In the dimly lit basement of Body & Pole, a sprawling three-level fitness studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Sam Doblick is addressing a room of pole-dancing hopefuls. Slim-hipped and barefoot, dressed in a summer-weight tank top and black briefs, the up-tempo instructor stretches his right arm up to grasp a floor-to-ceiling steel rod. “This is your lat,” he says in a safety-first tone, patting the shoulder-stabilizing muscle that hugs the rib cage. “Latissimus dorsi is its drag name.”
It is a godly hour on a humid Sunday morning, and the eight of us, all women, have our reasons for seeking out the intro-level class: in my case, to escape a ho-hum yoga rut and to get out of my head—and into some slow-rippling body rolls. After years spent in prim posture at the barre, pole dancing promises to be a reorientation by 90 degrees, not to mention a serious full-body workout. The movement technique—mesmerizing for the way it absorbs disparate dance styles, from lyrical jazz to aerial tricks—has rocked the cultural consciousness of late. Scouted via Instagram, the Providence-based pole artist Neyon brought her languid spirals to Solange’s 33-minute video for When I Get Home, the album she dropped this March. Soon after, viral footage of FKA Twigs—unfurling herself high in the air during a pole sequence for her Magdalene concert tour—flooded the internet. The British musician embodied an exquisite contradiction: tensile strength and sylphlike ethereality.
“I train like an athlete,” Twigs recently explained, describing her dedication to a practice that she took up less than two years ago to “go deeper. Rebuild. Start again” following surgery to remove painful fibroid tumors from her uterus. It’s one thing to muse on her unflinching tenacity; it’s another to watch her unleash a “jade split” before a crowd of thousands, her upside-down body hugging the pole as her legs sketch the horizon line.
Such raw athleticism is exactly why there’s a growing push to categorize pole skills as a sport. Gymnasts hurl themselves around horizontal bars; why not a vertical one? “Our Future Is Olympic,” reads the optimistic tagline for the US Pole Sports Federation, which cohosted its fifth national championships in Las Vegas last month. That goal is now closer to reality: In 2017, the Global Association of International Sports Federations granted “observer status” to pole’s worldwide governing body—a step on the path to official sport recognition. “With pole, you’re moving in three dimensions,” says Misty R. Austin, PPDPT, the Minneapolis-based physical therapist behind the city’s Performance Art Athletics, which leads injury-prevention workshops geared toward dancers and musicians. The brute strength required to maneuver the body around a stable apparatus energizes the fascial system that connects muscle to muscle, continues Austin, who notes that wringing out the obliques in this way also makes for good cross-training, whether you’re cycling, running—or catwalking. Rose Redding, a 21-year-old London-based model, has found herself reinvigorated since starting pole in January. Progress has been swift, as evidenced by her Instagram, where she has fielded inquiries from photographers, designers, and casting agents—especially women—who are intrigued by her new hobby. The attention certainly bodes well for the coming season’s runway shows, but what keeps Redding in class is the creative outlet and the “sisterhood,” she says. “Pole is very good for the mind.”
“It definitely is not just a dance, no way,” agrees Kelly Yvonne, a classically trained dancer turned pole choreographer, who has shepherded Twigs’s training regimen. At her Los Angeles pole studio The Choreography House (which will launch online courses later this year), she’s seen mental transformations, like Twigs’s, in tandem with physical ones. But for some, pole as a means of personal evolution doesn’t change its polarizing place of origin: the strip club.
The backlash against pole’s rise as a fitness modality began as early as 2004, when the national gym chain Crunch, sensing a bubbling trend, added classes to its roster. As new acolytes took notice, so did critics. “Why is this the ‘new feminism’ and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” Ariel Levy asked in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, which probed the mainstreaming of hot pants, breast implants, and, yes, pole dancing—something Levy and plenty of others deemed “a desperate stab at freewheeling eroticism in a time and place characterized by intense anxiety.”
Nearly 15 years later, there’s a different kind of anxiety in the air. I think about the idea of owning your body, your sexuality, your well-being, as I head to my third pole class in as many weeks. (I’m hooked on a once-a-week rhythm, though the $40 sessions often book up in advance.) That night, protesters are gathering downtown and across the country to decry the draconian antiabortion legislation rolling out state by state, and freedom takes on a new corporeality in the studio. My years of rigid ballet training begin to loosen in my hips, along with the attendant self-judgment. Aerial pole work requires using your skin like double-stick tape, so the room is a sea of flesh: hard biceps, shimmering cellulite, a C-section scar. Dozens of deep-seated squats set my quads on fire. Best of all, I finally access the entire landscape of my abs, from rib cage to well below navel, an unexpected perk.
“I have a lot of respect for people who do the pole,” Jennifer Lopez told Jimmy Kimmel while promoting this month’s Hustlers, set in a Manhattan strip club, with an ensemble cast that includes Constance Wu and Cardi B. Veteran Cirque du Soleil performer Johanna Sapakie trained Lopez (officially ageless at 50) for the role, helping her find a second-nature ease on the pole. But it was Jacqueline Frances, better known as Jacq the Stripper, who helped Lopez figure out how to harness the energy of a room. A comedian, author, and seasoned dancer, the statuesque Frances was something of an authenticity coach on the film’s set, ensuring that Lopez’s and Wu’s performances are as true-to-life as possible. She also makes a cameo as a happy-go-lucky stripper, “which is not a far cry from how I appear on the daily,” she jokes. Frances accedes that the lineage of pole dancing is inherently murky, as it has always lived in the shadows. “But we can’t be talking about pole fitness and empowerment if we’re not honoring the foremothers who invented it,” she says, in a convincing bid to have me meet her at Pumps—a low-key strip club in East Williamsburg that’s more a bar than one of those “oppressive hetero spaces,” she says. When I arrive, Jacq’s friend Sunny—a beguiling aerialist from Spain, with a face out of a Man Ray photograph—is on the pole, suspending herself in lithe geometries. If this is the freewheeling eroticism that Levy derided, here it is grounded in enviable skill and, above all, agency. As I slip into a taxi on the far side of midnight, I add myself to the waitlist for another Sunday class.
These top pole studios break down the basics, and much more.
BODY & POLE
115 W. 27th St.,
New York, NY 10001;
THE CHOREOGRAPHY HOUSE
13131 Sherman Way, #205,
North Hollywood, CA 91605;
145 Java St., #2R,
Brooklyn, NY 11222;
MILAN POLE DANCE STUDIO
250 NW 23rd St., #408,
Miami, FL 33127;
2216 Central Ave NE,
Minneapolis, MN 55418;
SHINE ALTERNATIVE FITNESS
6415 S Tenaya Way, Suite 100,
Las Vegas, NV 89113;
Originally Appeared on Vogue