It’s a warm May night. I’m parked on a South Philadelphia residential street with all of the windows down. I’m trying to take deep belly breaths as I listen to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Hoping to breathe in some of her confidence like the Hocus Pocus witches breathe in youth. And breathe out some of these nerves.
With only 8 minutes to go, I force myself out of the car and towards the studio. There’s no one going in when I arrive, so no one’s wake I can follow in.
I tentatively open the door to a dark stairway. If it wasn’t accompanied with a booming soundtrack, I would have figured I was in the wrong place. I start to climb the stairs, ascending into the raucous darkness.
When my eye line gets level with the floor, I can see I’m walking right into the dance space. And there are several people moving in the most sensuous ways I have ever seen people move. Instinctually, I descend a couple stairs, embarrassed that I’m intruding.
It’s getting close to time, though, so I pop my head back up and thankfully make eye contact with my friend on the sideline. The one whose fault it is that I’m here. She enthusiastically waves me over to sit with her.
We watch as the previous class — Erotic Dance — wraps up. Then all of the lights are turned on, and I can see everything. About 2,000 square feet. Three rows of silver poles. An entire wall of mirror. And that’s when I hear a voice bellow:
“If you’re here for Intro, make sure you sign in on the iPad. We’re getting started in one minute!”
My friend lets me choose a pole (one in the back and close to the door) for us to share. I laugh nervously and crack jokes. I ask if the yoga shorts I’m wearing will work, as I didn’t own any “booty shorts.” She assures me that I’ll be great.
Class begins with a vigorous warm-up, like you’d find in most exercise classes. I start to wonder if I’m going to be able to make it through the next hour because most exercise classes are torture for me.
But a couple minutes into the warm-up, during a push-up/downdog drill, the instructor yells:
“LEAD WITH YOUR NIPPLES”
…and I know this won’t be like anything I’ve ever done before.
Be present or die.
I’ve found a new kind of peace in pole dance.
When people think about mindful movement, their first thoughts turn to yoga. Tai chi. Walking meditation. Thoughts of slow, deep breathing. Calm. Relaxation. Quiet.
And I’ve engaged in that kind of movement. Fuck! I’ve even taught it. For years, yoga was my main form of movement, helping me break free from an eating disorder, get through my divorce, and finally feel at home in my body.
But I’ve found a new kind of peace in pole dance.
When I first came to the sport, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard of pole dancing for fun (mostly via Carmen Electra) and assumed it was a lot of hairography and #sexyposes around the pole.
Similar to when I first came to yoga, I was mostly preoccupied by how my body would look. Afraid that I’d have to expose my belly. Afraid that my body would prohibit me from doing certain things. That I’d be relegated to Other in some way.
After that first class, I was beaten, bruised, and bushed. But I was also buzzing.
I started coming to any of the Intro/Level 1 classes I could. Something made me want to go through it all again and again.
Sure, I was getting physically stronger (literally empowering). I was also visibly improving. But it was more than just that.
I found there’s a lot that to pay attention to. You have to make sure the pole is a correct temperature so that your body will create enough friction against it to stick. You have to make sure that your hands are placed the correct way. You have to make sure that you’re activating the correct sections of your body. And above all, you have to make sure your fucking toes are pointed.
If one of these things isn’t just right (okay, maybe other than the toes), the consequence can be real. People get serious injuries from pole dance. Beyond the regular injuries from overexertion or moving in a wrong way. Because, in pole, you are consistently working to stay in the air and not fall from a 10' metal rod.
What I’m getting at is that it’s pretty fucking hard for your mind to be anywhere else other than where you are.
Sure, after some intentional practice, muscle memory begins to kick in. Certain actions become more automatic. But there is almost always some intentional focus needed in order to be successful. And in order to not fall to your (not literal) death.
Letting go is the hardest part.
As I’ve progressed, I’ve found that probably the scariest thing in pole (for me) is letting go of my hands. First-timers often have to overcome their Beginner’s Grip, because they end up holding onto the pole too tightly to be able to move smoothly in a spin, for instance.
Psychologically, we humans tend to trust our hands for holding onto things, right? Like, if someone comes up to you and asks you to hold something, we do so with our hands and/or arms. They’re our holder-uppers.
