I crouch with my palms and knees on the hardwood floor. A floor to ceiling mirror spans most of one wall, and a few spotlights in the corner beam a soft teal-green and orange-yellow glow about the studio. This is our last warm-up before we shift to the metal poles: It’s called the “juicy” Buttercup, and it’s “kind of like a sexy, stripper push-up,” says Kelly, our instructor. Trying to follow Kelly’s sinewy movements, I stick my bottom in the air, stretch my arms in front of me, and slowly shove my jaw into the floor as if listening for termites. Clumsily, I switch into reverse, imitating Kelly and struggling to raise myself up off the floor, butt first, boobs last, right cheek smooshed against the ground.
“Y’all look like inchworms!” shouts Judy Jovanelly, a short, stout woman in her mid-fifties who owns the pole dance studio, The Girl Spot.
Inchworms? I take it that we don’t look sexy.
About a year ago, while we were both juniors in college, a friend of mine at Penn took some pole dancing classes with her sorority sisters. Her sorority sounded like a malfunctioning airline announcement (Delta Delta Delta), and its activities mostly involved penning marriageable frat brethren into small drunken spaces, so I more or less wrote these girls off as coquettes. I questioned how they could justify signing up for classes premised on female objectification. I’d only ever seen pole dancing in movies: Guys get drunk and go to a strip club; guys get their awkward, left-at-the-altar friend drunk and go to a strip club.
But in the year after those Delta Delta Delta sisters jumped on what I then considered stripper poles, several of my Yale friends mentioned pole fitness classes. In the last decade or so, alternate fitness for women has seen all sorts of curiosities, from Pilates and Zumba to heat yoga and aqua cycling. And in the last few years, pole dancing — whether it’s categorized as dancing, stripping, or exercise — has been spreading as far and wide as a stripper’s legs.
The names of the studios are often painfully creative: Luscious Maven Pole Dance Fitness, Foxy Fitness & Pole Training Studios, Divine Moments Pole Dancing, Strip Xpertease, Strippercise. The tone of these classes seems to appeal more to those seeking frill over thrill, aesthetics over athletics. After all, middle-aged moms make up a lot of the pole fitness clientele, a demographic that might appreciate some encouragement from Gypsy Rose Exotic and Pole Dancing studio, “Where ‘sexy’ is a state of mind!”™ But what is meant by the notion of “sexy”? Pole, whether fitness-oriented or not, seemed predicated on archaic definitions of sexuality — interpretations of “sexy” that estrange women (and men) from their sense of internal self-worth, of confidence, and of attractiveness. Interpretations that lead people to see their value entrenched in their bodies, rather than in their minds or their motivations.
Unlike Strippercise, pole dance at a professional level requires immense physical ability. So challenging, in fact, is pole dancing that the U.S. Pole Dancing Federation, founded in 2008, has joined a worldwide campaign to include competitive pole dance in the 2016 Olympics.
The Olympics — now there is something that could seduce me. Athletics have been a core component of my confidence and identity since I was in the womb, where, I’m told (by my forgiving mother) I dedicated myself to a daily bicycle kick regimen. I’ve played on a girls soccer team every year since I was eight, competed with a coed ice hockey squad in middle school, and spent a lot of time throughout my life on the tennis court, on the track, in the pool, and in front of the lacrosse goal — a place where angry thirteen-year-old girls flung rubber balls at my body and where “sexy” was not a state of mind. The idea of pole, so firmly premised on this wispy concept of “sexy,” made me uncomfortable. But I’d heard from gal pals that pole workouts leave one sore and exhausted, and, to the athlete in me, this presented itself as a challenge. Despite its lack of goal posts or power plays, if this striptease-turned-sport took real strength, then I wanted to put myself to the test.
I had looked up the pole studio closest to me (and then, like a proper Yalie, checked out the one book on pole dancing housed at Sterling Library). Judy, the owner of The Girl Spot, told me over the phone that there are plenty of women who come and don’t want to venture near the realm of sassy and sexy; they just want an alternative to the gym. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t shake the fact that the business was named The Girl Spot, or that the studio’s “Joy of Sexy” workshop claimed to teach participants how to “incorporate your head, hands, legs and tongue on and off the pole.” The photos of women rubbing against poles in skimpy outfits unsettled me; I was an athlete trying to give myself a new type of physical challenge, not some forlorn lady looking for something to lick. What kind of sport involves tongue?
