Pole Dancing Helped Me Regain Control of My Life

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

The past two years have been busy: I moved from New York City back to my hometown in Pennsylvania, got engaged, planned a wedding, adopted a dog, bought a house, got married, and started an endless list of DIY home-improvement projects. It’s been … a lot. Still, once or twice a week, I head to my local studio, lather up with dry-hands lotion, and pull myself onto the pole. It is the one place I can always rely on to feel calm and in control.

I went to my first pole class in 2018. I had just moved to New York and was looking for ways to meet people, so I bought a Groupon for three classes at a random studio. I wasn’t into it at all. It felt too structured and overwhelming, and my skin against the pole hurt way more than I expected. I didn’t even use my passes for the other two classes. But the social-media algorithms work hard, and after buying that Groupon, my Instagram feed was flooded with pole videos and photos. It seemed like such a cool, different workout, and I felt myself drawn back in.

I gave it one more shot, this time at Foxy Fitness in New York. Its classes are open level, so at first it was really intimidating. But the format, which is free-form with instructors floating around to guide when needed, lends itself well to meeting people. I spent the first six months constantly discouraged. Most moves seemed impossible, and I thought I would never be able to do them, even as someone who has worked out for the bulk of my life. But everyone in the class was so encouraging. They told me to be patient and stressed the importance of showing up, adding, “If you come consistently, it’ll start to happen.” I’ve never played a team sport, so this type of supportive community was new to me — and very cool to experience for the first time in my late 20s.

I started spending more and more time at the studio. My now-husband had just started a job that took up almost all of his time — the only signs of life I saw from him were crumbs in our kitchen from his early-morning breakfasts — and my job wasn’t going particularly well. Pole was the only thing I looked forward to, so I kept going even though I wasn’t particularly good. It started as something to fill up my time and be with other girls similar to me, but it became my sanctuary. Pole felt like one of the few stable things in my life, like if I worked hard enough I would see results. It was worth skipping work happy hours or R and R at home because it was just mine.​​

The 8:30 p.m. Competition Workshop class, which was right after the class I normally went to, was filled with women whose bodies were so muscular. I initially thought, This class isn’t for me. It’s for real athletes. At first just being able to climb and hold myself up off the ground without a spotter was a big accomplishment, and then I worked on gradually making my movements smoother and cleaner with proper technique, like pointed toes, avoiding micro-bends in the joints for clean lines, avoiding regripping the pole, and smooth transitions from one move to the next. A few beginner milestones would probably be aerial inverts and shoulder mounts, which includes inverting without the feet on the ground to be able to push off. And ayesha — an inverted position with both hands on the pole, arms extended, and legs in a V-shape — is a common intermediate milestone that I was after for a while. The first time I hit a real achievement (a handspring into an ayesha), the rest of the class freaked out. Immediately, I wanted to try (or unlock, as we say in the sport) the next thing.

After a few months, I had progressed enough that I wanted to give that Competition Workshop a shot. The workout was so intense I could only do the class once a week, but I started to see real results. I worked on creating my own combos and perfecting them with proper form and technique, so the expectations were elevated. It challenged my discipline, focus, attention to detail, and creativity. In addition to more attention and instruction, a smaller class size meant that I got my own pole the entire time (in the other class, I rotated out with fellow students), so it was an endurance challenge. Particularly when running through a routine where I’m practicing the exact same sequence over and over again, trying to perfect it, my muscles start to get so fatigued and tight. I gained a lot of body awareness to know where I need to stretch and where I need to build strength on cross-training days to try to keep some muscular balance in my body. It was also rough on my skin. I was always bruised — we call them “pole kisses” — from the repetitive pressure of holding my body weight or pressing into the pole. Despite all of that, I always knew that I would be in a good mood walking home from the studio, no matter how bad my day was up until that point.

I really began to embrace my identity as a pole dancer. I got a pole at home — it took 10 minutes to set up and break down in the living room of my tiny apartment — and began posting videos from class on Instagram, which quickly expanded my community in the sport. Eventually, I decided it was time to work on a routine to compete at one of the Pole Sport Organization’s (PSO) competitions, which vary in size but ultimately allow pole dancers at all levels to compete across the country.

Photo: Courtesy of the Subject

Then, COVID. In March 2020, I moved back to my dad’s house in Pennsylvania, thinking it would be for a few days. When it turned into weeks, I was anxious to get back to my pole community. I was most emotional about losing that aspect of my social life during lockdowns. There were some girls from Australia and Eastern Europe I followed on Instagram, and they started putting their classes online. Since I still had my apartment in the city and all my stuff was there, I drove back and stayed in New York for a few weeks in isolation, mainly so I could practice on my home pole. Even though I didn’t have the physical studio space anymore, I suddenly had access to a wider network of videos and routine ideas.

My now-husband and I bought a house in Pennsylvania right around the time COVID restrictions began to ease. I started practicing at a studio in Easton and occasionally visited Foxy Fitness in the city. I began working on a new competition routine, and last November I competed at a PSO event in Boston. I’m really not a performer by nature, and there was a moment backstage, right before my turn, when I thought, Oh my god. I don’t think I can do this. There was an empty stage except for me and two poles, a blinding light — and I was basically in my underwear. I just felt so vulnerable. But my coach, Ashley, gave me a pep talk, and once the music started, I let my body take over. My routine ended with me lying on the ground looking up at the pole. I was so out of breath, but I suddenly heard applause. I felt such relief and pride. I went home with a gold medal for my division.

Training for the competition was pretty tough on my body, so I took a break from pole for a few months. When I started going to the studio again this spring, it was humbling how quickly my strength had left. But it still feels natural to be on the pole, even if it’s in a less intense capacity. Pole has forced me to toughen up — and to not rely on external validation. Some randoms on the Internet have commented that I look “manly” in my photos and videos. When I was younger, that would’ve really bothered me, but pole has given me the confidence to hear things I don’t like and just let them go.

Pole is all about taking things one day at a time, one class at a time. Everyone, everyone, everyone starts as a beginner. It’s about making yourself uncomfortable, pushing through, and thriving.

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Pole Dancing Helped Me Regain Control of My Life