The pole seared into my right shin as I hung four feet in the air. Sweat developed between my death-grips and the stainless steel. Hold on. Hold on. My knuckles started shivering when —
A knee shoved under my butt. My bones sang. I wrapped my left leg around and gripped the pole into my crotch. “Yup. Now twist your hips this way,” Judy said. I shifted rightward, digging my left inner thigh into the pole. It instantly started to burn.
“Now let go with your hands.”
In a breathless blur, I was contorted, one inch of inner thigh bearing the weight of my whole body. As I squeezed all my muscles together, I dimly glimpsed myself in the wall-length mirrors, my body slowly spinning like a rotisserie chicken.
“Yeah!” Judy said. I peeled off the pole and collapsed to my feet. I’d done my first pole sit. She nodded at me encouragingly, shaking her dyed-red pixie cut and lavish lashes.
Judy Jovanelly was 63. She was short and lean, and her abs bulged between her gray sports bra and blue briefs. I was 21, and my muscles wanted to crawl into bed and die. “Now, do it on the other side all by yourself,” she said.
She cheerfully turned to the four other women in class that day, who were spread out among the room’s nine twelve-foot-tall poles, climbing in and out of their pole sits like squirrels. I looked at the pole, sighed, and put up my left shin.
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I grew up doing ballet, which means I grew up punishing my body. In my earliest memories, I’m holding onto a barre, looking at myself in the wall-length mirrors, my head barely peeking above my hands. “Tailbones down!” the teacher snaps. Standing with my heels together, I squeeze my butt as hard as I can to wrench my thighs outward from each other. I’m supposed to rotate my legs like a Barbie doll so my feet make a 180 degree angle — but my hips joints aren’t flexible enough, and they stop way short. I look at them in the mirror and keep gripping, burning, getting nowhere.
I spent twelve years — over half my life — in these gray studios staring at my body in the mirror and criticizing it, looking for its inadequacies, trying to muscle them away. At any moment, I was doing a million things wrong, my reflection told me and my teachers confirmed. I’m extending my leg out to the side, willing my shin to my ear. It can be at least two inches higher. I’m arching my back with my arm above my head. My chest can be more lifted. Neck longer, tailbone lower, butt tighter and knees straighter. My peers had thin, perfect bodies and well-oiled joints. Being skinny and beautiful like them was not only my teenage-girl desire, but also my artistic duty. As time passed, I watched in horror as my body rounded out, my thighs thickened. I ate less, forced my toes to 180 degrees even though it tore my knees, and let the hatred from staring at my ugly body drive my leg a little higher.
My religious education also disciplined my body. My Chinese evangelical church taught me to treat my body as suspect and its temptations as dangerous. I was taught to cover my body and resist it and be better than it. When I was in elementary school, I got in trouble for giving my male friend a piggyback ride at church. I was supposed to give people side hugs only (boobs are treacherous). At church camp in high school, I caught a volleyball and got dress-coded because my green t-shirt showed my belly button. Over the years, I learned a theology that treated flesh as a metaphor for lust and sin. My body and what it wanted were dark forces that would lead my God-seeking soul astray.
When I got to college, I stopped doing ballet and looked for different ways of moving that weren’t about imposing external standards on my body, but instead were about following what my body wants. Last summer, I took my first heels dancing classes. Beyonce’s voice strutted our four-inch stilettos across the room and we whipped our hair in the dark. Back on campus, the low hum of Giveon’s voice filled the gray studio on Broadway, and I started swaying, weaving from side to side, tracing my hands up my torso and around my hair, grazing my neck with my fingernails. I arched my back and felt a rush through my entire body.
I wanted more. And the Instagram algorithm provided. I watched video after video of women making gorgeous shapes with their bodies on a pole, whether in their living room or in a studio. I wanted to try that. I wondered what my body could do.
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After the intro class, where we learned basic ways to hold the pole — the cup grip, the handshake grip — it was time for the real stuff. Judy started off our Beginner 1 class with a sequence of tricep and bicep pushups. Then we moved into planks and stretches. I slid into my middle splits. Judy looked at me and barked, “Tits on the floor! Knees to Jesus!” I laughed and pressed my chest and cheek against the lacquered wooden floor.
After we warmed up, we learned how to do a “peekaboo” (what it sounds like, but with your knees), a “wide slide” (sliding your back down the pole, legs spread), and a fan kick (sitting down and arcing your legs through the air).