I arrive at The Girl Spot, located on the second floor of the same sports complex as FitPro Personal Training Studios, Next Dimension Gymnastics, and the Trumbull Racquet Club. Judy’s sign out front used to have a big curvy “G” against a much smaller “irl,” but she changed it to uniform capital letters after some gymnastics moms complained that the name looked too similar to “The G-Spot”. She tells me she was just looking for something “unique and memorable.” Uh-huh, I think to myself. There are no windows inside the studio, but three sets of window curtains adorn one dark wall. On the opposite wall is an enormous mirror, and eight glistening poles extend from the floor to the ceiling.
I write my name on the sign-in sheet and scribble my signature on the accompanying waiver. The first line says: “I understand and acknowledge that the activity and events conducted by The Girl Spot LLC are physically strenuous and may place me at risk of serious injury, even death…” The words “physically strenuous” begin to lift my spirits. Another document catches my eye: a chart titled “What’s Your Pole Name?” Mine, according to a combination of birth month, birth year, and the last digit of my phone number, is “Lady Hissy Paws.” In soccer, I’m just number 22. “Oh, that silly thing?” says Judy, looking over. She swats the air with her hand. I put down the chart and pick up a hefty set of cards produced by the Pole Federation of America, or PFA. There are nearly a hundred cards of different pole dance moves, ranging from the Stag Spin to the Speed Bump. But it’s almost time to start, so I take off my shoes and shimmy out of my sweats. Judy’s email specified “NO LOTION” of any kind, since it will make the poles slippery. She explains that more skin equals more grip, hence the consistently scant clothing. I stand beside one of the poles. Today’s other Girl Spot Girls also appear to be in their twenties, and both seem quiet and reserved. Our instructor, Kelly, glides to the front of the room and cocks her head.
“What’s the first thing you think of when you think of pole dancing?” Kelly asks us. No one says anything for a few moments.
“Strip club,” I respond reluctantly.
“Exactly!” says Kelly, beaming. She has long, toned arms, strong thighs and calves, big brown eyes and a bright white smile.
“That’s exactly what people go for!” She laughs while nodding. “But there are other kinds of pole dance and pole fitness. What we focus on here is kind of the athletic side.” Facing the mirror, we complete a set of basic arm and hand stretches, wrist rolls, hip circles, rib cage circles, lunges, and crunches to a generic hip-hop playlist. This is where the Buttercups comes into play, right before Kelly shows us the two basic pole grips — the handshake and the cup grip — and asks us to practice our pole walk.
“Throw your head around, move your hips. This will be your sexy walk, so I hope you all like it,” Kelly trills. Was this supposed to be conditioning? I try not to feel idiotic, which means avoiding any attempt to be sexy — not that it proves difficult. I’m relieved when this part ends, eager to move on to moves that place me at a more legitimate risk of “serious injury.” Half an hour has passed, and I’ve barely broken a sweat. Our first real spin is the Basic Fireman. I copy Kelly, holding the pole with my right hand as if raising my arm in a toast. I walk around the pole, place my right foot on the floor a few inches to its left, pivot, and simultaneously fish-hook my left heel on the other side of the pole and clutch with my left hand. I tuck my right leg behind me so that my right instep is against the metal, and then I’m stuck, hanging like a monkey glued to a tree. “You need some momentum!” says Kelly, demonstrating again. She walks a few steps and swings effortlessly into a well-controlled spin, her muscles taut. I try again. This time I get my feet confused and end up just straddling the pole. Judy points out that I’m gripping too hard with my hands. I loosen my fingers, and finally swing into a successful Fireman, spinning nearly two rotations before slowing to a stop. A little tricky — I could be into this. Yet, by the end of class, I still can’t overcome the fact that I’d spent the last half-hour practicing a sport that consists of moves entitled Flirty Fireman and Ankle Attitude. I imagine incorporating “sexy” into soccer. We’d be doing drills to finesse our “flirty free kick” and “carnal croif.” In hockey, maybe a “sensual slap shot” and “kinky backwards crossover.” As for tennis, perhaps a “lusty lob”?
After Intro Pole, my arms feel just fine. I figure the soreness and strain might not kick in until the next level, so I enroll in The Girl Spot’s five-week Pole Basics course. I am feeling hopeful about this session. I will be $120 poorer afterward, but five sessions closer to entering the Olympics.
