondered how much I’d have to work out to be in that kind of shape in a few decades; pole dancers probably outlive us all.

"I'm gonna have to warn you: pole dancing is addictive, and there's no cure," she told me when I came in. "And I wouldn't tell you if there was."

poles in a dance studioThe poles were all slightly different for some reason. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

There were about five other students in the class, all young women. I immediately went into lowest person on the totem “pole” mode: I spoke in quiet squeaks, wondering where I’d fit in the group. I found out quickly: the instructor divided us into level 2 (people who could pole dance) and level 1 (people who could not pole dance). She showed the level 2 girls a new move that involved a lot of spinning in the air. After a few tries, one managed it.

“Computed!” the girl said.

The instructor then showed me how to do some very basic moves to get used to the pole. I’d expected pole dancing to take a lot of upper body strength. What I wasn’t expecting was how much it would torture my inner thighs.

“If it hurts, that’s how you know you’re doing it right,” the instructor said. So that's why she wore such short shorts: you need the skin on your thighs to stick to the pole. She explained that skin toughens up eventually and told me about the time a doctor tried to stick a needle in her thigh.

"I'm warning you, this is going to feel very sensitive," said the doctor.

"Nope," replied the instructor. The doctor tried to stick it in and almost couldn't manage it.

"Should I get another needle?" the doctor asked, baffled.

I'm gonna have to warn you: pole dancing is addictive, and there's no cure," she told me when I came in. "And I wouldn't tell you if there was."

The instructor showed me how to climb up the pole properly, by wrapping my legs around it and pushing up against my feet like they were steps. Something clicked: I’d seen someone do this before, though in the most different context imaginable. When I was living with hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rainforest, one hunter-gatherer showed a couple tourists and me how to climb a tree without branches. Same technique.

I'd completely failed in the rainforest (and got laughed at by a bunch of hunter-gatherers and Norwegian tourists) and figured I'd probably do the same in the studio. But I actually managed to get up there. Next, I learned to free my hands without sliding down by crossing my legs around the pole and shifting my weight sideways.

"Cock and lock," the instructor said as she helped me do it. "I always call it that so you never forget."

She taught me a few more moves – how to sit on the pole with my arms free, how to walk around the pole glamorously (harder than it sounds). By the end, I could backwards somersault off the pole and sit on it with my hands poised in the air.

Despite my earlier skepticism, climbing up a pole and rocking gymnastic moves indeed made me feel pretty empowered – literally, more powerful. That Uber driver should really give it a try.

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