I face the pole in gym shorts and six-inch heels. Per my director's instructions, I wrap my left knee around the vertical bar, grasp it at head and waist height, and push off the platform with my right foot. Suddenly, I'm orbiting the metal strip, falling in dizzying circles to the ground.
A skilled exotic dancer looks weightless as she twirls through midair, as if tied down only by a silver thread. But here, in this beginners' pole-fitness class in an industrial section of Rohnert Park, my own mass feels magnified. When you're trying to slide slowly and gracefully down a pole, gravity is one unforgiving bitch.
Which is why pole-dancing is a great workout. And also why iCandy, the studio where I'm learning these moves, exists. The company, founded by a group of mothers and grandmothers, markets itself online as a "studio for fun and fitness." According to its staff (and evidenced by my sore muscles), pole-dancing isn't just an illicit activity involving tassels and one-dollar bills; it's also a sport.
A sport for which I'm wearing open-toed platform shoes.
Gaga's Awkward Twin
Housed in a gray warehouse, iCandy looks like any other suburban dance studio from the outside. Inside? Not so much.
The reception area is designed in hot pink and black decor. A sign in the corner titled "10 Great Things About Pole Dancing" lists one-liners like "Nothing gets you in shape like swinging from a pole" and "Lets out your inner sex goddess." The large red studio contains 12 poles, each with its own spotlight, and plenty of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Two Betty Page posters adorn one wall, while another sports an ad for "Lil' Mynx:
The World's Finest Removable Dance Pole."
Karla Thompson, business partner of iCandy owner Pam Carter, checks me in when I arrive for my Saturday class. Her simple black workout attire looks surprisingly understated against the pink wall behind her. She asks for my shoe size and hands me some patent-leather heels, so I obediently remove my sneakers, strap them on and take a few wobbly steps. Teetering around in my puffy polyester shorts and Disneyland sweatshirt, I feel like Lady Gaga's awkward, minivan-driving twin.
Six women beside myself have shown up for the lesson. Currently, none of the elementary classes is co-ed, though Thompson and Carter are launching an aerial fitness program that may include both genders, depending on interest. We're an assorted group, aged roughly 25 to 50, dressed in Lycra-style activewear.
"You'll probably burn from a hundred to 500 calories, depending on how much you put into it," Thompson, who teaches the class, tells me before we start. As we strut, kick and hobble our way through an hour of Pilates-inspired moves, I guess (or hope) we're closer to burning 500. Throughout our routine, the pole functions as an unconventional exercise ball; we squat against it to target our quads, grip it to stretch our legs and finally hook it with our knees and spin.
But of course, the pole is no mere exercise ball. It's a symbol whose connotations are clear in iCandy's not entirely sexed-down routine. To a blasted selection of Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Rihanna, we curl our biceps with weighted "blue balls" ("Always fun to say," Thompson smiles), rise off the floor in "booty ups" and generally shake it like a Polaroid picture.
Stretched on the floor, as I roll onto my stomach and point my pleather-clad toes in a series of kicks, I wonder whether this is seductive, degrading or just plain bizarre.
Is It Empowerment?
Of course, our workout is hardly X-rated. There's no stripping, no money, no voyeuristic display. But whenever we climb onto that pole and spin splay-legged to the floor, I can't forget that what we're doing comes from an act in which sexuality is blatantly commodified. It's not exactly Feminism 101.
And yet maybe it is. The word I keep overhearing throughout our lesson, both from Thompson and my classmates, is "empowering." Initially, I roll my eyes at this. Empowerment is loosely associated with a variety of things in my mind—denim, birth control, Hillary Clinton's hair and, most importantly, comfortable shoes—but as I grasp the pole and attempt to gyrate my pelvis convincingly, I realize I'm probably biased.
I can't deny that I belong to the Liz Lemon school of Ladydom. As my bedroom-challenged idol puts it, the word "lovers" bums me out unless it's between the words "meat" and "pizza." In the few non-rock-concert settings where I've ventured onto a dance floor, I've tended to look less like Britney and more like an electrocuted snake. I wear my own WASP-ishness like a bulky, overlong coat, and stripping down, even to my cable-knit sweater underneath, makes me want to curl into a fetal position. And maybe play some Elliott Smith.
After class, we remove our heels and chat. Lauren Stark and Melanie Curley, two women who appear to be in their late twenties, tell me they're both therapists. "I didn't want to come at first," says Stark. "But then I looked into it a little more and realized what it was about."