We don’t feel as in control when we’re relying on our legs because, well, they’re our stander-uppers. But in pole, literally anything can become a holder-upper. It’s the (main) reason why pole dancers wear so little clothing, so their skin can be used to hold onto the pole.
There’s this one move where you not only have to trust that your legs will keep you from falling, but you also have to lean back away from the pole. Losing sight of what’s keeping you from falling. Essentially doing a trust fall… with yourself.
It’s called a layback:
Technically, it’s not a very difficult move. You squeeze your thighs together as tight as possible, gripping the pole between, and lean backwards.
Mentally? That’s another story. Because… well, I mean. Just look at that photo again.
Now, I know how to do this. I’ve learned it several times in class. I’ve executed it. I’ve done it with someone spotting me and not. With a “crash pad” and nothing but the floor beneath me.
And I’ve found that unless I can coax myself into a state of calm confidence, a fight breaks out in my head.
Your legs aren’t gonna hold you up. You’re going to fall. You’re gonna start to slip. You’re too weak. You can’t hold yourself up. You’re going to fall and hurt yourself.
And as soon as it’s unleashed, it’s hard to stop. It snowballs. And the mental doubt translates into physical doubt. And the grip becomes less sure. And maybe I physically fumble, causing myself to be even less sure. And I have to abort.
How often does that happen in the “real world”? Say you’ve got a big presentation, interview, date, and you psych yourself out. And it doesn’t go as well as it could have. Because you were in your head. You were elsewhere.
But pole demands you to be aware. To be present. To be mindful. To be confident.
To know your body — how it moves, how it works, how it behaves. To work with your body to create strength. To create elegance. To defy gravity.
And the more you practice, the stronger your self-confidence becomes.
Acceptance is key.
Another element of pole — that shouldn’t be as surprising as it was to me — is how much physical pain is involved.
As I’ve mentioned, the only way you’re staying on that pole is by utilising friction. Skin friction.
Now, a lot of the times, muscles are also doing a significant amount to help hold you up. But then there are poses like The Teddy where you’re basically being held up by the sensitive flesh on the inside of your upper arm:
In these situations, pain is inevitable.
Again, technically speaking, it’s not that difficult of a pose. But people tend to bail because of the pain. It starts to hurt, and they think that they can’t handle it. That it’s too much. That it’s impossible to do.
I was (sometimes still am) one of those people.
It’s taken practice (and a lot of mopping up sweat) to feel and understand the pain. To ease into the pain. To accept the pain. And ultimately, with the acceptance, there ends up being LESS pain.
There are few things more powerful than doing something you thought was once impossible to do. Out of your reach. Never meant to be. Especially when you’re able to accomplish that thing by getting to know the pain, accepting the pain, even welcoming the pain.
And typically in life, that’s what we struggle with accepting, isn’t it? The painful shit that feels like it’s going to crush us in one blow.
I am almost seldom without bruises on my body now. And I love it. They’re little reminders that I’m durable. I’m resilient. That I work through pain to blossom into something new, whether that’s a new posture on the pole or a new chapter in my life.
Share the journey.
Unlike yoga or tai chi, pole dance is performative. Which, in the past, might have made me think less of the sport. Made me think that it’s more about others than myself. That it’s more about how you look and how you make others feel.
And it can be that.
But. Performative also means expressive. With this mindful movement, you can communicate. You can be elegant. You can be sexual. You can be vulnerable. However you’re feeling, however you’re looking, you can share that with others. If you record yourself, you can also share that with yourself. Allowing yourself to be a step removed to not only see how you can improve but also see what your body is communicating that you might not be as conscious of in the moment.
In the almost two years since my first class, I have been kinda off/on with getting to the studio. Sometimes I get self-conscious that I should be further along in my progress than I am currently. Especially comparing myself to some die-hards who go every day.
And that’s when I remember a lesson I first learned in yoga. It’s not about comparing but existing in your own journey. In your own progress. Delighting in successes and learning from missteps. Your experience/body/abilities will inevitably be different from every other person’s, so there’s no use in getting down on yourself because of what someone else is doing.
So whenever I come to the pole, I’m going to continue practicing being present, letting go, and accepting…
and pointing my motherfucking toes!