Annie Yan

Overshadowed by Sally’s Apizza and Wooster Square Farmers’s Market, New Haven’s Polefly Aerial Studio LLC is a concealed building on a dead-end road. Its waiting room offers gentle comfort on all sides: a tea and coffee station, a community board advertising small businesses and Instagram accounts and signs that say “GO WITH THE FLOW” and “May all who enter as ​guests​, leave as ​friends​.” On a Thursday night, I sit in this room and patiently wait for the instructor of the previous class to finish up. Minutes later, a woman, who is black and short like me, enters. She is wearing a strappy black jumpsuit with sensually-placed holes and black Converse stilettos. She’s a jarring contrast to the waiting room’s props of reassurance, and her sexy outfit is a jarring contrast to my layered one. It doesn’t help that she is glaring at me, the unfamiliar face. I tell her that I am looking for the “Exotic Pole” instructor named Mel.

“That’s me,” she says.

One of Mel’s students would later describe her as “the best show in New Haven.”

*

The next time I see Mel it’s a Saturday afternoon at Polefly. Saturdays are for her Polefit class — exercise disguised as pole fitness. Tuesdays for Intro to Pole, and Thursdays for Exotic Pole. The studio has a wooden floor, about a dozen poles, ballet barres, hooks in the ceiling for aerial silks, roller mats, exercise balls, flexibility bands, plants, speakers, a section for heels in an assortment of sizes and styles (from strappy to stabby), knee pads, yoga blocks and clean socks.

The studio’s most inescapable feature is the floor-to-ceiling mirror covering the wall at the front of the class. If you have low self esteem or hate the look of your sweaty body contorting itself into being sexy, the mirror can be hostile. If you are sexy or unabashed or Mel, it serves as a silent ally. Mel stands before this mirror when she tosses her black NYC hoodie and pants to the side, leaving only a black shirt, pink knee-socks with rainbows at the top and yellow underwear. (Not the cautious yellow of a stop sign, but the yellow of the Sun: you know you shouldn’t stare too long at it, but you will anyway.) She is also wearing hoops. (A note from the FAQ & Policies section of Polefly’s website basically screams in your face: “Absolutely NO JEWELRY and NO LOTION!!! It ruins the aerial equipment and is a safety hazard. There are no EXCEPTIONS.”) Without her layers, it’s easier to see that she is ripped; her abdomen is just shy of a six-pack. She has biceps, useful for pulling herself up a static pole, and quadriceps, useful for abandoning those biceps and hanging on with just her thighs.

Like any standard fitness class, Polefit begins with simple stretches. Next, the students lie on the ground and begin exercises like scissors kicks while making sure to keep their legs “nice and low” on Mel’s instruction. Class conversation transitions from chiropractors (Mel is anti) to acupuncture (Mel is pro) to CP time to hippie dudes to Vermont. Mel calls out from time to time — “How are we feeling?” and “What do we like working with better?” Her tone lacks the superficial enthusiasm of a workout tape. At times, distracted by tangents, she claims to lose count of repetitions so that her students have to start again from the beginning. She takes in the playfully-exaggerated yet fatigued groans with a smile. She is the mischievous pixie assigned the role of drill sergeant. Her voice raspy and firm:

“No break!”

“Lift that ass up off the floor!” (“Huh?” says a student.) “HIGHER!”

“You have to squeeze the fuck out of your glutes, guys!”

“Is anyone dressing up for Halloween?”

At one point Mel becomes engrossed by her own playlist, moving her hips to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.” She stares at her reflection and watches her careful choreography with a stern, sexy face. Mel’s role as instructor is hands-on only when necessary. She functions more as a coach watching from the sidelines; she knows exactly what a student is doing incorrectly, and yells out advice. She’ll mostly call out a student who doesn’t trust herself. Her criticism is tough and unwavering, but when a student succeeds, her pride is evident. A high-five is the usual reward.

In one of the class tangents, Mel mentions Mischief Night — October 30th — the night when children and teenagers engage in slight vandalism as a pre-Halloween “fuck you.” Mischief Night is our shared birthday, Mel’s 35th and my 20th in 2019. (When Mel discovers this, she pauses class to give me a high-five.) While her students work on the Brass Monkey, a move in which the upside-down dancer has her legs hooked around the pole and her arms holding tightly to the base so as to remain vertical, Mel tells the story of egging the home of neighbors who accused her of killing their dog — a dog Mel says was mistreated. The neighbors retaliated by paintballing her car. Mel recalls thinking the paintballs were gunshots and ducking in fear. When she called the police, the paintballers were deemed responsible for the damages to her car.

