Jennifer Lopez’s mesmerizing pole dance in the first few minutes of the hit movie Hustlers does as much to solidify her character — Ramona, the ringleader of a band of thieving strippers — as her dialogue. A hypnotic cocktail of sex and power, she dances, appropriately enough, to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and displays not just why Ramona’s so good at separating men from their money — but how she seduced her peers into joining her scheme.
How does a dance do all that? Enter pole choreographer (and Cirque du Soleil aerialist) Johanna Sapakie, who trained Lopez for nearly six months to get her strip-club ready. “It was really important to Jennifer, myself, the director [Lorene Scafaria], and the whole team that Jennifer was able to sell her character being an absolute master at this skill set,” says Sapakie, who has also put Miley Cyrus and Madonna through their paces. “Her focus was on the end game, which was ‘I need to look like I could legitimately do this.’”
Here’s how the star pulled it off.
She had stripper poles at the ready so she could practice anytime (and anywhere) she wanted. “She’s Jennifer Lopez, so she’s a very busy woman,” says Sapakie, who racked up frequent flier miles while coaching her star student. “We ended up having portable poles set up in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York, so whatever city she was in, if she had a moment to train, we would fly out there and be available to her.”
She wasn’t afraid to get hurt. “We affectionately call them pole kisses,” says Sapakie of the painful bumps and bruises dancers get in the line of duty. “They’re a casualty of the practice. But she doesn’t shy away from what it takes to get it done. There were definitely times when her arms and legs were sore but she pushed through.”
She was a quick study. “The things she was doing by the end of the training period [about three months], [other] people spend a year working on,” says Sapakie. “Jennifer’s a perfectionist in the best sense of the word. When she wants to execute something, she’ll work on it until she gets it and that allows her to progress very quickly. When she’s got a goal in mind, nothing’s going to stop her.”
She turned her world upside down. Lopez may have been a dancer for most of her life, but the stripper moves she found most difficult were the inverted ones. “Being upside down can be very disorienting because you lose a sense of where you are in space,” says Sapakie. “And it’s something that you’re being exclusively supported by your upper body. So we made sure she felt really comfortable so that she could maintain her character and not have anxiety about that kind of movement.”
She was, well, Jennifer Lopez. “The electricity in the room when Jennifer was performing the main pole-dancing scene was unfathomable — it was off the charts,” says Sapakie. “Everybody was so infatuated with what she was doing because she commands your attention and she fully embodies the character in a way that you completely forget that she’s new at what she’s doing. You completely believe that she’s been doing it all her life.”
To see some of Lopez’s training, those “pole kisses,” and that electricity Sapakie is talking about, click here to watch a behind the scenes video.