Things to do in Maryland, theater reviews, festivals
- Published on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 20:00
- Written by Vicki Meade
I'm upside down with my legs wrapped around a pole—all because of an impulse purchase from LivingSocial. Now what? How do I right myself without breaking my neck?
Buying six pole dance classes for $20 seemed like a good idea when the offer popped up on my email. Wouldn't it be fun to twirl and spin like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat? And maybe learn a sexy move or two?
I'd forgotten, in the seconds it took to click "buy now!" that I am me.
Sure, I'm reasonably fit. I work out at my local gym every day, including cycle and weight classes. But there's the tiny fact of having been born at the start of the Eisenhower Administration. Young, I'm not.
So it takes me a year to work up the nerve to walk into Xpose Fitness, a women-only studio tucked in a brown brick Annapolis strip mall, for my first lesson.
I wear stretchy shorts and a tank top, as the perky receptionist had advised when I'd called to reserve a spot in the beginner's class. "You need enough skin exposed so you stick to the pole. And if you're going to wear high heels, they have to be six-inch, with an ankle strap and non-slip sole, and..."
Wait a minute. "High heels? People do the class in high heels?"
"Well, you don't have to," the receptionist had said. "You can start with bare feet."
Once upon a time, displaying my legs in sexy heels was more important than being comfortable and sure-footed, but now only a black-tie formal or really dressy wedding motivates me to teeter about and risk spraining an ankle. As I wait in the lobby for class to start, I examine a few pairs for sale—some black, some clear, some resembling saddle shoes, all with thick platforms and seriously steep heels I can't imagine walking in, let alone dancing.
Soon I meet A.J., the night's instructor, a young woman with colorful tattoos and a red silk flower in her dark hair. As she leads me toward the pole studio, clicking along in black stilettos, she points to pictures in the hallway of instructors and clients in bikinis and clingy get-ups at parties and competitions, mugging for the camera or stretched taut against poles, legs upward in a vee. My hands start to sweat.
Earlier, a male colleague had smirked when I mentioned where I was going tonight.
"What do you think pole dancing, is, anyway?" I asked.
"No!" I protested. "It's a fitness thing."
"Sure," he said.
Trying to calm myself, I ask A.J. how she got into pole dancing. "I was fat and asthmatic my whole life, and this was the first exercise I tried that I could actually do."
Inside the red-walled studio, seven women chat and stretch, ranging from 20s to 40s, half of them slender, half of them not. I'm the only "virgin," as A.J refers to me, but none has been coming for more than a couple months. They wear exercise shorts and tee shirts—no skimpy outfits like in the photos I just saw, thank goodness. First we wipe down our brass poles with window cleaner and smear them with shaving cream to make them sticky.
"Let's start with a sexy strut around the pole," A.J. says, and I launch into a self-conscious prance. I think of Jamie Lee Curtis in "True Lies"—a dowdy legal secretary ordered to "dance sexy" in a hotel room by a mysterious man she thinks is a secret agent (but really it's her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Now I'm that awkward lady, trying to move in a foreign way, but I don't have Jamie Lee's killer bod, nor do I achieve her slinky abandon. I can, however, imagine losing my grip on the pole and flying across the room, as she did.
A.J. teaches us figure eights to loosen our hips, and the body wave—like an upright snake—and some simple spins, including the fireman, in which you fling out a leg to create momentum and your hands grip the pole while one leg bends in front and the other behind. A.J. is amazingly supple and glides like someone half her size. "It's all about upper body strength," she tells me, something I've never had, although I manage some labored turns around the pole.
I'm exhilarated by the end of the hour-long class. Something about the feel of the smooth metal pole takes me back to childhood, and the jungle gym, and the gleeful, carefree energy of swinging around until you're dizzy. As I drive home, I reflect on my new insights.
- Pole dancing is much harder than it looks.
- The women who participate come in all shapes and sizes, and skill and gracefulness have nothing to do with one's body type.
- Bruises are part of the learning curve. Especially on ankles, shins, and forearms.
- Everyone is really, really nice and encouraging—telling you you're doing great, even when you know you look about as agile as a toothbrush.
My second class, two days later, is "all levels," combining beginner moves with more advanced. Rachal, the instructor, age 32, is owner of the Annapolis studio—one of three locations in the Maryland-based franchise. She started dancing at age three and spent two seasons with the Hungarian National Ballet, a background that shows in her physique, posture, and gait. Her teaching style is matter-of-fact—a change from A.J., whose lesson, although excellent, was punctuated with bawdy patter that at times sent thought balloons springing from my head saying, "OMG! OMG!"
We follow the same structure as my first class: warm up, then learn and practice a few steps and spins, with the instructor demonstrating, observing, and correcting. Next the lights go low, the disco ball comes on, and we run through an entire routine before cooling down and stretching. This is the class where I find myself upside down, in a headstand, with my legs spread-eagled, which is kind of fun, but soon I wrap them around the pole for dear life, because I've never done a headstand before. And I don't know how to get down.
Rachal had helped lift me into position, but now she's across the room spotting someone else—who, I can see from the belly hanging over her head, is several months pregnant. And who dismounts gracefully, all by herself, while I remain stuck.
Rachal explains how to lower one leg as far as possible before dropping the other, and my feet thud onto the black linoleum floor.
After class, I ask her about the shoes. "They add to your workout quite a bit, keeping your leg in an isometric position so you're constantly using your core." About 75 percent of her students wear them. "Plus they make your legs look longer, and you feel sexier," she says.
She's taught pole classes to women aged 18 to 80, some as large as 350 pounds. "Because it has to do with muscle strength, being a size 8 or 10 doesn't mean you'll find this easy." A big part of pole dance's appeal, she says, is the variety—every class is different, so you never get bored. First-timers often come in for laughs, maybe with a girlfriend, and discover it's a great workout. Her average client is a 40-something employed mother looking for a fun way to become more fit.
One day I strike up a conversation with two women who look to be, like me, in their fifties, and I learn that they, too, were drawn by a LivingSocial deal. After their first six classes they started buying monthly passes, and over two months they've each lost 15 pounds by attending both pole and floor/chair classes—the latter a mix of aerobics and toning. And they feel better about themselves—more confident and at ease in their bodies. But no one in their families knows about their lessons. "We have teenage boys," one of them tells me, "and they'd never understand."
According to Rachal, some women enroll under fake names because they're afraid co-workers or employers will find them out. "Teachers, government workers—they worry about the stigma and feel they have to keep it hush-hush. But it's not about strip clubs and it doesn't have to be sexual. In the past decade, pole has become a sport—they're even trying to get it into the Olympics."
Over the course of three weeks, I take all six lessons I'd purchased, learning moves with names like booty shake, dollar bill, half thread the needle, pirouette spin, love it or hate it, and hood ornament. I say "learn" loosely, because within minutes of leaving class, I wouldn't be able to tell you which foot to step on, which leg to swing, where to put my shoulder in relation to the pole, or whether my hands go thumbs up or down. "Stop thinking so much!" Rachal orders when I hesitate, afraid of doing something wrong or tangling myself into a knot.
After my last session, I count seven bruises on my body plus a chafe mark on my wrist. Donna, a former real estate agent who now teaches pole—and who dropped seven dress sizes in the seven years since she took up the sport—is behind the desk as I slip on my sandals. "So, you've used up all your classes, girlfriend. What are you going to do?"
I whip out my credit card and buy eight more. And I order a pair of those high-heeled shoes.