There was a time when having a daughter “on the pole” was every parent’s worst nightmare, conjuring up visions of a seedy, neon-lit, American-style “strip joint”.
Pole dancing, however, or better yet, pole fitness, has moved away from shady strip clubs and into local gyms and fitness clubs, slowly becoming a popular workout. In October 2017, pole was originally recognised as an official sport, further legitimising its move into the mainstream.
In fact, getting “on the pole” myself and meeting the wonderfully diverse community of pole-women was one of the things that helped me keep my sanity throughout the endless lockdowns of the last 16 months.
The pandemic seems to have pushed locked-down Brits one of two ways. Either they succumbed to the indulgence of an extra glass of wine a night, or went full-on fitness evangelist. I was the latter, going from one yoga class a week pre-Covid, to running 5k a day and transforming into a living room workout warrior (much to my husband’s dismay).
When the first lockdown ended, I was determined to take my fitness up a notch when I discovered a local female-led pole studio in St. Albans called Iguana Pole Fitness, and decided to give it a go.
Walking into that first pole class, I had the same questions you’re probably thinking of right now. What on earth will I have to wear? Will everyone see my flabby bits? But despite my initial apprehensions, what I found was a group of supportive women, plenty of laughs and a brutal workout.
I quickly discovered that pole fitness requires Herculean levels of strength. After seeing various women of all ages and sizes propel their bodies onto a pole into gravity-defying positions during that first class I was instantly hooked.
While there is certainly no stripping involved, pole fitness requires you to wear little clothing as skin contact is necessary to hold a pose – which did wonders for our body image and self-esteem.
For me, desensitising that initial discomfort about baring my body in public, in an encouraging and supportive environment, helped me view my own body in a more positive light outside of the studio too. Instead of focusing on my physical imperfections, I became in awe of what my body physically could do on the pole, inspiring me to embrace my imperfections as sources of strength and individuality.
A pole class begins just like any other fitness class, with a warm-up. The warm-up is geared towards enhancing flexibility and opening the hip flexors, shoulders and back to prepare your body for all the acrobatics that pole fitness requires.
This is followed by conditioning, which focuses on upper body strength and core training. Standard pole conditioning exercises include holding onto the pole in a strong arm grip and then doing tucks or vertical leg raises, or gripping the pole from the floor and lifting your whole body in upwards movements. After most sessions, my abs will ache so much that laughing or sneezing will feel like being punched in the gut for a week.
Depending on your skill level, the instructor will demonstrate a new pole move for the class to try. Other sessions may include a short pole routine that puts a series of pole moves together.
After my first pole class, I came home with a Jackson Pollock-style array of bruises and arms and legs that could barely move. These days the bruises are still there, but I feel like I have gained super-healing abilities too.
Lucy, a 39-year-old education worker, has been going to pole classes for two years and says that it has changed how she perceives her own body. “I first took a pole class in Liverpool on a hen weekend,” she tells me. “I’d just had my second son and still had a very wobbly tummy. Pole made me feel strong again, probably for the first time since I got pregnant.
“I feel so much more confident now. I don’t hate what I see in the mirror, and it’s completely changed my relationship with food. Before, I’d see food as just calories, but now I see it as something that gives me energy during classes.”
Olivia, a 39-year-old programme manager, was only in her second class when she did an advanced pole move called a “flatline”, where you create a flat line with your body while inverted on the pole.
She says, “I had my reservations about baring parts of my body that I keep hidden from strangers, but the regulars have created an environment where I feel comfortable enough to focus on what my body can do rather than worry about what isn't perfect.”
“Seeing my pole photos from class has shown me what my body is capable of and improved my body image. Having done boxing and weightlifting before, I’ve always viewed myself as a strong woman, but pole has shown me that I’m capable of being elegant as well.”
Tracy, 55, says that pole has given her the confidence to do things she never thought she’d do. “Pole has definitely given me more confidence; I would never have had professional photos taken before pole, especially in what is essentially big pants and a sports bra, and I certainly wouldn't have performed on stage either – which I did during our showcase.”
For Tracy and many others, pole does more than just boost your confidence. “Pole has improved my strength and flexibility. I’ve been told by my doctor that I have good muscle density for my age. We all know that women should continue weight-bearing exercises as we go through menopause and lifting your own bodyweight up a pole definitely does that,” she says.
To many, pole fitness may be daunting at first, but Nadya, who runs Iguana Pole Fitness, says that it shouldn’t put you off booking your first session. “There’s a huge misconception that you already need to be strong in order to start pole,” she says. “You gradually build strength and that is half the fun.”
According to Nadya, the benefits of pole fitness go beyond the physical. Pole gives women a safe space to get back in touch with their femininity and sexuality, especially when the pandemic has done so much to dampen our collective spirits.
“There are so many benefits to pole. It’s a physically challenging sport that keeps your mind focused and your body strong. It’s also very social. You can walk into a class, not know anyone and leave with a whole new set of friends,” Nadya adds. “It’s women empowering women and the support inside and outside class is something we are very proud of.”
For me, my weekly pole classes have become an enriching ritual where I can forget about the outside world and focus all my energies onto the pole. Each week I welcome a new smattering of bruises and get muscle aches in parts I didn’t even know had muscles – yet I always feel stronger for it. Pole has unlocked a new Amazonian-esque power, built from the ground up by our supportive community and completely free from the male gaze.
With almost a year of classes under my belt, I am still in awe of what my body can do every week. The experience has smashed my preconceived notions of pole, renewed my confidence and respect for pole dancers, making me feel mentally and physically stronger than ever before.
So, while “pole dancing” may have been something invented for the enjoyment of men and the objectification of women; “pole fitness”, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. As is proven each week in the studio, pole fitness has allowed these women to break down the barriers of self-doubt, surround themselves with empowerment and community and ultimately take back control of their own bodies.