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Sky High With Bruised Thighs: The Art of Pole Dancing This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

It’s a chilly evening in mid-November. I stride down the sidewalk, dressed in a tank top, yoga pants, and unzipped hoodie despite the cold. I feel confident and energized as I crunch through a carpet of fallen leaves, strong despite the complaining of my muscles. I’ll be feeling tonight’s class in the morning—in fact, I’m feeling it right now—but I don’t mind.
I reach my car, sit in it in the dark, and take inventory: my abs hurt, no surprise there after the floor work; my arms ache—again, not a surprise with the pull-ups I did—and bruises already dot my knees and inner thighs. The top of my right foot stings, but it’s nothing too major—I’ve seen worse cases of pole burn. All in all, a typical catalogue of hurts. And these aren’t just because I’m a newbie, either: most people involved in my sport come home with little injuries much like this after every practice.
This is my sport. This is pole dancing.
Mimi, a self-taught dancer who has been involved with pole since May 2011, owns my studio, Addicted to the Pole. “I just fell into it,” she says. “I love the flexibility and strength it requires, and what it does to my body, my personality, and my self-esteem.” Mimi became an instructor because “I love encouraging women,” she says, going on to explain how pole brings out her inner sexiness and beauty and wants other women to feel the same way. She loves seeing her students improve and reach for their goals, explaining, “You can’t be weak in pole, either physically or emotionally.”
Many other talented dancers teach at Addicted, each with their own style and brand of wisdom to pass on to their students. Giselle is the first instructor I encountered at Addicted; she currently teaches Intro classes. She tells me she got into the sport because of an exchange student from Columbia that she hosted in September of 2012. “I asked her what she missed most about home, and she said her pole dancing classes,” Giselle, whose daughter Brittany also dances at Addicted, says. She scheduled a class for the student’s birthday and fell in love with the “vibe of the sport,” and has been involved ever since. She became an instructor as a favor to Mimi, who was short on instructors. “It was a no-brainer,” she says.
I sit with Giselle on the floor of the studio after my Intro class and ask her to tell me her favorite pole trick. “The Scorpio,” she answers immediately. “It’s an inverted move, and…do you want me to show you?” I nod, and Giselle walks over to the pole and climbs it effortlessly before inverting herself, gripping the pole between her left arm and her side. Her left leg hooks around the inside of the pole while her right hangs out from the pole, bent at a perfect ninety-degree angle. She holds the pose for a few moments, then flips herself right-side-up and slides gracefully down the pole, striding back over to me with a smile on her face. She tells me she likes the move because of the control and strength in her legs that it requires. Giselle says she loves the challenge of pole dancing. “It makes me feel beautiful,” she says, also describing how the sport has increased her confidence.

Most people immediately think “stripping” when they hear the term “pole dancing,” but this isn’t necessarily a correct association. While strippers do use a pole, it generally serves as a prop that they use to hold on to and walk around while doing their routine. The sport of pole dancing, however, is much more complicated and requires tremendous amounts of upper body, leg, and abdominal strength as well as flexibility to accomplish the tricks and moves. As a sport, pole dancing has evolved rapidly in recent years, becoming a fitness trend as well as a new niche for competition. However, some stigma still remains, and many dancers are reluctant to tell others about their passion for the sport. Giselle says she understands the stigma surrounding pole. “It’s starting to change, but I don’t think it has to,” she says. “Our roots are in strip clubs.”
Pole dancing evolved from a combination of worldwide forms of dance, according to the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association. These include Chinese pole and Indian mallakhamb, a form of pole used to train wrestlers. Exotic dance has its roots in ancient times, and one of the earliest recorded instances of strip tease can be found in the Sumerian myth of Inanna, who danced through the seven gates leading to the underworld and removed an article of clothing or jewelry at each one. Exotic pole dance itself appears to have originated in traveling fairs during the 1920s, where performers would dance suggestively around the pole holding the tent where they danced in place. The first recorded pole dance occurred at the Mugwump burlesque club in Oregon in 1968, and pole dancing began as a trend in Canada in the 1980s. Fawnia Dietrich taught the first pole class in 1994, and went on to open the world’s first pole dance school.
Poles used in dancing are made of steel or brass and can be either stationary or spinning. Some poles are made of fiberglass and have LED lights in them for dramatic effect; however, plastic poles aren’t ideal for dance since they tend to bend and give dancers nasty friction burn. Anyone who’s spent any time in a pole studio also knows that any kind of lotions or oils are strictly banned. They make the pole slick and difficult to grip, which can prove dangerous to someone attempting a trick off the ground. And while some may complain about how skimpy pole costumes can be, this is actually necessary: skin contact with the pole provides maximum grip and friction that you can’t get while wearing leggings or sleeves. Heels aren’t necessary for dancing but do help with some climbs and tricks and make it easier to go higher on the pole from the floor—not to mention the fact that they make your legs look great.
Many pole dancing competitions exist around the world and are sponsored by pole associations such as the International Pole Dance Fitness Association and the US Pole Dance Federation, the former of which has been very vocal about including pole dance in the Olympics. Mimi competed in the Pole Sport Organization’s competition recently and placed fifth in her division. “I was critiqued, which was the best part,” she says, “especially since I’m self-taught.” She went on to explain how the critiques would help her learn what she needed to work on to be a better dancer, and that she would absolutely compete again.
Despite its work-at-your-own-pace structure, the pole dance community is inclusive, supportive, and welcoming to anyone who wishes to try it. “It’s a sisterhood, a family, a church,” Giselle says. “It lifts the spirit.” Teachers and students will applaud when you learn a new trick, and everyone is more than willing to give tips or advice if you need them. It doesn’t matter if you feel out-of-shape or not strong enough or shy about your body. There’s no judgment. And since pole is a female-dominated sport, it’s easier for women especially to feel welcome and comfortable doing it. At Addicted, men rarely venture inside except for coed and couples classes.
No matter how crappy my day is, something about my pole studio always brightens it. When I step through the doors and shed my clothes in favor of shorts and a tank top, I feel like I’m leaving the little stressors and worries of the day behind. And when I nail a new move, I’m on top of the world for the rest of the day. Pole has really helped me, both emotionally and physically, and I haven’t been dancing long at all. I suppose my studio is aptly named: I am absolutely addicted to the pole, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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