“You can’t just retaliate a month later!” she says during her retelling. “That was Mischief Night! This is just a regular day.”

At the end of class, it is just me, Mel, and another student who is still practicing the Brass Monkey. After Mel’s class, Polefly usually hosts Open Studio so students of different disciplines can practice. Polefly offers aerials silks, barre, chair dance, flexibility and lyra (aerial hoop) in addition to pole. Mel says she has mastered the front split but is still working on the middle split. She brings out flexibility bands for herself and the student and offers me one.

“Are you flexible?” she asks.

“Yeah, I think so,” I say. This was the wrong answer.

Mel hands me a heavy-resistance flexibility band and instructs me to sit down and wrap the band around my knees and my feet. It is hard and I feel like a pretzel. It doesn’t help that I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt over a long-sleeve shirt. I begin to overheat. She instructs me to adjust so my legs are pressed against the mirror. I do not take the bands off, fearful that once I do, I will not be able to get them back on. Instead, I shimmy up to the mirror with my legs in mid-air in front of my face. Even worse, now I have to look at myself in the mirror. The entire experience is dull pain, but I put up with it to appear tough beside Mel, who is not even breaking a sweat.When it’s time to clear the studio I free myself from the pretzel and lie.

“I’ve never tried that before. That was great,” I say of the demonic flexibility bands. I hope that my first time actually facing the pole will be nothing like this.

*

Some eight hundred years ago in the state of Maharashtra, Indian men faced similar poles while practicing a sport named Mallakhamb. The name comes from the Sanskrit word “malla,” meaning wrestler, and the Hindi word “khamb,” meaning pole. A search for Mallakhamb on Youtube leads to a video of two modern-day players in warm-toned underwear performing running starts towards a wooden pole. They jump on, wrapping their incredibly bulky thigh and shifting their bodies in a whirlwind of limbs. In this particular video, the peak of the pole is skinnier than the rest, giving it the look of a circumcised penis. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 35 Mallakhamb players presented the sport at an International Olympics Committee gala, the first step to potentially making it an official Olympic event. The athletes were awarded honorary Olympic medals by an impressed Adolf Hitler.

Chinese Pole, a sport in which an athlete jumps from one vertical nine-to-30 feet steel pole to another while performing flips and other tricks, arrived around the same time as Mallakhamb. In the 19th century, worlds collided when Chinese pole athletes performed alongside exotic dancers in traveling roadside circus shows. These “Little Egypt” dancing shows would feature Middle Eastern women performing “Kouta-Kouta,” also known as “danse du ventre” (French for stomach dance) or “mussel dance” (from “Musselman, a term for a Muslim Person”), eventually known as the “Hoochie-Coochie” or the “Coochie-Coochie.” The exotic dance was popularized through performances at Paris’s World’s Fair in 1889 and spread in America through Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. The dancers’ sensual movements of the belly and hips eventually introduced pole dancing by gyrating on the circus’ wooden tent poles.

From there, pole dancing moved from the streets to bars and clubs for burlesque and striptease shows. Strip clubs were introduced to the adult entertainment world in the 1950s, and by the ’60s and ’70s nearly all strip clubs had introduced pole. Mugwumps Strip Joint in Oregon is the earliest recorded strip club to host a strip tease with a pole; the event, hosted in 1968, featured someone named “Miss Belle Jangles.” The first recorded pole dance instructor is Fawnia Mondey, a Canadian woman, who opened her own studio in 1994. Since then, studios like Polefly have sprung up around the world. There is even a United States Pole Federation founded in 2014 and accredited under US law as a non-profit and non-governmental national organization with a goal to make Pole an Olympic sport. The US National Competitions are Pole Sport, with amateur and elite divisions, Pole Art, “to show [pole dancers’] artistic and creative abilities,” and Pole Classique “to showcase the sensual side of pole.” (The website emphasizes, however, that Pole Classique is “not a venue for raw sexuality.”)

The biggest controversy in pole seems to be the division between those who use pole for sex work versus those who use it for exercise. In 2016, the hashtag #NotAStripper arose when students of pole fitness and pole dancing classes felt the need to separate their intentions from pole dancing sex workers. While the hashtag worked to ward off the perverted assumptions and solicitations of horny men, it was offensive to sex workers who felt that it was another way to dismiss and exclude them. Some sex workers found it comically ironic. As one tweet by @spicystripper puts it: “we get paid nice to be real strippers while y’all are spending 100’s of $ to go out and act like one.”

