How Pole Changed My Relationship with My Body
It’s the toughest sport you’ll ever try.
"The war between the sexes is over,” Ryan Gosling’s character, Jacob, explains to Steve Carell’s Cal while doing a set of handstand push-ups. “We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” That line from Crazy Stupid Love has haunted me for a decade—at first it rattled around my mind as a minor deterrent for yes, trying pole dancing as a form of exercise, but now it’s simply a meaty reminder that ignorance breeds idiocy. Because there is one word that comes up over and over again when people—of all different body types and gender expressions—speak about pole: empowering.
I first began my pole journey a month before the pandemic started. J. Lo’s internet-shattering dance sequence to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in Hustlers had changed me on a fundamental level, but I was still hesitant to sign up for a class. I was nervous about embarrassing myself, intimidated by how much strength would be required, and generally horrified by the prospect of trying to perform ‘sexy.’ The last time I had tried that, I was in fourth grade playing Hot Box Girl #7 in Guys and Dolls—a memory that lurks in the forbidden forest part of my psyche—ready to zap me with a shot of humility at any random moment. And then, there was that smug line from Jacob’s crazy stupid mouth. I knew I respected people who pole danced, whether it was for exercise or at a strip club, but that line betrayed a real-world attitude I didn’t want to attract: People might think I was doing it solely as some desperate ploy to appeal to men. I didn’t want the misogynist to win, even if he was fictional and looked like Ryan Gosling.
Luckily, during my first class, this fear disappeared faster than Telfar bags on drop day. I finally signed up because my aunt, Mary Bui, was posting videos of her pole progress on Instagram. She had been hooked after her first class and was already doing crazy upside-down moves on a pole she had installed in her home. The only comments from my family on the matter were about how cool it was and how strong she must be. There was no judgment—not that I thought there would be—but their reaction was reassuring nevertheless. Mary told me recently that she had received comments on her pole posts complaining the content was too intimate for social media, but this only served as fuel. “It empowered me to be even more out there,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Well, I happen to be proud of it. If you don't like to look at it, you can just mute me or delete me. This is what I love to do, and so I'm going to keep doing it.’”
So, I went to my first class, dressed in booty shorts and a tank top (it’s essential for gripping the pole that you are as naked as possible, but they do have special leggings), ready to make a fool of myself. And, I did. I was awkward, ungraceful, sweaty, and had about as much sex appeal as leftover brie, but save for a few veterans in the class, I was not alone. According to one of my favorite instructors, Roz Mays, aka Roz the Diva, it is completely normal to be terrible—after your first time on the pole and after your 100th time. In fact, she specifically emphasizes, perhaps over-emphasizes, just how bad you will look as a way to make people feel comfortable. “I think it's helpful because if you don't have any reference point when you fail something for the 18th time in class, you assume something's wrong with you,” she explained. “But in reality, this shit is hard. Nobody gets this quickly.” It’s an aspect of her classes I appreciate: if I’m going to dance around a pole half-naked to slow jams, the permission to resemble something between flailing fish and upturned beetle is essential.
Despite the awkwardness, despite barely being able to climb stairs the next day, and the bruises blooming on my shins, thighs, and tops of my feet, I, too, was hooked after my first class. If the sun is my comfort zone, I was on Pluto, but we were all on Pluto together, vulnerable in our tiny outfits, looking variations of awful as we attempted a dip spin. And when one of us would do the dip spin successfully, we would all cheer. It was humbling and exhilarating and left me hungry for the next move. Both my aunt and Roz had a similar reaction to their first classes. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done with my body. Got my ass kicked,” Roz commented. She started poling in 2007 and hasn’t looked back since. “After the first class, it was a wrap; it was over. I didn't know that I wanted it to be my life, but I knew I loved it a lot.”
Next month marks Roz’s 11th year teaching and over that time, she has seen pole grow from a novel fitness trend to a full-blown organized sport with competitions governed by the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF). In 2017, the nonprofit was granted ‘observer status’ by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF)—meaning the granddaddy organization that decides what sports are legitimate temporarily recognizes pole as such until the IPSF achieves full membership. Full membership to the GAISF could lead to Olympic inclusion.
But with this push for legitimacy and the explosion of studios and classes across the country, have come growing pains within the pole community. “Pole peeps, we are pretty hardcore,” Roz explained. “You know if you go to a Star Wars convention, even if you don't know anything about Star Wars, you know those people go hard in the paint at all times. It's life. That's exactly how pole is, just more naked than Star Wars. We are obsessed.” Everyone knows that Star Wars-level devotion leads to Star Wars fan-level message board brawls. My aunt Mary sees a lot of inter-community conflict between those who want to divorce pole-as-fitness from pole’s strip club origins and those who find this push disrespectful to the strippers who pioneered the sport in the first place. She pointed to the hashtag, #notastripper, as an example. By feeling the need to so starkly differentiate themselves from strippers, the people that used the hashtag were disparaging strippers, as if paying to pole dance was somehow more virtuous than being paid to pole dance.
To me, the sensuality of pole is inherent. There is the obvious matter of its ongoing history in gentleman’s clubs, but I am referring more to the sensuality of my personal relationship to my body. Because though I may have looked like that flailing fish and upturned beetle lovechild at first, I have slowly improved, mastering the dip turn, learning to climb, and incorporating the pointed toes and elongated neck that elevate movement into dance. My body’s ability often surprises and delights me, particularly after I’ve landed a move I’ve only failed at for months prior. I will never look like J.Lo or FKA twigs in the “cellophane” video, but when I pole, self-consciousness melts away into determination, and fear of judgment is rendered irrelevant.
My aunt Mary’s experience is informed by motherhood. She first began poling after her second child was born. “Sexuality is the number one thing, know, especially after giving birth and having children,” she explained. “You become detached from yourself. Like you become a different person. Going into pole, I think I discovered something that has always been there, but I never tapped into it. I've always had confidence, but this is a different type of confidence.” Now, in the wake of her third pregnancy, she credits pole with a newfound sense of peace with her post-partum body. “I had had a hard time looking at my body because it's changed so much,” she commented of earlier pregnancies. “But this time, I actually didn't care what I looked like. I'm practicing kindness; I look at my body, I know it's going to take some time, but I know what it can do with consistency and discipline.”
You might think that confronting your exposed self attempt at gymnastic feats of strength and sexy feats of grace in wall-to-wall mirrors would simply serve to enflame insecurity in most, but according to Roz, experiences like mine and my aunt’s are very common. “Every single pole dancer I know has some kind of story like that,” she explained. “A lot of athletes do, but pole especially because it's literally such a naked-ass sport. Even if it's not a super profound my-life-has-changed moment, there's not a person who is not affected somehow with how they see their body and what it's capable of.”
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