Is Pole the Universal Sport?

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Hidden away in primarily dance-focused studios lies the perfect tool for upper body and core exercise.

Just as football players might enroll in ballet classes in order to improve balance and stability, athletes can improve flexibility, power, and physical fluidity through pole dancing.

But despite the lessening of the sexual reputation and social stigma that often strip dancing of its status as a form of rigorous and effective exercise, the sport still attracts a largely female following.

This imbalance continues, in part, due to the sensual nature of pole dancing combined with the ‘no boys allowed’ reputation the sport has garnered since its rise to mainstream popularity.

Male athletes who break through their reluctance, however, find a place in the female-dominated sport that combines endurance, strength, and movement.

BTRtoday sat down with Kyra Johannesen, co-founder and owner of one of the largest pole and aerial dance studios in the country, to discuss the athleticism of pole dancing along with the ways in which co-ed studios highlight the gender inclusivity of the sport.

BTRtoday (BTR): You’re one of the biggest pole and aerial studios in the country, but how did Body & Pole get to this point?

Kyra Johannesen (KJ): Initially, we rented a space in a yoga studio downtown in 2009, which held only four poles. I think the class schedule was maybe 20 classes a week.

Not even three months later, however, we moved into our own space outside the studio in order to fit more poles and accommodate more classes. It was a lot of growth in a very short period of time.

We now offer over 200 classes a week, in over 10,000 square feet of studio space. It’s a huge operation.

BTR: Did this growth occur before pole fitness really peaked in popularity as a mainstream method of exercise, or was it all happening around the same time?

KJ: It was around that same time. Previously, I was the national pole fitness director for Crunch gym, so I’d developed their programs around the country and helped start up the buzz.

Even though there were some small pole studios around New York City at the time, they weren’t teaching what we believed was the best technical approach, and they weren’t including the aerial dance form in those teachings.

So, we started Body & Pole because we believed that the people needed longer classes, as well as classes leveled for skill and experience.

We also wanted to teach smaller classes, so that our students had the opportunity to learn appropriate techniques in a more relaxed environment.

Where other studios either booked too many students, or held much shorter classes, we saw a clear place for us in the market.

BTR: And are your classes more exercise, or dance based?

KJ: There’s definitely a way to approach both aspects of dance and fitness in a class, which we always try to balance.

We believe in working on alignment and technique while working out the full body, as well as approaching the aspect of fluidity and movement throughout the body. We believe that anybody can do so, as long as they are open to perfecting the technique.

But pole provides a difficult upper body workout, as you’re lifting your entire body weight. It’s definitely hard work.

BTR: Your studio has 63 instructors on staff, eight of which are men. That’s quite an achievement, considering that it’s the highest number of male instructors teaching at a co-ed pole studio in NYC. Do you think that impacts the width of your reach, and contributes to your popularity overall?

KJ: Yes! Right from the beginning, we have believed this is also a dance form, and therefore should be offered to any gender. There’s a place for anyone to bring their style in to pole dancing.

We’ve always been open to teaching men, and find that many male fitness instructors and dancers really want to learn and teach this.

We took our initial male clients with us, trained them to teach pole properly, and helped them approach that world. We were always hoping to bring this fitness tool to all people.

BTR: And with this high concentration of male instructors, do you find that your studio also attracts a large number of male clients?

KJ: We absolutely attract a lot of men. In each class we see at least one or two men, and they are fairly small classes, so that’s a pretty high concentration depending on the day.

I think at first, pole wasn’t marketed toward men as something in which they may find interest, but when they see other men doing it they feel a sense of permission to engage in the activity. Male clients take with them many different aspects of the class, be it in strength building, or in movement, or even that sensual characteristic. The message and reach of pole is created from whatever a person wants to take away from the sport. The more we emphasize that, the more people of all ages and genders are willing to try it out.

BTR: Do you have any thoughts on the classes that exclusively welcome female clients?

KJ: I’m just happy that B&P is a space for everyone who wants to be in this world. We’re an inclusive studio, and part of that is not worrying about what everyone else is doing. We want to focus on functioning as a space that welcomes everyone.

BTR: So when a class does include men, do you believe that adjusting the focus or intensity of the material benefits your clients?

KJ: No, I don’t. I won’t assume what my clients want, in that regard. Some women want sensual movement, and some want sport. It works the same way with male clients.

When you go to dance school, you model the choreographer’s moves and then add your own flair, which is why people of all genders feel comfortable in those spaces. What we teach is that basic technique, and clients add what they want to their experience.

BTR: Because you don’t shift the focus of classes based on gender or style preference, do you ever encounter reluctant male clients?

KJ: There’s always at least one. Pole dancing can be a good fit for everyone, and I have definitely seen a lot of people gain excitement from moving their body in a new and different way while noticing how their body can do things that were previously unexpected. That’s a universal feeling between teachers and students.

It’s about people discovering an unknown ability and connecting to their bodies. That’s what I love teaching, because we are giving them the opportunity to see themselves do something they were scared or reluctant to try. And, honestly, anyone who is excited to try pole should just go for it! The teachers will get you where you need to be.

It only takes stepping up beyond the doubts, and stepping through the door.

BTR: So on a personal level, what do you think of pole?

KJ: Pole is an amazing opportunity for people who want to grow upper body and core strength, but want to bring back an emotional experience. Dance is emotional, and allows us to connect with our nature and neighbors. They can bring that outside of this space, in personal confidence and in how they carry themselves.

The entire experience is just so fun. You don’t even know you’re working out, and you’re in a safe space where you can explore every aspect of the sport, and you experience an emotional release. You’re doing something you care for, and that becomes a joyous experience.

We want to work out, but also to forget about our worries while we emotionally connect to ourselves. That feeling and experience is definitely not meant for a particular gender or age group.