Content warning: Restrictive eating habits
“Now let’s get acquainted with that pole.”
After completing several warm-up exercises — wide-leg squats, downward dog, plank shoulder-taps, anything to bring our heart rates up — we had arrived at the long-awaited activity, the reason we were all in that room on a dark Wednesday evening.
We were there to dance.
At the direction of our instructor, Sophia, each of the dozen people in the room approached the silver bar before them. From my position at the back right corner of the room, I had a clear view of the rest of the class, how each person neared their pole with different levels of comfort and familiarity depending on their level of experience.
Everyone had on the layers of clothing they were comfortable with: biker shorts, tank tops and sports bras were the most common pieces, mirroring my own spandex shorts and tie-up Michigan tank. The long mirror at the front of the room reflected everything I was seeing before me, giving us the chance to analyze our moves and our bodies should we dare to look.
The room was dark, especially in my corner of the studio — the black skies just beyond the wall of windows directly to my right provided little light. But there was a bright glow from the light fixture shining from the sloped ceiling at the center of the room, shining directly over the tallest pole extending up into the peak of the roof above us. It was enough to illuminate the space, the resulting shadows simply added to the alluring, thrilling atmosphere.
I wiped my pole down with a small black towel, preparing myself for the real work we were about to begin. Following Sophia’s example, I stepped to the left of the pole, stretched on the tips of my toes, and reached my right arm high above me. I grasped the metal bar and nervously, excitedly awaited our instructor’s guidance.
And then we began.
I have had a complex relationship with my body throughout my life. As a former competitive volleyball player, I constantly pushed it to its limits in terms of what athletic feats it could accomplish, how perfectly it could execute whatever movement I needed it to do.
Before settling on volleyball, I had tried my hand at nearly every sport popular in America: soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse and skating. This excitement about physical activity hasn’t wavered since entering college. I constantly seek out new athletic opportunities as I’m confident in my body’s ability to adapt and excel — and I’m proud of my dedication to honing its abilities.
As a result of my intimate relationship with my body, I’ve experienced equal amounts of frustration and insecurity. It’s a common assumption — and simply an accurate statistic — that volleyball players are generally supposed to be tall, lean and toned. Many of my teammates throughout my life have possessed these features, traits that contrast with my average height, my curvy and more muscular build. So standing next to my teammates, I always felt I was lacking.
The dichotomy of appreciation and distaste for my body for years prevented me from creating a peaceful relationship with it. My insecurities followed me to the University of Michigan, and while I outwardly owned my curves, my mind was always at war with itself, never able to decide if I was being truthful about my outward confidence or not.
Then the pandemic reared its ugly head into our lives. Where I had previously been used to intensive, daily three-hour practices, I had to decide on my own how I would remain active while attending Zoom University. I exercised every day with HIIT or strength workouts. I felt guilty for eating anything unhealthy, as though eating one cookie would completely change my physique.
But this year, my second year at the University, my mindset has shifted. I’ve been able to explore more of college life as the pandemic slowly eases, alleviating some of the mental health challenges of COVID-19. I’ve engaged more with the ways I can display my body to the level that I’m comfortable with. I’ve experimented with more revealing clothing on nights out and bared more skin during my workouts. I’ve been able to go out and attend social functions that have allowed me to get to know myself and my image.
I’ve never known the confidence I have in my body now, and it took years to arrive at this point. I still experience insecurity, as everyone does, but these dark thoughts are much rarer than they were when I was younger, comparing my physique with that of my volleyball teammates.
In college, I seek to celebrate this pride in both my body’s abilities and its appearance. I still consider myself fairly modest, but in a way that reflects my own desires and choices instead of those forced upon my mind by the perceptions of society. I still seek new ways to remain active and challenge myself with physical activity. When I learned of the pole classes offered near campus, I saw an opportunity to continue this journey into confidence, into sensuality, going against the limits set by my adolescent insecurities.
At the end of March, I was finally able to attempt this activity I had seen as a pinnacle of all of the mental and physical work I had put into my body: pole dancing. I signed up for a Level 1 class at Polarity, well-known for its prominent position above South University Avenue. Its wide wall of windows allow rowdy South U pedestrians to glimpse into the pole-studded studio, making it an unmistakable storefront as you walk by.