Nowadays, pole is just as recognizable for its recreation use as for its fitness value. Pole dancing has been showcased by celebrities from Madonna to FKA Twigs, with the latter’s recent music video for “Cellophane” showcasing her pole dancing in glass stilettos. She would later recreate this dance for a live performance on ​The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.​ Despite the differences between pole for recreation or fitness and pole for sex work, the demands of a pole dancer are the same: core strength, years of practice, bare skin, possible calluses and muscle pains. A key similarity is the way pole (sexually and/or generally) empowers people of different genders, sexualities, races, beliefs and backgrounds — all of whom are welcomed at Polefly.

*

Jessica Lynn, owner of Polefly and Mel’s original teacher, does not feel sexually or generally empowered on the pole. Jessica opened the studio in 2014, after her pole videos started getting lots of attention on Instagram. She designed her studio so that people could take classes at whatever level they saw fit. (For example, you can take Intro to Pole as many times as you want before going to Pole Fundamentals.) In her own classes she encourages students to laugh at themselves and keep their guards down, using relatable terms like “pretend you have to go to the bathroom and sit on a toilet” to explain different positions. Feeling sexy is not even close to a goal. She cringes at sayings within the pole community such as “My Heels Are Bigger Than Your Dick.” Jessica recalls that Mel, dizzy from pole spins, had to sit out during her first class. She thought Mel wouldn’t return. Instead, she ended up training Mel to become a pole instructor. She says that being sexy on a pole is more Mel’s style.

*

A pre-Halloween post from Mel’s Instagram (@polewithmel) reads, “Can you tell I’m a bad black cat!!” with the hashtags #lovewhatyoudo, #kitty, #glutes, #legs and #halloween. The video opens with Mel turned away from the camera, wearing knee-high black boots and revealing black thong underwear matched with a spaghetti-strap black bikini. She turns around to reveal cat ears, black slicked back hair, a tail and the (notorious) gold hoops. She adjusts her underwear and cat ears, rotating her hips before lifting her leg parallel to the pole at an almost perfect 180 degrees. Mel, who is undeniably sexy, says she enjoys being physical while being able to be sensual.

Born and raised Melissa Phillips in the New Haven community of Newhallville, Mel is the youngest of her mother’s seven children. (She has two half-siblings from her father.) She explains that being the youngest made her spoiled, and she didn’t deal with rejection well, becoming skilled in manipulation. She describes herself as a “troubled teen,” and from the ages of 13 through 16 she spent time in and out of residential homes, group homes and detention centers at the request of her mother, who wanted to keep a rebellious teenager occupied and off the streets. When she was 13 and living in a group home, Mel got a tattoo from another resident who used the string of a Walkman and a needle. The tattoo was supposed to bring good luck, but later in life at a nail salon she learned that it translated to “come here.” At the age of 16 she realized her actions were self-destructive and started going to therapy.

“There’s a big difference between detention and Niantic,” she says, referencing the now-closed women’s prison named Niantic Annex of the York Correctional Institution.

Since high school, she has worked as a housekeeper at Yale-New Haven Hospital (“hated that”), a bartender, and a hairdresser. Looking for something to do, she discovered pole with a friend Kourtney, who is now also a Polefly instructor. Around that time, Mel’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died nine months later.

Two of Mel’s tattoos are in honor of her mother. One is a caduceus that becomes a green ribbon for liver cancer awareness, reading “fuck cancer.” The other is a yellow rose, her mother’s favorite flower. Now Mel is a mother herself, legally responsible for her mentally ill sister’s four children who were her mother’s responsibility before she passed. The youngest are 16 and 17. Mel says she never had plans to be a parent; a dog and a cat were enough. Parenting was a role she says she was scared to fail at, so much so that she took parenting lessons. This all from a woman who has played with fire, skydived and organized an event called “Skate and Clean New Haven” in which roller skaters clear litter from the streets.

It’s this same spirit of trial and error that is evident in Mel’s pole journey. She likes pole’s form, pointing out that she can keep her feet on the floor or lift off and become aerial whenever she wishes. As an artist, she admires the blank canvas and the ability to “create shapes and lines with her body.” She says that only an injury that removed both her arms and her legs or death could stop her from performing pole, and if they were removed, she would still want to be involved by creating a community space for burlesque and pole shows. The community aspect of Polefly surprised Mel upon arrival. She met so many non-judgmental and comforting people, women especially, who she claims made her more socially adept. She sky-dived because of a woman she met at Polefly.

