For several months, I lived next to an infamous San Francisco strip club. I was about 10 years old then, and I've tried to steer clear of strip clubs ever since.
So I figured it was kind of odd that I ended up at a Las Vegas fitness studio in a pole dancing class. I had to bite my tongue to keep from making jokes about vain firefighters when I saw the studio — equipped with nine poles, big mirrors and a shiny wood floor.
It is possible that I am the least likely woman to swivel around a pole like a human tetherball since Carol Doda, a former prune picker, went topless at The Condor (which is the club I lived next to) in 1964. With one bold stroke she made sparkly pasties obsolete. She shed her bottoms
They crossed the final frontier and the art went downhill, wrote exotic dance historian Jessica Glasscock in her book, "Striptease": "Strippers are completely naked now, and that doesn't leave much to build an act around."
Now they have poles, and a dancer who knows her way around one can electrify a crowd, as if a nearly naked woman prowling around in front of people isn't enough. (Often it is not.)
The dancers begin with the left foot sweeping in an arched strut, toes pointing down, along the floor. Then comes the right foot, then up comes an arm, then a calf, encircling the pole like a vine.
The dancers propel their
I didn't look like either, despite prior consultation with my "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Exotic and Pole Dancing" book (I'll never get that skin back from my thighs). But the four women who I joined in the class were closer.
Two — a brunette and an African-American woman — were there for fun, while the other two were there for business.
Amy, a blonde dressed in shorts and a tank-top, has been an exotic dancer for three years. She said she has been taking classes for several months to "perfect our job."
The younger blonde, Crystal, plans to become a stripper to earn extra money because her government job (she refused to specify the agency or, like Amy, give her last name) doesn't pay enough for her to support her mother and grandmother.
I could see the difference in how willing they were to play up the racier moves that share DNA with lap dance, striptease and stripping. They, too, evolved from burlesque to the emporiums of sexuality otherwise known as the strip club. All hail Gypsy Rose Lee.
I made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas thinking it would be the zenith point for pole dancing. Not so. Lap dancing is the moneymaker in U.S. clubs, said Tracy Gray and Christine Boyer of Aradia Fitness studios. They started the first pole dancing for fitness classes in Canada in 2003, while their business partner, pole-dancing pioneer Fawnia Mondey-Dietrich, had been producing DVDs for performers beginning in 1998.
Canadian strip club dancers had to rely on their stage performances to earn tips, Boyer said. It was more performance art than titillation, and it took off like a meteor among nonprofessionals.
So the self-described fitness fanatics arrived in Sin City in 2007 to put the pole in the hands of ordinary women. Only in this workout you can wear lipstick and high heels.
It beats the treadmill — and is a lot harder. I was sore for a week.
Aradia's bachelorette parties and "Vegas vacations," where the women learn simple lap-dancing moves and pole routines, also are popular.
"Then they do what they want with the techniques," Boyer said. The classes let them be a little naughty, she added. "When do women get a chance to do that?
Evidently, though, pole dancing isn't just about turning men on. Men are also showing interest in learning, and Aradia, like many studios, is experimenting with coed classes.
Gray said the men are usually in search of strength and flexibility — I am assuming they skip the makeup and platform heels. Some just want to show off moves they saw in a strip club.
More frequently, they offer to be the studio's secretary, pole technician or prop, Boyer said, rolling her eyes slightly.
Whoever first put pole dancing on a strip club stage appears to be lost to a dark, smoke-filled history. But in less than a decade since pole dancing became a staple in strip clubs, Cirque de Soleil has a pole-dancing act and supporters are petitioning to have pole dancing in the 2012 Olympic Games.
There are international competitions, and Las Vegas' Pole-A-Palooza offers a $10,000 purse that audience members have been known to double as a gesture of appreciation.
Even Mormon moms in Utah, who call it "pole fitness," are behind the push to Olympic gold, though they still wear the hooker heels (to strengthen their calves). After trying on a pair, I have admiration to anyone who can dance in them, but they might be out of place in the Olympics.
Of course, it had to be Oprah who put pole dancing in the mainstream limelight in 2003 when she gave it a spin on her show.
"It's come out of the closet in a big way," said Catherine Rose of Oakland-based Slinky Productions. The Canadian native counts herself as the first pole dance instructor in the Bay Area.
The pixie-like brunette, a former stripper, sees a full scope of women fill her classes. Women looking for a good workout, women searching for a way to get in touch with their sexuality, women seeking a "makeover," and women just wanting to try something totally new.
Sarah Booher, a Slinky Productions student who has liver disease, began exotic dancing to improve her health after a car crash.
"The classes remind me of dancing with my friends when we were younger," she said. "It's just the girls, and you're just having fun."
Women gravitate toward the pole, Rose said. She just teaches them how to use it, she said, like a fairy godmother in a G-string: "Boom. Now you're sexy."
Beginners tend to cling to it like a safety blanket, Rose said. But once they learn to trust the pole and have built up their fitness level, the learning curve is "like this," Rose said, moving her hand across the horizon in front of her then shooting her arm up like a rocket to demonstrate.
Audrey Stone, a theater actress and Slinky Productions student, said she spent the first class with her hands over her face feeling awkward like everyone else.
"If you enjoy the pole part, you should take a second class," she said. "Every new spin calls to duty muscles I never knew existed."
A lot of it has to do with choosing an environment that feels safe, she added.
"Finding the right fit gives you permission to let go and stop judging your body and how you are moving. Then you succeed," she said during a demonstration while "Are You Experienced" by Jimi Hendrix played on the stereo.
The first line? "If you can just get your mind together then come across to me."
Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.