Standing close to the windows, I had a constant view out onto the bustling scene of South University Avenue as I made my movements. After a few exercises, I glanced outside to the street below. Sitting at Lan City Noodles, a group of three people were looking up, pointing at those of us twisting around our poles. Though the darkness made it feel like we were in our own cocoon, we were on full display. Spandex, sports bras, gyrations and all.
From the moment the class began, I was focused on my task and determined to execute every move seamlessly. With my experience in athletics, I rarely found an exercise that I couldn’t at least somewhat adjust to by the end of the practice. I was committed to my goal, so absorbed in my own determination that I didn’t even register the specific songs playing over the speakers. I remember recognizing most of the pop and hip-hop tunes, but they never stuck in my memory. I felt the bass, the rhythm, but I wasn’t listening to anything but my own body.
The metal pole felt surprisingly smooth and warm — my grip slipped the entire hour, the material becoming slick immediately after I placed my hand on it. It was probably due to my moist palms, sweaty from the warm room temperature, physical exertion or nerves, I wasn’t sure.
We cycled through several movements, instructed on each before getting time to try it out for ourselves and ask questions. Guiding us step by step, Sophia talked us through each of our four main moves — extended leg spin, fireman spin, pole pirouette, hip figure eights and a front hook. I was amazed at her ability to slow down each turn or spin, seeming to warp the laws of physics as she taught us how to approach each new movement. I was incredibly grateful for this; each time she did a fireman or a pirouette, I balked at the idea of having to replicate her effortless moves at full speed.
I was not expecting everything to be so difficult.
I concentrated on my grip, attempting to position my arms and legs correctly to shift my weight at the right time, pushing my momentum into circling around the pole. I threw myself into every movement, attempting them on my right side, then my left, succeeding and failing and only sometimes improving through trial and error. I eventually found my balance on the pirouettes and at times was able to push myself up gracefully after swinging a leg around the pole. But for every victory, there were five to six failed attempts.
We were taught to use gravity to our advantage, falling into the weight of one leg and stabilizing ourselves with our arms on the pole. When entering a spin, I lost sight of my legs, attempting to move them into the right position and forcing myself to believe that my body would arrive at the ground safely and smoothly after I finished rotating.
Our final move required us to wrap our inner leg around the outside of the pole, pushing our feet behind us and out of our line of vision. Each dancer was required to sense the ground and ensure our feet landed on the floor before our knees. Sophia prefaced the move as one of the many used by J.Lo in the movie “Hustlers,” making me want to achieve it even more.
Try as I might, looking at myself in the mirror, I did not display the effortless grace that Lopez did in the film. I wasn’t clumsy, for I never completely collapsed, but the moves just weren’t right. My slightly incorrect motions forced me to grip the pole before I fell over or caused me to exit out of the movement early.
My lower legs were covered with burns and small bruises by the end of the class. The effort I put into the practice resulted in little of the athletic triumph that I was used to. Yet, I find myself anticipating the next time I can approach the pole again, my mind even more determined to perfect these movements and even excel beyond them.
Pole dancing has a long and rich history, and is generally traced back to practices that originated in China and India thousands of years ago, activities that highlighted the strength and athletic ability of performers. Western pole dancing gradually integrated more sensual movements and adopted iterations of stripping beginning in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, traveling circuses in the U.S. often included “striptease” acts in which women would utilize the tent pole in parts of their performance. In the middle of the century, elements of these shows, such as the inclusion of the pole were applied to the expanding stripping industry.
As demand grew for these more erotic performances, dancers refined their choreography over time and full dance performances became common. Due to the sophisticated technicality of the moves within many stripping shows, pole dancing was established as its own independent artistic, athletic practice.
A conglomeration of many ancient and modern influences, pole dancing has become an adaptable sport that can provide a variety of benefits to individuals. Polarity’s instructor Sophia Daly described how pole provides a safe, freeing environment for experimentation and independence.
“There are different aspects to pole, so on a physical level, pole is great for building strength and stamina,” Daly said. “But I think one of the coolest things is just to see people gain confidence when they do it. And also to just get more comfortable in their skin.”
Daly understands that the lack of clothing can be an intimidating aspect of the practice: “Pole is one of those sports where we don’t tend to wear much because you need your skin to grip the pole, and because of that, it can also be at first a little bit vulnerable for people. So I think part of the benefit is just allowing them to kind of have a safe space where they can just gain confidence and feel comfortable in their own skin.”
