I’m not sure what exactly I expected when I headed into Boulder Spirals, the pole dance studio in Boulder, Colorado. My girlfriend Kayla goes to school at the University of Colorado, and she’s been pole dancing since her freshman year as part of their Polefit club. I visited her out there and decided that no trip is complete without personal humiliation brought on by a can-do attitude, so I decided to try to learn to pole dance.
Pole dancing has been around for at least 800 years, with its earliest known practice being the Indian sport of mallakhamb. Mallakhamb involves dancing on a wooden pole, which was wider than modern poles. The Chinese version, adapted from Mallakhamb, utilized two poles and involved dancers jumping between them, often 20 feet or higher in the air. In the 1920s, pole dancing was part of circus and sideshow acts before it moved toward the burlesque. Today, it’s more widely respected as an acrobatic art form than in the past, when it was slapped with a negative reputation as being only practiced by strippers. Being good at pole dancing requires strength, flexibility, and dedication, just as any other form of dance does. Core and upper body strength are crucial when pole dancing.
On this particular Saturday, Kayla and I walked into the dance studio, which is on the far side of town in the warehouse district. People who participate in the University of Colorado’s club and those who take classes offered by the studio were there, five or six of them, all good at pole dancing and, in my mind, prepared to judge me.
The studio has several poles staggered throughout the middle of the room, which is lined with mirrors. Kayla and I got changed quickly and started to warm up. This was where I cleverly revealed that I’m not flexible at all, something that would come with more stretching, dancing, or general physical activity, none of which I participate in regularly. I was all-too aware that I have none of the core and upper body strength, agility, or stamina required to be a successful pole dancer. I repeatedly reminded Kayla that she shouldn’t expect any level of skill from me today, and that it would be better if we just agreed that she wouldn’t judge me in advance.
When it was time to start in earnest, Kayla squirted something called Dry Hands onto my hands, which were already sweaty with nerves. Sweaty hands and pole dancing don’t go together, so Dry Hands makes your hands dry and sticky so you don’t fall off the pole mid-spin. We stepped up to our respective poles and she said she would start off with something easy, which I was grateful for. I’ve seen videos of her dancing before, and she’s shown me competition-level performances. I wasn’t interested in shimmying up the pole and swinging around it in the air, because I knew that sheer willpower would not hold me up there for long, to say nothing of my biceps.
The first thing we had to do was to learn how to stand at the pole, which is a more complex art than one would imagine. “Pop your hip out, hold your arm up in a half moon, put your feet together near the pole, lean away from it, go up on your toes…” Kayla instructed me. I tried to do it. “Hip out,” she said. “Okay, feet together… No, hip out. Further out. More. More. Okay. Up on your toes. Feet together! Hip out! Helen!”
As I was nearly incapable of remembering five instructions at once, Kayla gave up and decided to move to the first spin. She showed me herself how to step around the pole, a complicated task in itself, as you have to stay on your toes, swing your hip around – still popped out, and step with your feet as close to the pole as possible. She then swung her left leg wide and hooked the pole with what she called her “foot pit” (the space behind her ankle, toes curled in), lifted her right leg and set it against the pole, and spun around the pole in a circle for a moment.
She made it look very easy. I tried, and ended up hugging the pole close with my right foot still on the ground. I looked to her for guidance, and she tried to find a polite way to tell me that I had forgotten several steps. Apparently, I had neglected to swing my left leg wide enough, leaving myself with little of the centrifugal motion needed to do the spin. And that was the least of my problems. I needed to push the pole with my right hand, which was already sweaty and sliding down the pole, and pull in with my left, which I needed to grab onto the pole with about the time I hooked my left “foot pit.” It was an awful lot to remember for a writer like me, who just has to remember to put periods at the end of my sentences and not to put the same word into a sentence twice. (For the record, I’ve given up on this second task with regards to the word ‘pole.’ If, as a reader, you would prefer I use the term “shiny cool metal round cylindrical object extending from the floor to the ceiling” every now and then, please tweet me @helenkarmstrong.)
I tried again, and this time I managed to avoid hugging the pole too closely to my chest, but I still failed to get my right foot off the ground. Somehow, it was a grim prospect that my sweaty palms and the force of my “super wide leg swing” would actually hold me in the air and not land me on the floor.
I attempted this simple spin several times with mixed degrees of success. Kayla patiently corrected me on one thing or another, before suggesting that we just move on. I was fully aware that this was likely the easiest spin she could possibly show me, but she had one more she wanted me to try.
For this one, everything was fairly similar, but I had to hook my knee around the pole. I couldn’t get it quite high enough without Kayla coming over and physically lifting my leg higher on the pole. I tried in earnest to do better this time – to lift my leg as much as I was supposed to, to get my other foot off the ground, to spin at least one blessed time around the pole – but, dear reader, I failed.
All of this had taken up quite some time, and Kayla had to practice her own routine for an upcoming showcase. She instructed me to keep trying, and I did, experiencing some small successes in the form of foot pit hooking. The happiness about this was mitigated somewhat by looking up and seeing Kayla going through her own routine on the pole next to me.
I’m reminded of a quote by Augusten Burroughs: “I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” My intentions were pure on this Saturday afternoon: I intended to learn how to spin around a pole without my feet on the ground. Perhaps my flaws got in the way, and my intentions unraveled and became simply: do not embarrass myself too badly in front of people I do not know.
And that’s okay. Perhaps some people were simply not meant to practice the art of pole dancing. After all – someone has to watch from the ground.