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Cover Story

Stripping pounds, not clothes


Have you been looking forward to the gymnastics competitions at the 2016 Olympics? There may be a whole other reason to get excited.

Rachel Sorensen competing on the silks at the 2015 Aerial Expo.

Rachel Sorensen competing on the silks at the 2015 Aerial Expo.

The International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA) says they are seeking to gain the International Olympic Committee’s recognition of pole dance as a sport. All signs are positive for the 2020 Olympic games, if not 2016.

Before you scoff at this notion, you should understand why so many women swear by pole as their main form of exercise and how it has transformed their lives.

How it all began
Aerial acrobatics have been performed for centuries. While some events, like the aerial lyra, silks and trapeze, have a little-known history outside of French circus schools, some apparatuses — like the vertical pole — date as far back as 12th century China. Chinese acrobats would climb up, slide down and flip between two poles, displaying feats of strength and speed. Likewise, the Indian wrestling pole, known as the Mallakhamb, originated more than 800 years ago in Maharashtra, India. Used to develop speed, reflexes, concentration and coordination, Mallakhamb is still a nationally recognized sport in 14 states in India.

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Of course, when talking about pole dancing, many minds drift to raunchy nightclubs. Even without ever entering a strip club, it’s not hard to imagine scantily clad women performing exotic dances — which, interestingly enough, didn’t exist until 1968.

According to the IPDFA, the modern pole dance became popularized in Canada in the 1980s and began spreading as a form of fitness in 1994. Today, pole is a combination of centuries-old techniques and burlesque dance style, but it also relies heavily on physical fitness, flexibility and endurance.

The same goes for the continued use of the Chinese Pole, trapeze acts, aerial silks and lyra performances on stages like Cirque du Soleil and under

An aerial hammock class in full swing at B-Fit.

An aerial hammock class in full swing at B-Fit.

the big tops of circuses like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Changing bodies and lives
The Des Moines area is lucky enough to have multiple outlets for those interested in the aerial arts. The Des Moines Social Club (DMSC) hosts the annual Aerial Expo — launched in 2013 by the Iowa Fly Girl, Felicia Coe — which is a weekend-long event that brings in nationally recognized aerial instructors for workshops, performances and competitions.

The Iowa Fly Girl has regular classes for aerial silks and lyra as well as aerial hammock and flexibility classes at the DMSC.

Also in Des Moines is Club B-Fit (formerly Kee’s Camp), Iowa’s first pole fitness studio. The majority of the facility is dedicated to vertical pole and the recently added aerial hammocks, but owner and lead trainer Jennifer Bramble, 42, said she has some cross training as well, such as basic strength training, zumba and kickboxing. Her focus remains strongly on fitness for life, and that mantra trickles down to her students and staff.

Natalie Alexander, 30, said pole training has “probably gotten me in the best shape ever.” One of her trainers, Lisa Darrell, couldn’t help but agree.

“I have muscles like I never thought I could have. It’s changed the entire shape of my body,” Darrell said. “I’m over 50, and I feel like I have the body of a 35-year-old. I’m the healthiest and strongest I’ve ever been in my life.”

As a trainer, Darrell helps instill healthy life changes to her students. She pays special attention to connecting the mind to the body.11

“One of the things I find with us, as women, is that we have these problems with body image and the way we think about ourselves,” she explained. “I have found, with pole fitness, that I feel different in myself and how I feel in my body, and I want to share that with other people.”

Darrell spends time in each class guiding students on how to not only enjoy moving their bodies, but how to enjoy being inside their bodies.

Bramble also noted that it’s important to make the training fun, which is a big part of what makes aerial fitness such a sustainable program.

“(Students) feel better, they’re getting leaner — and, oh my gosh, they’re having a great time. That is hands down the No. 1 seller for us,” she admitted. “When people come in here, they don’t feel like they’re working out; they feel like they’re having fun, and that is exactly what I want people to feel.”

“I know it’s so hard to get up and go to the gym because it’s kind of like the same thing, running on a treadmill or doing some steps for your workout,” Alexander said of standard fitness facilities. “But when you’re always doing different things — there’s always new tricks you can learn, always working on different muscles. You know, it’s just so much fun. It really is.”

And that’s what keeps the students coming back for more.