“When I came in just … the spinning the lifting myself … it was a playground,” she says. “I came here and had a playdate with adult woman.”

And despite a rough first day, Mel returned. Pole dancing became less of a hobby, more of a therapy.

“I felt like I was awkward, but pole, it like excites parts of you that you didn’t know were there,” Mel said.

*

I was feeling awkward, bloated, and not sexy on my way to Mel’s Intro to Pole Class. I signed up for the night before our shared birthday, Mischief Night Eve, as a personal gift to usher in my twenties. I met my first fellow student in the waiting room, a woman who worked at the Peabody Museum and had taken other classes at Polefly. (Clearly, competition). A few minutes later, a girl gang of college students, the rest of our class and evident first-timers, entered and huddle by the door. (Less competition, more a source of jealousy due to strength-in-numbers.)

Right before class I sneak away to the bathroom to take a good look at myself. It could be worse. I am wearing a stained Jamaica t-shirt, bike shorts, crew socks and my hair sits like a bush on top of my head. I decide last minute to tie the bottom of the shirt so some of my pudgy stomach is out as a way to increase my sexiness score. I scurry out of the room with everything in place.

At the front of the class Mel dons camouflage green BOOTY CAMP shorts to match her military costume; a cupcake and a bottle of champagne, early birthday gifts, are beside her. We begin with stretches, a pep talk on confidence and the basics: cup grip, half bracket, pirouette and dip spin. I am best at hip sways and body rolls, but especially butt-jiggling portions when Mel tells us to slam our pelvises on the floor and watch the results. Already having mastered the butt jiggle, I have time to focus on my personal enemy for the night, a move called the “back hook spin,” where you turn behind yourself, lifting your leading foot, positioning it so that one foot will meet the other and your legs hook around the pole. When done correctly, your body slowly (and sensually if that’s what you intend) descends to the floor. After much trial and error, Mel suggests knee pads which I refuse, fearful that will render me unsexy. She throws them at me anyway.

I make many faux pas during our class. When Mel teaches a move in which the front leg hooks around the pole, leading to a slow descent on to the floor, she says beforehand that we should trust her. I see the other students slide down and reach the ground out of the corner of my eye. I am still standing.

“Why you didn’t trust me?” Mel asks, looking up at me from the floor.

Later, I am hyped to complete a similar move, and descend so abruptly that my body makes a legitimate thud on the ground.

“The fuck was that?” Mel says between laughter.

My ever-sweaty hands prevent me from maintaining a firm grip of the pole and I end up sliding more than I would like. I try not to look into the mirror. Several times in the class I mentally affirm: I am going to make this pole my bitch.

At one point, Mel’s champagne bottle — a birthday gift from a friend — rebels and pops. Everyone is confused, and then laughs, encouraging Mel to drink. Later, Mel is instructing us to practice rotating our hips while on our knees. When several students do not complete the task to Mel’s liking she asks: “Do you guys have sex?” and when no one replies she says, “You probably just lay there.” She insists on gyrating during sex for the sake of female pleasure. No one objects. When I complete my first “back hook spin,” I am exhilarated and satisfied. One step closer on the long road to being sexy. Mel, who coached me all the way through, gives me a high-five and a smile. Her advice was simple: keep your hand higher up, and trust yourself.

The class ends with Mel’s choreography to the song “Wet (feat. Saint LaRon & Polow Da Don),” which opens on a lyric offering consensual cunniligus. The song is kept on beat by a steady, uncomfortable dripping sound. While our renditions of her choreography are not as successful, Mel is in her element. She moves seamlessly from hip rotations to pirouette to grinding to spins. Her fluidity is impressive, the pole doesn’t appear as tactic when Mel’s on it, her body wrapping, gripping and flying through the air as though the pole is just another limb. We thank Mel; class is over.

When I leave that evening, I am sweaty and stinky and impressed. I exit through the carpeted hallway to the studio that has served as a temporary holding place for jackets, hats, shoes and other accessories. One black baseball cap never leaves. In unsteady white letters, it reads “I MET GOD, SHE’S BLACK.” I wonder if I could custom-make my own hat: I MET GOD, SHE’S BLACK, AND SHE TAUGHT ME HOW TO POLE DANCE.

Amanda Thomas | amanda.thomas@yale.edu