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Feminspire | April 16, 2014

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Pole Dancing: Empowerment and Exercise?

Pole Dancing: Empowerment and Exercise?

Fathers everywhere subconsciously worry that if their daughters don’t go to college, they’ll end up on a stripper pole.

Haley Birmingham is in college and on a pole, but her goal isn’t to have dollar bills shoved into a G-string. She’s getting a workout.

For close to a year, Haley has been using pole fitness as a way to stay in shape, as well as boost her body image.

“There is a little stigma that comes with pole fitness. The first thing that comes into people’s minds are strippers and gentlemen’s clubs,” Haley said. “But what most people don’t realize [is] that pole dancing wasn’t always about women taking their clothes off. It was originally an art form/sport. To me, when I do a pole workout, I am bettering myself, bettering my body, and bettering my confidence.”

Celebrity pole dancing workouts and fitness classes have grown in popularity with release of such videos as Carmen Electra’s Electra Pole in 2008, the opening of gyms specifically designed for pole fitness classes, and the addition of poles for workouts in exercise facilities. Now, pole dancing associations across the world host competitions for pole dancing as a competitive sport.

What exactly is pole fitness, and how is it different from pole dancing at a strip club? If you take away the negative connotations that surround sex work, there isn’t much of a difference. In the current wave of feminism, many believe that consenting adults have the right to any kind of sex work, from exotic dancing to escort services.

One difference is location and reasoning behind pole dancing: Stripping at clubs can be a woman’s livelihood, while pole fitness at a gym or at home is a form of fun exercise that doesn’t necessitate the removal of clothing.

Pole Dancing exerciseHaley, a 21-year-old from Baltimore, Maryland, first tried pole fitness in January 2011 after gaining 45 pounds during her freshman year of college. She was a cheerleader and ballerina before starting college, which was enough physical activity to stay in shape. A friend who recently gave birth and was trying to work off her baby weight convinced Haley to try a pole fitness class with her.

“I was completely skeptical. At that point, I was uncomfortable with my body, and was afraid that I was going to be the ‘fat girl’ in a room of smokin’ hot blonde skinny girls,” Haley said. “I was pleasantly surprised when I went into the class and found all kinds of different women. The pole studio I go to requires you to be at least 18-years-old to take classes, but there were women from 18 through their 50s in there. Regular women who just wanted to feel good about themselves while working out and didn’t want to have a traditional gym workout. It was the most judgment free environment I have ever encountered.

Haley loved the workout so much she bought a pole to use in her home. She uses a static (meaning not spinning) X-Pole Sport Pole, which doesn’t require permanent installation. Like any other sport or workout, there are safety precautions such as not performing at a level you haven’t trained up to (a first time weight lifter wouldn’t lift a 100-pound dumbbell) and proper set up. There are plenty of YouTube videos of poles falling over with women on them, which could cause serious injuries.

So how exactly does pole dancing become a workout routine? Dancers learn tricks, some perform with their feet on the floor, others use their muscles to lift themselves off the ground and up the pole. In the first six months Haley practiced pole fitness she lost 35 pounds.

“It is the most toned, strongest, and healthiest my body has ever been,” Haley said. “During a pole workout, you work every part of your body. You work your arms, your core, your legs, your back, everything! The most satisfying thing is the day after a pole workout when muscles you didn’t even know you had are sore. It just lets you know how hard you worked!”

Pole Dancing fitnessWhile Haley was hooked after her first pole session, her mom and friends didn’t warm up to the idea. That is, until they tried it themselves.

“The first time I told my mother I was going to a pole dance class she looked at me like I was crazy. But after she saw how much I loved it, she was interested in it too,” Haley said. “My mom is now in the lower level beginner pole fitness classes and she absolutely loves it! I have turned at least a dozen of my friends onto pole fitness as well.”

Haley sees herself as an advocate of women’s rights and equality, and doesn’t agree with the idea that pole fitness is overly sexualized. Having the ribs, thighs and armpits exposed during a pole fitness workout can be necessary to grip the pole and execute tricks, not a way to look sexy.

“It isn’t about being sexy for someone. It’s about me feeling good about myself, feeling good about my body, and being healthy and fit,” Haley said. “It isn’t sexualized unless you make it that way. At the studio I go to, no men are allowed, and all the instructors are women. It’s women supporting each other and giving each other the chance to feel their best and to regain and broaden their confidence.”

Written by Lauren Slavin

All images courtesy of Haley Birmingham