Daly also emphasized the significance of “artistry and creativity” in pole — putting the dance in pole dancing. She will adjust each class plan to the dancers, offering different levels of instruction and noting who is a beginner in each of her classes to ensure they get the most out of their time in the studio.
For dancers like Nursing freshman Faith Johnson, a social chair of the Michigan Pole Dancing Society (MPDS), pole has been integral in increasing her self-confidence as it allows her to push herself to accomplish new physical feats.
“I see my body do these really cool things that I didn’t know it could do, like hold myself upside down and like all these like things,” Johnson said. “I see myself getting bruises, and I’m just like, my body’s very capable of doing this really awesome, cool, beautiful thing.”
LSA junior Dexter Park, the president of MPDS, loves pole for a similar reason, emphasizing the benefits to his “self-esteem” as well as his “physical fitness.” He also appreciates the flexibility and individuality that can be found within the practice.
“I like how it makes me feel,” Park said. “There’s a very specific form to the move so you don’t get injured and so you don’t fall. But outside of that, it’s very formless, and so you can really just flow with it. It is still a form of dance, which I think is something that people may forget.”
Pole also has the capacity to be a great stress reliever, according to Daly. “I think, also, these days, there’s a lot of pressure on students, and they have a lot of stress,” Daly said. “So it’s also a way to kind of come out and have fun, because I think it’s important that even as adults, we still find times to be creative and to still have a sense of play.”
When addressing the more sensual, provocative connotations of pole, the interviewees highlighted how these aspects are completely dependent on the dancer and their mindset.
“Something that’s really cool is that pole dance gives people a platform to express themselves in ways that they might not feel comfortable expressing themselves in their everyday life,” Daly said. “Within pole dance, there are different styles. So, one of the styles is more sexy. And so for some people, for example, that’s like an outlet to kind of express their sexuality in a way that they might not in their life outside of the pole class.”
Johnson explained how though sexuality isn’t a necessary part of pole, it’s vital to recognize the role it has played in the development of the art.
“I do think there is some stigma with pole dancing being sexy because it’s not just stripping, even though pole dancing did come from stripping,” Johnson said. “So that’s just like a fact. And I don’t like to deny that and I think if you aren’t going to pole dance you have to be comfortable with the origin of it. But at the same time (pole dancing and stripping are) not the same thing.”
As the president of MPDS, Park stands by the club’s commitment to destigmatize the art entirely, allowing all dancers to take from the practice what they’d like — whether that be a sensual outlet or a good workout.
“I do wish it was not quite as stigmatized as it is,” Park said. “As a club, that’s one of our mission statements. We are trying to de-stigmatize it. It is an insane workout and we want that to be more normalized.”
Daly, Johnson and Park all described the need to be patient with yourself when first starting pole classes. The initial physical and mental challenges can be extremely difficult to process at first. But over time, and with proper instruction, the pole studio can become a space for success and renewal for any person who wishes to try it.
Now reflecting on my first pole class, it indeed was not easy. I thought my athletic background would help me succeed after one or two tries at each move. But in reality, I only saw small improvements. I was jumping into moves where I should have been falling into them, forcing my limbs onto the pole. When attempting the extended leg spin, Sophia pointed out that I was setting my foot down before it was necessary, that I should draw out the movement until gravity took over. I was too cautious throughout the class, fearing that my grip on the pole wasn’t supportive enough to keep me from collapsing.
I found myself concentrating too hard on perfectly executing each component, each technique, instead of just flowing into the dance. My strict mentality of stressing over every precise detail resulted in a collection of light scrapes on my legs where I was pushing myself in the wrong direction.
I don’t often fail at athletic endeavors, and it’s even rarer that I want to return to a physical activity that I didn’t immediately succeed in. Yet, pole dancing presented a challenge to both my body and my perceptions of how sports must be approached. And I can’t wait to tackle it again.
After class, I worked on moves with another participant. When I asked how I could improve on a move, she adjusted my grip and told me to just do it without thinking. I did the best front hook spin that I did all night.
Pole dancing is a multifaceted exercise in trusting my body. Though it may not always perform or appear the way I want it to, I have to be patient with it. Having a safe space like the pole studio can help anyone nurture the relationship they have with themselves. It just takes practice.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.