How I Pole Danced My Way Out of the Pandemic
Pop culture and the club have long captured the allure of the pole
image Hustlers (2019)
words Olive Pometsey
There is Jennifer Lopez in the opening scene of Hustlers, wearing a bejewelled cut-out swimsuit while being showered in dollar bills as she slides across the club stage, and then there is me, in my running shorts and an oversized T-shirt, screaming internally as I slide face down a pole. As swindling stripper Romana, Lopez is sexy and confident, making doing the splits while hanging upside down in a dental floss swimsuit look like a piece of cake. I am clumsy, embarrassed and perspiring so much that, no matter how much I engage my core or tighten my grip, I slide back down the pole almost as soon as I begin to climb up it. Pole dancing, it turns out, is much harder than it looks. And it does actually look pretty hard.
As a person who did as little exercise as possible during lockdowns, when the world began to return to normal, my stamina for running after buses did not. I knew I had to find a sustainable and exhilarating way to get fit. But here’s the thing: I hated working out. I once almost passed out at a HIIT class. When I first tried barre, the instructor asked if I was ill when she noticed I was struggling with the warm-up. As for the gym, the only thing that motivated me to go was the promise of abs, slimmer thighs or a peachy bum. After every workout, I’d analyse my body to check if I could see immediate results from my laboured sit-ups, tensing in the mirror like a Hueled-up gym bro. Then, when those mythical abs refused to reveal themselves after a smug week of limp salads and regular gym sessions, I’d give up.
I’ll be honest: signing up to a six-week pole dancing course was a decision I made with wine-fuelled impulse. My tipsy brain reasoned that I needed to find something fun to ensure I stuck with a fitness routine - plus, I had to pay for six sessions up front, so quitting would mean wasted money.
I chose to buy now, regret later - regret setting in specifically 20 minutes before the first class, on my way to London studio Polepeople. When I got there, I found five other girls who looked as nervous as I felt, and a smiley instructor who makes pole dancing look even easier than Lopez does. By the end of the six-week course, I’d found what had been missing from my attempts at starting a fitness journey since my teens: motivation beyond the mirror.
I’m not remotely good at pole dancing. In fact, it’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever attempted in my life. During each class, I’d get tired and frustrated, and the next day, I’d wake up with bruises on my thighs. Yet, when the beginners course ended, I found myself signing up for an intermediate course with the other girls in my class.
At some point during those six weeks, my brain changed. Instead of Googling “pole dancing body transformation” to find pictures of people who had lost weight through practising the sport (and it is a sport), I began researching how to build upper body strength to support the moves I’d been learning. I took up pilates, not to get lean but to learn how to control muscles I didn’t know I had until pole dancing woke them up. McMuffins became easier to resist, simply because I noticed how they’d make me feel sluggish and less agile while attempting a chair spin later in the day. My body wasn’t quite a temple, but it was no longer the enemy. I finally realised that, contrary to the world of GymShark influencers, fitness isn’t about perfection.
I’m not the first person whose mindset has been transformed by pole dancing. A 2018 study found that many pole dancers are motivated by “the measurability of achievement experienced in pole dancing [compared] with mainstream activities”, as well as increased feelings of confidence and body acceptance.
“I liked it [pole dancing] more than any other exercise because I felt it was more measurable in terms of what you can do, not in terms of what you look like, and you get a better sense of achievement,” said one of the study’s participants. “Rather than, like, watching numbers, which is what I was sort of doing with counting calories and weight loss and everything.”
Well, same. The best part? The study also found that participant’s new-found confidence extended beyond the pole studio, with many women picking up other new activities or pushing themselves out of their social comfort zones. That explains the pilates, then.
So no, I still don’t feel as sexy when I look in the mirror at the pole dancing studio. But I do feel powerful, both physically and mentally. It’s nice that I can now do a full press up; it’s even better that I’m able to wear a sports bra and booty shorts in a room with other women without instinctively covering my belly with my arms. And the feeling when you finally nail a spin that’s been taunting you for weeks? Nothing beats it – not even a McMuffin. I may be worlds away from looking like Lopez in Hustlers, but I’m poles apart from my previous attitude towards working out. And for the first time, the latter feels like the bigger win.