On the drive to my second session at The Girl Spot, I contemplate the concept of empowerment. To me, there are few things more empowering than sending a boy swerving into the ice with a well-placed hip check. Being able to keep up with the boys has always been important to me. That’s empowerment: winning at freeze tag, sprinting the fastest in PE, being the only girl playing touch football at recess. In third grade, when all the girls started piercing their ears, I swore a personal oath that I’d never follow suit, and despite my friends’ exasperation, I’ve kept it.
It has always seemed to me that societal constructs and expectations of femininity stand in opposition to real female empowerment. In fact, it sometimes seems that femininity itself stands in the way of female empowerment. I think that eight-year-old me wrote all of this down somewhere in my third grade diary.
As I pull into the parking lot, a girl and her dad are walking out of Triple Play, an indoor softball and baseball facility right below The Girl Spot. The girl’s softball helmet still sits on her head and she balances a bat over her shoulder. Cool and confident, she looks like she owns a little chunk of the world.
My second class I am with two single women in their forties. Nikki is slim and black, with ~Nikki~ tattooed on her upper left arm. She has gold fingernails, red toenails, and long but convincing fake lashes. Jacqui has a blonde ponytail and is reasonably fit, though getting wrinkly in places she’d rather not admit. The two of them heard of The Girl Spot from flyers and friends.
We sit in the small lounge area as they slip off their shoes and jackets. I ask them about pole.
“This class gives me a whole new respect for strippers who get up on that pole,” says Nikki.
“You don’t even have to do it for someone else. It doesn’t have to be slutty,” says Jacqui. She pauses. “And the nice thing about it, there’s no guys watching. ‘Cause you know, I don’t have a ‘sexy walk.’”
“I don’t have that whole sexiness,” adds Nikki.
“Me neither! There’s nothing sexy about me!” Jacqui exclaims. I ask them what their friends think about the class.
“They think it sounds fun!” says Nikki.
“My friends said it was salty,” Jacqui mutters.
“What do you mean, salty?” asks Nikki.
“You know… slutty,” says Jacqui.
“There’s nothing wrong with that!” Nikki replies. Jacqui doesn’t respond.
Moving to the poles, we go through the warm-up then shift to pole squats. I squat down and squeeze the pole into the squishy spot behind my knees. Were I to execute the move perfectly, I’d be able to hold myself aloft on the pole by squeezing my legs and flexing my muscles. But I can’t stay up without hanging onto the metal with my arms, and my legs quiver uncontrollably as I wait for Gabby to finish counting out each beat. We do the Flirty Fireman and Ankle Attitude, then a spin called the Back-hook, which involves rotating backwards around the pole in a horribly uncomfortable position. Finally, after completing the day’s moves, our instructor Gabby incorporates them into a simple routine, dims the lights, and puts on sultrier music. We are told to be creative, play around, experiment. The speakers begin to ooze a breathy R&B melody. “Hey girl, show off your bidness… Hey ma, where yo man at…,” sings a male voice. I walk forward and stiffly execute the moves on each side. Then I stand still, waiting for the music to end and the overhead lights to come back on.
“It’s about being comfortable in your own skin — and that is about embracing your sexuality and your femininity or embracing your strength and your badass-ness,” says Ellen, another instructor, as a few of us wait for the second Pole Basics class to start. Her lithe body is relaxed, and blonde-gray hair curls down her back. “Pole dancing is both — and there aren’t that many things that are like that.” I suppose Ellen is right. But what do terms like “sexuality” and “femininity” even mean? I realize that I’d been allowing Ellen, Judy, and the whole idea underlying The Girl Spot to define these concepts for me, subtly convincing me that strength and sexuality are a tandem unit. I wondered, is each woman’s empowerment really just her affair alone? It seems that these days, the way some women choose to empower themselves affects the way the rest of us are perceived. I’d looked up a recent article that, according to Judy, had caused severe disgruntlement in the pole community. Published by Goal Saedi, Ph.D., on Psychology Today’s website, the article stated, “It’s unlikely that pole dancing will ever be reclaimed as a sign of women’s strength and empowerment… It objectifies women’s bodies and was historically set up for the satisfaction and pleasure of men.”
I decide to talk to Goal later that week. She’s never actually taken a pole class, and when I get her on the phone, she softens her tone, admitting that the problem lies largely in the activity’s automatic associations. If there were a way for pole to distinguish itself completely, that would be different, Goal says. For example, even changing the name from “pole dancing” to “vertical bar” would allow athletes to claim the activity as their own.
