There are few sports that elicit more awe in me than the parallel bars at the summer Olympics. As gymnasts combat gravity to fling themselves around the horizontal poles and through the air, it’s immediately clear how strong and flexible and coordinated they are, and no one would doubt for a second that they’re athletes.
So when a friend asked me to join her at a parallel-bar fitness class earlier this month, why did I find myself scoffing that it was hardly a sport?
Oh, that’s right: because these bars were vertical, not horizontal. Or let me put it another way: because this was a pole-dancing workout class. And pole-dancing — a practice many associate with seedy bars and dollar bills — sure didn’t sound like an athletic pastime to me.
My aching muscles the following day begged to differ, but we’ll get there.
For those of you not in the know, like me just a few short weeks ago, pole dancing comes in three forms: sexy (i.e. strippers), artsy (i.e. Cirque du Soleil) and sport (i.e. me!) Pole-dancing — or “pole” as die-hards call it — requires a dancer to support and control her own bodyweight while hanging from, climbing up or spinning around a metal support, and believe you me, it’s not as easy as it looks.
This isn’t the kind of workout I’d usually seek out, but I’m trying to exercise more socially to maximize the day’s short hours, so when a friend found a 2-pack Groupon in Koreatown, I couldn’t say no. We booked our sessions, donned our least sexy workout gear and showed up at Femme Body Fitness on a recent Friday evening for our first pole-dancing class.
And it was nearly my last: I stepped into the studio and came face-to-face with this wall of rentable stilettos, and almost hightailed it right out of there.
But the front-desk lady said those are for the more advanced classes and assured me socks or bare feet were fine. So I swallowed my pride, headed onto the dimly lit dance floor, snagged an empty spot as close to the corner as possible and started
plotting the demise of my friend who talked me into this mess stretching.
The hour-long session was broken down into three sections: a mat-based warmup that was basically a mini yoga class, 40 minutes of learning and practicing different tricks (like jumping up and holding onto the pole with your thighs like a monkey, or spinning around with one leg up like a firefighter looking to impress) and a final “free-style” dance session with the overhead lights completely off and the disco ball on.
When I first heard we’d be ending with a dance party, I planned to duck out early — there was no way I’d be celebrating what I expected to be the most embarrassing workout of my life. But after nearly an hour of gripping and sweating and spinning — and even trying an inversion with the help of the instructor — I felt surprisingly confident. So I used the final song as a chance to try all my moves in sequence, and it was off-rhythm and messy and unpolished and … well … kind of fun.
It was also a killer workout. I’ve been sore before, but my back and shoulders have never ached like they did the day after this workout class. Aerial fitness is no joke, even if this same studio teaches “twerking classes” on Tuesdays.
But you know what the best thing about the class was? It was full of women of all body types, and some of the curviest were hands-down the strongest. We get force fed this idea that skinny is fit, but watching these women of all shapes and sizes flip and spin and defy gravity in a way I couldn’t even comprehend was a welcome wake-up call: I can be strong even without six-pack abs.
I don’t think I’ll be signing up for any more of these classes anytime soon, but I did go back for my second Groupon session, so I think I’ll call that a success in stepping (spinning?) out of my comfort zone.
Would you try pole dancing as a workout?