Then, it was time to start learning the building blocks of climbing the pole. First, upper body drills: pole holds.
“Do we know what our lats are?” Judy asked the group. There was a second of silence. She shrugged off her crop top, revealing a strappy sports bra, and put her arms up in a V. She pulled her shoulder blades down, and her back erupted into a landscape of ridges. She relaxed, then did it again. “Lats!”
Following her instructions, I placed my sternum against the pole, looked at my reflection in the steel, and grabbed the pole at my hairline. I wrapped my other arm around it and pulled down my lats as hard as I could. As we repeated the motion, she explained that the pole hold is a major component of the basic pole climb, and proper placement is key. When you’re up in the air, if your arms are too high or too low, you’ll lose strength and fall.
Up next, lower body drills: pole squats. I positioned one foot in front and one foot behind the pole, held the pole with both hands, rose up on my tippy toes, gripped the pole with my “knee pocket” (the soft spot between your knees, below the bone) and squatted down. That wasn’t too bad, I thought.
Judy walked up to me and grabbed my right knee. It separated from the pole. “Uh-uh,” she said. She shouldn’t be able to do that: I wasn’t squeezing hard enough. If I were 6 feet in the air, I would’ve fallen on my ass.
“I am a technician,” she told the class. “I will beat technique ‘til it’s dead. Or you’re dead.”
Before she started pole, Judy had been dancing all her life and teaching for most of it. She started training in tap, ballet and jazz in mom-and-pop dance studios in Ansonia, Connecticut, when she was three. After college, she worked as a secretary for Georgia Pacific Corporation and spent most of her career there, all while still teaching dance classes in small studios on the side and dancing in regional theater productions. From 1988 to 1992, she worked full-time as a dancer on a cruise ship, performing “jazz adagio” with a partner who would lift, spin and toss her.
When she came back to Connecticut, she paused dancing and started a family. But soon she resumed taking classes and became a “gym rat.” One day in 2008, when she was 50, her friend stumbled across a pole dancing class for women over forty and invited Judy to come along. She went — and she loved it. It worked her muscles in a different way than the gym, and it was fun.
The studio offered only twelve weeks of introductory material. Judy and her friend advanced to the point of flipping upside down and doing a “chopper,” where your legs hover in a side split like helicopter blades. But they weren’t ready to stop. They decided to continue training themselves through YouTube videos. Her friend installed a pole on the third floor of her loft condominium. The desktop computer was on the second floor, so they’d look at a video, run upstairs, forget what they’d seen, run back down again, rewatch the video, run back up, and finally give it a try.
It got absurd. They searched for alternatives, but all the studios with more advanced classes were at least an hour’s drive away. So they decided to build their own.
They put an ad on Craigslist, found a pole dance instructor, and took the tiles out of the ceiling of a one-room studio in Trumbull. Seven months after they opened in 2010, she was watching a student who was supposed to be “advanced” go upside down and almost fall on her head. She thought to herself, why not create a structured curriculum that provided a foundation for dancing safely? This was an innovation at the time, when most aspiring pole dancers were learning from online videos, or at open-level classes.
Judy and another student, a gymnast with a degree in exercise science, built a program designed to give a solid technical foundation, so someone can then “take the movement in whatever direction makes their little heart sing.” (Did anyone ever accuse her of starting a kind of cult? I ask. No, she laughs, and in fact it inspired other regional studios to adopt their own level-based models.)
Judy started teaching too. The studio moved to a bigger space in Milford and grew to between 30 and 50 regulars, most of them women in their 20s and 30s. She loves teaching. “My favorite thing is watching them come in with Bambi legs and Bambi eyes, and then seeing them in two or three months do the most gorgeous spin or lift.”
Judy was training, competing and improving consistently, but when she turned 52, things changed. “Menopause did me dirty, girl,” she laughed. Her knee and hip were flaring up from osteoarthritis and wear and tear from her incorrect dance training (I told her my knee cartilage could relate). She gained weight. And something changed in her body chemistry—her skin no longer stuck to the chrome poles that competitions and some dance studios use.
In 2019, she had a hip replacement and a knee replacement, which gave her some mobility back. With a criticism towards her body that felt familiar to me, she went on Weight Watchers to lose weight. She started taking classes again. “The more I was able to slim down, the more positive I felt. The more positive that I felt, the more amenable I was to trying things.”
Throughout COVID, she came in twice a week with her daughter, who had become an instructor, and worked on basic elements: climbing, choppers, leg hangs, fly holds, “elbow shit.” Eventually, she got stronger than she’d ever been. She could do moves that she couldn’t before her surgeries.
