Contrary to popular belief, I am not, nor have I ever been, an exotic dancer.
I do, however, own a silver pole, the kind that typically brings to mind high-heeled ladies in various states of undress, climbing, clinging to and performing athletic feats of contortion on. It has never, however, been unpacked from its box that has been hidden deep in the depths of the scariest place in our home – the attic – until this very week, as I started thinking about Valentine’s Day and thought the shimmering shaft would be a nice opportunity for a photo op.
Full disclosure – the photo idea preceded the writing idea of this piece, which in turn, took a spin in a much different direction. I was originally motivated to write about inappropriate Valentine’s gifts (next year!), but this blog twirled into other territory when I realized why, perhaps, that pole sat collecting cobwebs for so long.
The pole was a Val-Day gift five years ago from my then-boyfriend and now husband. I don’t remember if I asked for it, motivated of course, by the pole fitness craze or if he invented the reason for this gift himself, but I’m sure we had very different ideas of the purpose of this pole. I imagined hour long "workout" sessions that would create the lean, lithe muscles of a "dancer" and, well, I’m sure my sweet husband’s intentions were pure as well. What neither of us imagined was the controversy a little pole could stir up.
Mention pole dancing for fitness or muse philosophically about the silver beam as an element to any "profession" (there are restaurants where food/beverage staff remains fully clothed, but shimmying on a pole to choreographed dances is part of the job description) in a social setting and be prepared for a backlash.
Pole-discussion seems to make people very uncomfortable – for both the women who swear up and down that they would never climb for "less than…" or "only with my clothes on" or "no way" and the men who squirm at the thought of their amore slithering vertically up and down the shiny pillar while most likely simultaneously fantasizing about either a past experience in an establishment that is centered on this apparatus or perhaps getting a glimmer of stimulation from that earlier musing of their significant other glistening on the gleaming stem. (Exhale – wow, that was a lot going on in one run-on sentence from one simple starting image of an innocent pole.)
I have concluded that it’s the element of privacy involved with our deepest secrets, desires and fantasies. The secrets we keep to ourselves or perhaps divulge to only our innermost circle of confidants usually involve some component of shame. Poles probably trigger this response in most people due to the common association with strip clubs, the social stigma involved with getting naked for cash and the associated stigma (although a far less scarring disgrace) for those who patronize these places.
The pop culture presence of "stripper poles" in music videos has unfortunately equated the pole with lack of clothing. I am totally guilty of this mis-association. I have to remind myself that proximity to a pole does not necessarily mean peeling it off. In fact, pole dancing has roots way outside of the strip club with the circus apparatus of Chinese Pole that both men and women perform (clothed) on. The pole is also a historic prop of legitimate, mainstream, theatrical and cinematic choreography – even Elvis Presley did a pole trick or two back in 1957’s "Jailhouse Rock." (Watch it, witness it.)
So, can the pole be a positive piece of equipment – especially for women? Can it, as a fitness tool become an empowering activity that contributes to not only a more physically fit body, but to a healthier mind and self-image as well?
According to Maureen Metzger, co-owner of the West Allis pole dancing fitness studio, Blush Pole Fitness and Dance: hell yes, it can.
"What is done in our studio is very gymnastics-like. We consider pole dance to be one of the many forms of the aerial arts. I don't pretend to say there is nothing sexy about pole dance. That is part of its allure for many women. And I think there is nothing wrong with sexy; we are all supposed to have a sexy side to us.
"Life has a way of zapping that sexy right out of us – we age, we gain weight, and we have stresses over money, jobs, children and lots of other issues. Those things take a toll and pretty soon you stop feeling vibrant, sexy and feminine. Pole dance awakens that in us. Yes, we roll our hips and shake our booty, but we also amaze ourselves with how strong we are when we do gravity-defying tricks, hanging upside down with strength and grace on a slippery vertical pole! I see nothing scandalous about any of that.
"I am almost 54 years old and in the best physical shape of my life. I am strong and confident and I feel great! What's wrong with women wanting to combine some flirty fun with their fitness?"
I asked Metzger why poles and pole dancing – especially in its more mainstream application for fitness – seems to still be so controversial and why even pole dancing in an exercise studio (although becoming more mainstream every moment) holds a bit of a stigma.
"People seem to judge us on their preconceived ideas of what we
do, instead of by what actually goes on in a pole dance studio," she told me.
"We don't deny our roots come from exotic dance, but our classes are for everyday women. Those classes do include some sexy (but tasteful) dance moves, but they are also really physically challenging fitness classes. No one in our studio takes off clothing. No one is dancing for men; in fact the opposite may be true. We believe pole dance is all about women. We dance to make ourselves feel happy and fulfilled. Studio pole dance is about empowering women physically and mentally. We believe women should feel good about themselves and being strong and confident is a by-product of
pole dance classes."
When questioning the legitimacy of the fitness element of pole, Metzger reminded me: "Neither DJ (Hamilton, co-owner Blush) nor I have ever stripped. We both came to this just a few years ago as a fun fitness alternative. We are certified fitness instructors and the certification program we have taken is approved by the American College of Sports Medicine and provides CECs for the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America and the American Council of Exercise. We have taken several certification programs and pole dance classes all over the United States to ensure we offer our clients, everyday women, a safe, great workout and confidence-building fun. I challenge people to take a pole class and tell me they didn't get a great workout."
I took a pole dancing class at S-Factor (the brand credited with bringing pole dance out of the clubs and into the studio) years ago at their flagship studio in Encino, CA, where their motto is: "Come for the fun. Stay for the workout. Be amazed by the journey." I found surprisingly that I felt self-conscious, shy and a little silly in the class and that at the time, in a group environment, it wasn’t for me, but I remember being very sore afterwards! I would sincerely give it a chance again under the inspiration of someone like Maureen at Blush, especially understanding the body confidence and positive self-image this sport can spurn with regular practice.
Metzger is a living example of this. She started the sport in her early forties, drawn in by exactly what made it a little taboo, but she quickly became a convert as she discovered the confidence that came along with the strong upper body and core muscles required to perform the "sexy" moves. She felt transformed, sexy and powerful in a way she hadn’t felt in years.
Then, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned she would have to have a bi-lateral mastectomy.
"I didn't react to the news of a double mastectomy the way I would have assumed I might," she reflects. "I really didn't have any issues at all with losing my breasts. I wanted that cancer out of my body and the fact that to do that they would take my breasts was really a non-issue. I know for sure that had I not already been involved in pole dance at the time of my diagnosis, I would have had a much harder time accepting this change in my body. But I had been pole dancing and had gained this new confidence in myself as a woman. That really got me through something that could have otherwise been very devastating."
Metzger encourages women from all walks to give pole a spin.
"Sexy and feminine comes in all shapes and sizes," she says. "Pole helps you feel confident in the body you live in. I am passionate about this because at a very difficult and scary time of my life, something people are so negatively critical about helped me greatly. How can something that gives you a good sense of yourself be something negative? Pole changes the way women view themselves. It doesn't make them strippers, it makes them feel strong and more confident. And most of all, it is fun."
I think it may be time for me to let go of my personal issues and hang ups and finally install that pole. Anyone who wants to judge me for it can sit and spin.
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