“I can’t wait for the next time to go back to the studio. I never dread my workout,” Darrell said. “I’m enjoying myself, and I’m not really thinking about 10, 20, 30 sit-ups or, ‘Ugh, I’ve just got to lift this barbell 14 more times.’ ”

9“I’ve been to a lot of traditional gyms, and it’s light-years different,” Sarah Molenburg, 34, said of her experiences in alternative fitness. As a trainer, student and competitor at TGR Fitness, the pole fitness studio in Ankeny, she’s happy to have found a place where she can be healthy and have a good time. “TGR is no longer a gym for me. All of my friends are there,” she said. “I don’t even care what class is going… I can walk in and be mad, and an hour later I can walk out smiling.”

Rachel Sorensen, 22, can relate. Practicing both pole fitness and aerial silks, she said, “Since I started (at TGR) a year and a half ago, most of the girls here, and some of the guys that have come to classes, have become like family to me.”

A growing community
That is wonderful news to Amber Cahill, president and owner of The Girls Room Inc. (rebranded to TGR Fitness). The 40-year-old mother of three recalled her first pole studio in Chicago. Only there for three months, Cahill says she is still friends with the women she met there.5

“It’s just an incredibly bonding environment, and that’s what I still want to keep true in TGR Fitness,” she said.

Alexander agreed about the atmosphere.

“You have great friends, and they become very intimate friends because of what you’re doing,” she said.

While earning a medal in artistry in the beginner silks division at the Aerial Expo last month, Sorensen had time to connect with fellow aerialists. Most of the competitors were friends she had made from TGR and DMSC classes “and the ones that weren’t, I bonded with and became friends with since.”

Darrell, who found time to take workshops at the 2015 Aerial Expo, explained similar feelings about the pole and aerial community in general.

“I’m in this beautiful community of all these beautiful women, and that has enhanced my life in a way that I never had found anywhere else before,” she said. “My relationship with these women is beautiful and amazing and strong.”

8In spite of being competitive businesses, TGR and B-Fit have too much in common and too many differences to be hostile toward each other. Bramble said that the fitness programs at B-Fit are one of a kind, but she readily divulged that other studios do things in their own special way as well. The pole and aerial community is supportive of other groups and does what it can to help create continued growth.

“When I first began TGR in 2010, I had a hard time getting a lease,” Cahill said. “Fast-forward five years, we’ve seen my studio grow, as well as others around me with pole and aerial.” She added that the interest in alternative fitness has grown so much that TGR trainers teach intro level pole and stretching classes weekly at the Iowa School of Burlesque in Ames.

More evidence to the strength in the community points toward TGR’s second location in Des Moines, which opened last month. The poles won’t be installed until early 2016, but aerial silks, hammocks, lyras and a trapeze are rigged and ready. Ninja warrior training — not unlike the “American Ninja Warrior” TV show — is at the facility full time already.

If you’re worried about fitting into the aerial fitness community, rest assured that it’s not a clique that excludes new learners. Molenburg said that, in alternative fitness, you’re going to find support and encouragement, not condescension.

“You’re going to get people high-fiving you, saying, ‘This class is hard — I remember my first class; I struggled, too. Trust me, it gets better. You can do this.’ ”

Fighting the stigma
“Just because I take the classes does not mean that I have any intentions to become a stripper or anything like that,” Alexander said, countering the unspoken stigma of pole dancing. “(Pole is) not what it used to be.”

It seems like everyone is still fighting the misconceptions of alternative fitness. “My dad actually struggled with it at first,” Sorensen said.

Molenburg, her trainer at the time, suggested showing him some videos of the other girls at the studio, as that’s what she had to do with her own family. Sorensen said that eventually “he saw that it was a lot more of a fitness thing.” Molenburg said that her family turned around, too, sometimes posting videos on her Facebook page and asking if she can do the same moves.

“(They) realized what I do isn’t what others may think,” Molenburg said. Proud to continue to fly through the air around a pole, the trainer added, “I make the decisions that make me happy, and this makes me happy. I don’t care about the stigma that’s attached to it.”

“Just as in any dance, we love to move our bodies,” Darrell explained. “That’s the same thing we’re doing here. We’re finding ways to move our bodies with the assistance of a pole as our prop. It allows us to take the dancing from the floor and become a little more acrobatic, a little bit more aerial.”

Darrell revels in the fact that something so fun can be so physically satisfying and said she wishes more people accepted it for what it really is.

“It is really unfortunate the stigma that we have. We fight it all the time with people,” she said.

So, how does one eliminate the stigma? Sure, showing videos helps, but even then, not everyone will understand the difference between a pole fitness routine and an exotic dance.