When I asked her about being an older pole dancer, she rattled off the names of some famous, internationally ranked pole dancers: Greta Pontarelli, who’s 71, and Mary Caryl, who’s 68, both of whom found pole in their late 50s and have used it to reconnect with their bodies and explore their capacities.
Last December, Judy had her other hip replaced. But the surgeon used a different method (a “posterior approach”) that cut a major tendon. He’d said that most people don’t notice the difference, but she sure did. “It’s a pain in the ass. Literally.” She was in physical therapy until May and didn’t touch pole dancing at all. She’s slowly, slowly working at it now, building up an exercise regimen, including pole squats, fan kicks, hollow body holds, and L-sits. She follows what her aging, healing body needs day by day. And she plans to keep dancing until she literally can’t.
Pole opens one avenue for people to claim and display their bodies how they want. For Judy, that’s strictly non-sexual. She loves watching sexy-style pole. It looks like the dancer is “slow fucking” someone, and it’s gorgeous — “Gorgeous!” It’s just not for her.
She’s also not into the trend among other studios that she calls the “woo-woo” space — “your femininity and your psyche and your this and your that and your energies and your chakras.” The New Age-y stuff rubs her the wrong way. Instead, she’s in it strictly for the physical challenge, keeping her aging body feeling strong and in shape.
“I like to be fit, I like to exercise,” she said. “I don’t prefer to do it in a gym, I’d rather do it dancing pole. And I want to have fun. I wanna laugh. Fun, fun, fun. Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.”
But while Judy avoids “sexiness,” I crave the moments in class where I look seductively at myself sliding my asscheeks down the pole. Or when I let my Balanchine-disciplined hips grind on the floor like it’s someone’s thigh. I feel hot. I feel powerful. My belly button’s yawning, my boobs are bouncing, and if you were watching me you’d be unable to resist.
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Feminists have long been up in arms about whether sensual performance can be empowering. Some have argued that erotic dance makes women into sex objects for male pleasure, while others see erotic dancers as free agents whose sexual expression expowers them—even when they’re pleasuring men.
One thing is for certain: Pole dance in America has always had to do with race and sex. In 1893, a Syrian woman named Farida Mazar Spyropoulos performed a sensual belly dance at the Chicago World’s Fair to a song made up by the white male American theater manager — later politician — in charge of the exhibit. It was a smash. Legend has it that Mark Twain had a near-fatal heart attack watching her perform. The dance style exploded in popularity in America, and soon “Little Egypt” carnival shows were traveling around the nation, featuring “hoochie coochie” dancers — women who were Middle-Eastern, or who costumed themselves as such. They began using the wooden tent poles as a prop, gyrating and grinding on them to thrill their male audiences.
Eventually, sensual pole dancing moved from tents to bars. By the 1920s, it was featured in burlesque shows, spicing up sets of comedy and minstrelsy. Pole dancing became a mainstay at striptease clubs, where “exotic” dancers would give clients lap dances and manipulate stage poles, or sometimes even dance on tables that had poles attached to them. Today, pole dancing is a key part of many strippers’ performances.
In 1994, a Canadian stripper named Fawnia Mondey opened the first pole dance studio on record and started teaching pole dancing to non-strippers. Since then, pole studios have opened around the world, marketing pole dancing as a form of recreation and exercise, absent of sex or work. An entire pole sport competing network has also cropped up, including Pole Sport Organization and the US Pole Dance Federation, founded in 2011 and 2014 respectively. PSO’s competition categories include dramatic, entertainment, floorwork, and “exotic,” which their website says “celebrates sensual movement and concepts.” They’re evaluated on 10-point metrics like “flow and fluidity” and “quality of execution.”
The pole fitness industry has been criticized for trying to distance itself from strippers. In the 2015 #notastripper movement, pole fitness enthusiasts posted pictures of themselves dancing and argued that pole is clean exercise, not dirty sex work. There are ongoing efforts to make pole dancing an Olympic sport, continuing a logic where competition is sanitary since dancers are performing for judges instead of men’s money. At the same time, pole fitness uses the aesthetics of sexual movement, and even continues the legacy of words like “exotic,” which comes from a long history of fetishizing Middle Eastern and “far Eastern” women like me because we’re foreign. They’re still using language and metrics originally made for men.
