WELLNESS: Swing Shift
I was in the midst of my first pole fitness class, leg wrapped around an imposing silver stanchion, head thrown back and trying to spin when I thought, “If only my cotillion teacher could see me now.”
For the uninitiated, the growing trend of pole fitness can elicit some snickers, a raised eyebrow and at least one stripper joke. But talk to anyone who regularly takes these classes, and the conversation will be about how empowered they feel, and the transformation their body has gone through from the hardest workout they’ve ever done.
Amateurs like me call it “pole dancing.” The adroit casually call it “pole.”
“Pole, as much as it has a community environment, it is a very individual experience. Pole pulls things out of you,” said Ashlee Renee, owner of Tease Studios in Denver. “I was a power-lifter before starting pole. (The classes) made me feel – I know this sounds corny – but it made me feel like a woman, this sensual being. It changed my life.”
There’s no getting around the entire Roman-maypole-yikes elephant in the room here. But these people are past even eye-rolls about all that and make a compelling case for pole changing lives.
Renee and the instructors at Tease can get emotional when talking about what pole fitness has given them. For such a disparate group, which includes former nurses and burlesque dancers, women along with men. The commonality they share is that discovering pole fitness gave them an outlet for a part of them they didn’t know existed and created family that they could share that personal growth with.
It makes you want to understand why this pretty grueling feat has made such a significant impact on the lives of the students and instructors. Would that experience be the same for an out-of-shape man who lacks coordination and grace?
As the day of my first class approached and I struggled up a few flights of stairs to get to a meeting, I began to think I had made a huge mistake. Apparently my apprehension about taking this class is a common one. Many people when they walk into a studio for the first time are worried about whether they’re going to be coordinated enough or in shape enough to get through a class, said Jen West, co-owner of 3sixT Studios in Denver. I’d settle for not having to leave in an ambulance or bag-over-the-head shame.
“When you actually try a class, you realize it’s just like any form of dance. You have to start somewhere but you can make it what you want. If you want to feel sexy that day, you can throw hair around and make it about that. You can make it all about being acrobatic,” West said. “No matter who you are, there’s always going to be something you’re good at. And the way you get in shape and get good at dancing is just to do it.”
Then let’s do it. I walked into my first session set to learn something new about myself.
A few minutes into Patty Yacon’s class at Tease Studios and I realized I was no longer fretting about feeling empowered. I never gave another single thought about being unable to connect with my fellow students or about being coordinated enough not to embarrass myself. I had one thought in this hour-long session, not dying.
Most people, including myself, tend to focus on the ‘pole’ part of pole fitness. But no one should confuse this as an easy activity. I was drenched in sweat after just a few minutes, my hips moved in ways that I did not think possible and I’m sure that I escaped death at least twice after spastic attempts to take a rotation around the pole almost sent me flying to my doom. What looks sensual, amazing and so-damned-easy with some, was fabulously comical with me.
But this is how it begins for most folks. Yacon was an amazing instructor and she kept giving me enthusiastic words of encouragement as I attempted each new move she taught, whether it was a fast spin around the pole or a slow slide down to the ground. She also kept telling me that as a man, I have an advantage with some of the moves because men naturally have more ready upper-body strength.
I decided not to mention to Yacon that my upper body didn’t get the memo about naturally being stronger and my arms were already screaming out in pain after trying to lift my out-of-shape body up the pole for the first spin.
But eventually I was able to ignore the spasms and the strongest urge ever to slowly just collapse on the ground, demand a nap and beg for a beer.
After even a short while, you kind of get the hang of it. The centrifugal force, the bodies in motion staying that way, leaning back against what feels like is going to be an epic fall. You can see how this could not only work, but be fun, too. Each tiny victory becomes sweet, in between gasps for air and cramping calves. It truly is an empowering experience to be able to swing your body around a pole only being supported by your legs or arms. I felt like a cross between a ninja and a ballerino. Deadly but graceful all at once. Like a swan with a battle axe. Whether my instructor saw that same thing is, well, not likely, but the psychological victory was all mine.
I know most men, if not all, that read about pole dancing thinks it’s just for women. And yes, I admit I didn’t really get the sense of empowerment and sensuality out of tossing my hair back when I made back bends on the floor, or when I collapsed there.
But I did leave empowered. There is something to be gained for men in taking a pole class, besides muscles of steel. Too often in society we are told we’re not supposed to take part in something because it’s not part of an assigned identity. Men can’t deviate from their lane. A little girl can like Batman but a boy raises eyebrows if he wears a Wonder Woman shirt.
Men taking a pole dancing class doesn’t have to be the start of the gender revolution, but no one should be deprived of the ability to feel like a badass just because it’s not what is expected for you to take part in, or avoid.
Every man deserves to feel like a badass battle-ax-wielding swan at least once in his life.