After our conversation, I reread a comment on Goal’s article posted by “paintidlady” that reflects on the female ability to be “extremely sensual, sexual, erotic, sexy, provocative.” The commenter writes: “To be ashamed of these things is to lose out on the power, strength, and gifts of life you have been born with but refuse to experience or try out because you are ashamed. Do you want to be like a man?”
Wait a minute — no. That isn’t what I want. To my repeated frustration, I am attracted to men, but I don’t want to be one of them. But then, what do I want? Have my rejections of jewelry and makeup and my lifelong competitiveness in both athletics and academics been just that — attempts to be more like a man?
No. I don’t want to be more like a man — instead, I want to be as free, and strong, and witty, and valued, and alive as a man. I don’t ever want to be “Lady Hissy Paws.” Millions of women across the world are denied the right to drive, or travel, or vote, or choose who they marry, or go to school, or own property, or expose their legs or shoulders or faces in public. For them, I want women to be treated like men. If I can put myself on the same level as men, maybe they will raise all women to that level, or at least afford them the opportunity to raise themselves. In the meantime, if equality isn’t given, then it must be earned. Being “sexy” just never seemed like the best way to earn it.
My fourth time at The Girl Spot, I learn my hardest move yet: the pole sit. I use my arms to lift myself about four feet off the ground, the pole wedged between my legs. I clumsily cross my right leg over my left and lean my upper body slowly to the left, shifting my arms and chest in front of the pole, until finally, I am sitting. Look, ma, no hands.
My reflection in the mirror exudes ease and grace, but my inner thighs are screaming. I drop down, but hop back up, trying the move using the other leg. Class ends, but I ask Judy if I can keep practicing a little longer. When my skin is too chafed and raw to try any more pole sits, I flip through the PFA flash cards and see, in the beginner section, a woman holding herself off the ground, parallel to the pole, one arm gripping low and the other above her head. Using the physics of “push-pull” (pull with the upper arm, push with the lower) she keeps herself aloft.
I wander back to a pole and give it a try. And another. And another. My arms fail me. Gabby suggests I try shifting my grip. This time, I lift myself off the ground for a split second. The next time, for a half-second. I can’t hold myself steady, but I know that, if I try hard enough, I could at least hold myself up. It’s just a baby step, but right then, it felt pretty badass. None of that dimmed lights, breathy music bullshit.
As the classes at The Girl Spot progress, the moves increase in difficulty, leaving me with visible bruises and soreness in the days following the lessons. The space begins to resemble less of a pole dance studio and more of a jungle gym— after class, Judy, Gabby, and the rest of us become a bunch of overgrown children, hanging and flipping ourselves upside down, seeing what our bodies can do.
I realize that, when I first began, I convinced myself that I was drawn to pole only for the physical challenge. But what actually attracted me to the Girl Spot were the illicit and archaic ideas of sexuality embedded in the language and movement that hovers around pole. A tomboy and an athlete, I’d been a total sucker for the “sexy” shtick even while calling it all into question. I’d never ventured into a “sexy” state of mind before, and, once I finally did, I discovered a place that turned out to be confining in its definitions of “sexy” and “feminine.” I ventured back out of that place, and eventually, I ventured back out of The Girl Spot, back to the soccer fields and swimming pools, and a few months later, to a marathon finish line. Hobbling those last few feet after running for four consecutive hours in windy drizzle made me feel sexier than I’d ever felt on one of those poles.
I suppose if I had to define empowerment, I would define it as attainment. The attainment of knowledge, of experiences, of equanimity. The attainment of physical strength — whether in the ability to spin upside down from a pole or send a lacrosse ball into the back of the net. The attainment of confidence and compassion and self-worth. The attainment of equality.
I want to see pole as a pure and simple activity. No frills, no sass. No stripping. No subordination of women to men, whether conscious or implied. I don’t think pole should be about helping women find their “inner sexy,” but rather their inner strength — an opportunity for women to realize their physical potential, push their own boundaries, and raise themselves off the ground. I’m not convinced that studios like The Girl Spot are the best places for this, but I suppose that for some, they’re a place to start. Once women can raise themselves up in the seclusion of that windowless room, then I hope they’ll realize they can do so elsewhere — on street posts, on subways, in living rooms — no matter who is watching.