Round and Round 

Pole dancing moves from the club to the gym

Here's a riddle: What is something Chinese men can do and it's called art, but when women do it, it's sexually provocative?

The answer: pole dancing.

For thousands of years, Chinese acrobats have awed and amazed as they perform spins, lifts, holds and inversions on vertical poles, showing off their strength, flexibility and concentration. But when a Western woman performs some of the same moves, the connotation suddenly becomes one of sex, conjuring images of clubs with low lighting.

But women­ are taking control and taking pole dancing out of the clubs thanks to pole dance fitness classes where strength, grace and flexibility are stressed, rather than the inherent sensuality.

"Some people see it as demeaning or degrading," said Allison Holley, a Boise-based pole dance instructor. "But I see the opposite in class. It's empowering."

Holley is one of a handful of instructors in the Treasure Valley to bring what has quickly become a national trend to the Gem State. Holley began teaching classes early last summer, and since then, her classes and workshops have quickly filled with the eager and the curious.

"If you even whisper 'pole dancing,' they will come," Holley said of the response to the classes.

It's something personal trainer Karrie Bernauer Wood has noticed as well. "It's totally legit," she said. "It's not underground."

While she hasn't tried it herself, she said it looks like it provides a good strength-training workout. "Movement is movement," she said. "It looks like a good workout."

Holley returned to Boise after spending time in Portland, Ore., and thought there might be demand for a more specialized dance-based fitness class. Encouraged by a friend who teaches belly dancing, she began working with Facets of Healing, which allowed her to install a pole and begin teaching.

Her first ad campaign consisted of fliers, a MySpace page and an ad on Craigslist, but before she knew it, she had filled two classes and within a few months, class size had doubled. Now, she teaches workshops rather than classes, limits them to six students each and has installed a second pole.

Not only was she surprised by the response, but even more so by the diversity of her students, who range from teens coming in with their mothers to older women looking to try something new.

Holley works to focus the class on the dance and acrobatic nature of the activity, and students are more likely to be found in leotards and leg warmers than miniskirts. The grace and strength required to perform the spins, lifts and holds were what attracted her to pole dancing in the first place. Holley grew up participating in gymnastics and studied acrobatics at Do Jump! studios in Portland, where she learned to appreciate live performance. For her, pole dancing combines both while providing a full-body workout.

Boise is part of a larger trend, not just nationally, but around the world. Pole dance competitions have been around for years, with national and international titles decided annually—the U.S. Pole Dance Championship is set for March in New York City. Miss Pole Dance Australia draws thousands to watch the finals, while organizations like the U.S. Pole Dance Federation, the World Pole Dance Federation and the International Pole Dance Fitness Association not only organize competitions, but also serve as networking sites.

The greatest challenge all the groups face is pole dancing's stereotype. Holley said that while there is a distinctly sensual side to pole dancing, it's not limited to that. Students get the benefit of learning how to move their bodies in different ways while building strength and coordination, and an added bonus to that is that they often leave more aware of their bodies, she said.

"It's exciting to see people do things they don't think their bodies can do," Holley said.

The vast majority of Holley's students are women. The female-centric atmosphere has created an environment in which they feel safe, and by the end, begin expressing themselves.

"I'm surprised by the bonding that happens," Holley said. "[Students] come in very self-conscious, and by the end of it, they're [hanging out with each other]."

It's this mental change that is striking as students learn to put their hesitations behind them and gain self-confidence. Students, though, may be most surprised by how much work it takes to perform on the pole.

"I love it when people come back in and they can't move," she joked.

Unlike many other dance-based workouts, pole dancing puts a great focus on upper body and torso strength­—traditionally where women are the weakest. And while it may hurt, eventually students can build some serious guns.

"Muscles on women are gorgeous," Holley said.

While most find it a fun and challenging workout, Bernauer Wood cautions that anyone with a bad back or knee problems should be cautious before trying pole dancing, since the activity can put a lot of strain on those areas.

Holley's workshops are a series of four classes, after which she said students know enough to continue on their own. Many have become so inspired that they have installed their own poles at home.

Of course, some students are more interested in the sensual side of pole dancing. Holley is tapping into this market as well, recently contracting with Va Va Voom, an adult-oriented shop, to teach sensual pole dancing.

She's also taking her own skills to the stage as part of the Red Light Variety Show, a troupe of female performers that Holley calls a sort of burlesque-style variety show. The 13-member group will be performing a masquerade-themed New Year's Eve show at the Bouquet.

Holley, though, is still working to bridge the gap between the sexual and the fitness aspects of pole dancing. Her answer is to appeal to everyone's desire to have a good time.

"It's so much fun, it's stupid fun," she said. "Everyone loves the jungle gym when they're 5, then they stop."

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