Cahill says the most powerful thing is about giving people the experience.

“I always say my ballet bar just runs up and down instead of side to side,” she said. “Once I started pole fitness, it felt exactly like dance and gymnastics combined into one. Nobody had to tell me that, I had to experience it.”

“It’s hard to sell people on that,” Bramble said. But she agrees about getting them through the door is all it will take. “Once they get in here, they realize we’re just real people doing a very raw thing.”

And how does Molenburg convince them?

“Depending on the person, I’ll ask them if they want to poke my abs,” she laughed. “It’s really a great workout. Do you want to poke my abs? Squeeze my bicep?”

A competitive sport
With knowledge of pole and aerial as fitness activities, Cahill says it’s important to know that competition is there, too — from performances to competing at the professional level and everything in between. TGR alone has brought 50 routines, ages ranging from 9 to 54, to the competitive stage. Five of those were pole performances of Molenburg’s, and Cahill herself had 12, a variety of pole, silks and lyra.

3Bramble has sent girls to competitions before as well, but she says her focus at B-Fit is health over performance. She loves to do poleography and aerialography, though, and would have no problem preparing someone with a competitive edge.

“I think about it,” Alexander says of going to competitions. “If I had more time on my hands, I would absolutely 100 percent work on competing.”

Cahill is grateful toward the organizations that host the events for athletes to compete. She said it’s a gift for the people who thought, “OK, I’m 18, I graduated high school. Time to hang up those pointe shoes and I’ll never see that kind of competition base again… Dancing is life. Movement is life. You don’t have to stop that just because you graduate high school and it’s time to grow up. We refuse to grow up.”

And what’s most amazing to her?

“There’s a big push right now to get (pole) into the Olympics, and they are on their final step to being accepted.”

Though the outlook is good, the opposition to the addition of the sport makes a few fair points. Stripper stigma aside, the world of pole is confusing. There are many different international pole organizations and competitions, such as Miss Pole Dance World, World Pole Sport and Fitness and the International Pole Championship (IPC) — and each one has different rules and regulations.

As the IPDFA hosts the most extensive competition, the IPC, their systems and policies are likely to be the ones adopted if the Olympic committee accepts pole into the games. Even so, there are multiple divisions (men, women, double and master) and different categories (ultimate pole, pole art and pole fit). It can be confusing to the untrained eye.

Since 2008, the IPC stage has introduced countless pole athletes to the world. The United States’ own Natasha Wang won the Women’s Ultimate Pole division in 2013. In 2009, Jenyne Butterfly, one of the biggest names in pole fitness, was the first winner of the U.S. Pole Dance Federation Championship (USPDFC), and she now performs with Cirque du Soleil. Paige Olson recently placed first in her novice division at the 2014 USPDFC. The 10-year-old went on to place second at the international level.

All these ladies, and many more, have wowed judges and audiences around the globe, and they want the opportunity to show their skills to an even bigger audience at the Olympics. Training for pole is a lifestyle, similar to many other sports. It’s all about hard work.

“That’s what I love most about the competition,” said Molenburg. “I become better than I am, because it motivates me to push myself to be this machine I didn’t even know I could be.” CV

Aerialist: a person who performs acrobatic feats on the different aerial apparatuses.
Aerial silks: two strips of fabric connected to the rigging on the ceiling. Performers may use both fabrics together and separated.
Rigging: what attaches an apparatus to the floor or ceiling.
Aerial hammock: a single loop of fabric with both ends connected at the rigging on the ceiling.
Lyra: an aerial hoop rigged from the ceiling. Performers may move above, below and inside the hoop.
Aerialography/Poleography: choreography on a given apparatus.
Boot camp: group training designed to build strength through various intense intervals over an hour.
Cross training: fitness training across multiple styles of fitness.
Stage pole: a vertical pole rigged only to a heavy, moveable base. No top.
Trapeze: a horizontal bar attached by two ropes to ceiling rigging. Performers may use the ropes and the bar to display acrobatics while free swinging.
Vertical pole: the apparatus of a pole dancer. It may be static or spinning and is rigged to both the ceiling and the floor.

One Comment

  1. Cary Douglas says:

    Great article – great sport! It can be so many things – A physical workout, an artistic outlet, a creative spirit, a strength building experience, but most of all it is a community! One I am proud to say not only I am a part of, but so is my teenage daughter and her father is her biggest fan!

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