With her body elongated and toes pointed three feet above the floor, instructor and studio owner of Brass Ovaries, Natasha Bajic, spirals downward on the 10-foot pole while it spins. Then, using only her hands for support, she circles around the pole, moving her legs as if she’s on an imaginary bicycle — a technique she calls the Mary Poppins. Upon her dismount, all five of her advanced class students applaud. Minutes later, they, too, were climbing the pole, practicing the routine.
Pole dancing classes, while not new to the fitness scene, are largely overlooked by people because of the attached exotic dancer stigma. The underground performance art provides a unique way to get a full-body workout while embracing sensuality.
“I tried [pole dancing] for the first time at a bachelorette party and it was so great that we all swore we would take the class,” said advanced student Odette Tan.
Pole dancing became a fun alternative to exercising, she said. For student Luki Martino, she said she chose to take a class after seeing an infomercial for Flirty Girl Fitness. The class was cheaper than the video, she said.
For others, such as instructor Brynn Route, pole dancing is a fun way to utilize their athletic background. Route, 24, grew up doing dance and gymnastics. She now uses her training and techniques in the private lessons she teaches at the studio.
“Once you hit a certain age in gymnastics, if you aren’t trying to go to the Olympics, you’re kind of done,” Route said. “I found pole dancing after that and I was just like ‘this is it’ — I was hooked.”
Route was drawn to the fusion of dance and gymnastics and the ability to self-express and showcase athleticism — aspects of pole dancing a lot of people often overlook. Many people have preconceived notions about the sexuality and connotative value of pole dancing, she said.
“It can be a very empowering thing, but it can also be a very exploitative thing,” Route said.
Although students take the class for a range of reasons, such as impressing their lovers and strengthening their flexibility, most attend for the fitness benefits. Students utilize all of their muscles simultaneously as they climb and dance around on the pole. All of the exaggerated movements increase body coordination and flexibility, advanced student Irela Casanova said. And once dance moves are added in, she said there is also a cardio element.
Tan has lost two dress sizes since she started taking pole dancing classes less than a year ago.
“Every year you start telling yourself you have to get ready for bathing suit season — and it usually never happens,” Tan said. “But this year it came around and I was already there.”
Even though Tan has had a positive experience at Brass Ovaries, she said she admits that she intentionally withholds the information from some people because she doesn’t feel they will understand it.
“I tell my mom, I tell other women — sometimes,” Tan said. While hesitant at times, Tan said she tries to talk about it with others to help break the stigma.
The taboo of pole dancing itself can be what draws people in because it creates a sacred sort of environment. And with an element of secrecy, there is a lot less perceived risk, Route said — thus the class becomes a space in which students can escape some of their inhibitions or insecurities.
“I love that it’s kind of underground,” Route said. “I think it makes people that much more serious about learning because, for whatever their reason, they are still choosing to come and do this despite what others may think.”
Route said she finds many of her students coming in with low self-confidence or low self-esteem. Whether it be divorce, an unhealthy relationship or something else that hit them emotionally, they are using pole dancing classes as a safe, open place to reclaim their sexuality, femininity and identity.
“I’ve had quite a few women who were [previously] in the Army, which is extremely regimented,” Route said. “Your femininity can get stripped away, so they come to class because they want to regain it for themselves.”
The ability to help change people’s lives is Route’s favorite part of teaching, she said, and she wants to utilize her role to reach people who have been hurt and change the way they feel about themselves for the better.
“Just their way of walking, keeping their chins up,” she said. “They’re like ‘I take this sexy class! And I’m going to work it!’ That feeling spills into your daily life.”