"It's just a sexy way to work out," Curley adds. "You hang on a pole and learn some moves."
I ask if they would join a co-ed class.
"I don't know," Stark responds. "I can't see a man dancing on a pole."
Jennifer, a blonde woman who whispers that she is 49 and asks me not to print her last name, proves that one of iCandy's main draws—and perhaps the source of its empowerment—is the female camaraderie it offers. She says she suffered a bad romance and wound up severely depressed until she found a group of women who were fire dancers. Her new friends introduced her to the studio, and coaxed her back to joie de vivre through informal pole nights with wine and dollar jars.
"We're women," she says. "There's a part of us that wants to be a stripper. We're not going to give it up, and there are no guys here. I wouldn't be here if there were guys. But part of us wants that. I once did an erotic dance for a boyfriend in a Santa suit."
A Growing Sport
When the other students have left, Thompson and Carter, who has just arrived, sit suspended from the studio ceiling in purple cloth. They're demonstrating the materials for Fly Gym, their aerial fitness program. As we talk, Thompson climbs up the nearest pole and flips upside down.
A blonde woman in a pink sweatshirt and UGGs, Carter is both a coronary investigator and a grandmother, as well as iCandy's owner. She recounts the history of the gym. "A group of us had a girls' night out at a place in South San Francisco," she says. "It was so much fun, and we realized there was nothing like it around here." The studio opened in June 2008. Thompson splits her title of business partner with Carter's daughter, Christie Henderson, while Carter is the executive owner.
The stretchy bands swaddling the two women are part of a new routine Carter calls "a love child of yoga swing, aerial silk and TRX." The classes are designed to both utilize the pole-filled space and bring a new level of acrobatics to iCandy.
It's difficult to imagine the campy red studio as a serious athletic space. But, Carter reminds me, it already is. Pole-dancing is an organized international sport. The US Pole Dance Federation, founded in 2008, holds professionally judged national and regional competitions each year. It calls pole-dancing "a sensual athletic dance form that demands coordination, flexibility, sensuality, creativity, individual style and physical strength."
Another organization, the Pole Fitness Association, is even petitioning to enter what they term "pole sports" into the 2012 Olympics. Though the activity has long been a competitive pastime, with championships held informally in clubs and judged by applause, USPDF aims to unify dancers and legitimize their craft. Its website lists 88 USPDF-incorporated studios across the country. Though iCandy is unincorporated, choosing to focus on fitness rather than competition, it's clearly part of a growing movement.
"Pole-dance is not just some sleazy, hotel backroom situation," says Thompson. "Sometimes when we have community events, women will come up to me and say, 'Oh, I don't strip,' and I'll say, 'I don't either.'"
A Fitting Symbol
On my way out of iCandy, I notice a black-and-white poster of Lucille Ball. She's clinging desperately to a high-rise ledge, dressed as Superman. It's from the 1957 episode "Lucy and Superman," in which she dons an outfit of the iconic hero to attract George Reeves' attention. She's crouching over the city, looking like she's about to jump or fly.
Ball used the trappings of her own domestic life—motherhood, wifely submission, frustrated obscurity—to launch a career outside her home. She took a handful of patriarchal symbols and turned them to her own advantage, subverting them in the process.
She's a fitting symbol for this pink room in the heart of suburbia. When Thompson says, of the pole-and-heel-top workout, "We want women to feel comfortable enough to step out of their box a little," it might seem strange at first. But in a way, as I leave the gym flush from what I now realize is a real workout, it makes perfect sense.
And my comfortable old sneakers never felt so good.
Where to channel your inner Gypsy Rose Lee
These fitness-based pole-dance techniques are available for beginners and advanced students alike. New aerial classes combine harnesses with poles.554 Martin Ave., Rohnert Park. 707.799.POLE. www.icandysonoma.com.
Pole Dance Magic
Offered at Stage Dor Dance Studio and Stars Ballroom. Run by Virginia Simpson-Magrude, these lessons include intro and beginner classes as well as Polerobics and require no previous dance experience.
Stage Dor Dance Studio, 10 Liberty Ship Way #340, Sausalito
Stars Ballroom, 1559 S. Novato Blvd., Suite C, Novato. 415.827.2827.
The Art of Being Sexy Without Taking Your Clothes Off
A workshop combining burlesque and pole-dance techniques, co-taught by Virginia Simpson-Magrude and Shara Switala. 415.453.0233. www.poledancemagic.com.