So when I’m sexy dancing, do I feel hot because I’m conforming to men’s desire for exotic bodies? Does my body escape my Christian repression and ballet discipline only to move into another arena of being seen, constructed, and made to please? I’m not performing to men — in fact, I’m paying $20 a class to pole dance without being watched by men — but I worry that the pleasure I get from watching myself is conditioned. At the same time, sexual movement feels inherent in my body, and I just feel good. When I’m doing L-sits and pole holds, pole reduces me to flesh. It’s an opportunity not only to sensually move, but also to be reminded of the brute physicality of my body. I’m inhabiting myself, regardless of who’s watching.\
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Twice a year, the studio hosts a showcase, where all the Girl Spot dancers who are going to compete in the biannual Pole Sport Organization competition perform their routines for their friends and family. This one would be the last before Judy’s retirement. I arrived just on time and paid the $10 entrance fee. The pole room was dark and pulsing with seductive music; the 60 or so people crammed around the room’s perimeter chatted loudly over the heavy basslines. I waved at Judy and scooted up to a corner at the front, right at the feet of a couple middle-aged women and next to a dad holding his two elementary school-aged kids.
The next hour was a blur of bare limbs and ear-splitting cheering. Kat, another homegrown instructor, introduced each performer. They represented a range of bodies and backgrounds: thinner, thicker, Asian, white, Black, masculine, feminine. Some had danced all their lives, some just started months ago. As each performed, Judy watched intently from the side.
In Kerry’s performance, she climbed the stationary pole dressed as a wolf and leaned out to claw at her Little Red Riding Hood friend. At one point, she contorted her body into a knot around the pole. Holding onto one foot, she tried to grab the other foot but missed. I looked at Judy — she was leaning forward, hands clutched in front of her chest, her eyes laser focused. On Kerry’s third try, she got it. Judy fell back and clapped little rapid claps, lips forming a “woo!” as the room roared.
Judy has told me that she feels like a mother hen to the community. Her Instagram handle is @polemamact. People get married, have kids, make friends, and find their home away from home here. “I’ve been the facilitator of a lot of good shit,” she said.
The community does need literal buying in — classes are $20 to $25 each. It’s about overhead, Judy said — paying the instructors, paying for rent and maintenance. The customer base she’s targeting isn’t necessarily “a broke-ass college student,” she said, but someone with disposable income.
But for those who can afford entrance to the community (I’ve spent $80 so far), it’s beautiful. Dancing pole, I feel hot, and that feels good. Judy feels strong, and that feels good. We all acutely feel our muscles and bones, and that feels good. No matter their skill level or body type, the dancers were having fun.
Marisa went last. She started in 2018, with zero previous dance or gymnastics training, and now is at The Girls Spot’s advanced level and teaches Pole 1 and 2 classes. She started moving to the throbbing bass of “Human” by Sevdaliza. Soon, she was holding herself sideways on the pole, with one leg threaded between her arms so she was in a full split. The light caressed her slowly spinning body.
She was gorgeous.
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In my last Beginner 1 class with Judy, we finally learned the skill that all that pole conditioning had been preparing us for: the pole climb. I propped my right shin up, took a deep breath and threw my left calf around the pole, so I hung between my hands and my (tightly squeezed!) knee pocket. I dug in with my shins, and stood up so my whole body was glued to the pole, forearms pressing into my face. (“Put your hoo-hah on the pole!” Judy yelled.)
The next step was to let go of my legs and crunch my knees up like a vertical inchworm. I tensed my back and arms, willed every muscle in me to fire, went for it—and I slipped down.
I went to a plastic bin on the side, sprayed rubbing alcohol onto a paper towel, rubbed it up and down the pole to remove my sweat. I tried it again—and slipped again. One of my classmates tossed me a bottle of Dry Hands liquid chalk to smear on my hands. Judy put on a rock ballad, and we started freestyling. My hands quickly sweat through the powder and slicked the pole, and I kept trying to attack my bodily fluids with rubbing alcohol.
Near the end, I decided to give the pole climb another go. I set my shin, gripped on, stood, inchwormed up—then grabbed the pole with my feet and pushed back into the original position.
I got it.
I was holding myself five feet above the ground, the pole rock-solid between my legs and hands. My muscles were singing, and I felt triumphant. Instinctively, I looked for Judy, but she was focusing on someone else across the room. I looked at myself in the mirror, and my body looked strong and firm, perched up there like a bird. I stayed for one, two, three more burning seconds before I let go and slid back down.