Pole Dancing—Good for the Body, But What About a Woman's Soul?
The moment I walk into the Girls Room, I feel out of place.
The studio's wide, mirrored space is punctuated by gleaming silver poles that extend from floor to ceiling, and the purple walls are festooned with pink feather boas and bright, sequined leotards.
It's all so girly, and I've always resisted being girly. When my mother tried to dress me in frilly dresses, I threw a tantrum. If ever I happened to be reading—the horror!—something along the lines of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., I'd disguise the cover. Among my friends growing up in New Mexico, baggy jeans, soccer and skiing with the guys were in. Heels were out. Way out. It wasn't that I didn't want to be feminine, but more important was being smart and analytical, athletic and cool, commanding and capable enough to be taken seriously. That meant avoiding anything that smacked of sequins, lace or the color pink.
So on this October evening at the Girls Room, a women's dance studio that opened in January on Lower Greenville, I try to muster some confidence for my first pole-dancing class. As I tuck my purse into a cubby in the back of the room, a tall woman in short shorts and a pert ponytail glances at my long black yoga pants with a troubled look. "Oh," she says. "You have to wear shorts."
Right. Something about sliding around a pole with my bare legs. Painfully aware of my thighs and feeling like the kid who has to make do with clothes from the lost and found, I awkwardly roll my pants above the knee and find a pole in the back row.
The instructor, a spunky dancer and actress named Toy Laster, strides to the front of the room. She begins by showing us how to hold onto the pole while bending over, flat-backed, to stretch our hamstrings. I come face to face with my feet and wince. Hello, Huck Finn. While my classmates' toes are perfectly pedicured, the chipped red polish on mine makes it look like I've been kicking rocks. Both feet are scabbed with bites I'd picked up from swarming fire ants on a trip to the country to pet horses, walk barefoot and pretend I was back home in the Rockies. Very hot.
Laster addresses the 10 of us with an impish grin. "'You're gonna get a newfound appreciation for exotic dancers!" she says.
What an understatement. I try the first "trick," which is called The Swing and involves kicking your leg out in front of the pole, hooking the metal in the crook of your knee, and then grabbing on with both hands, hoisting yourself off the ground and swinging around in a full circle. My arm muscles strain to sustain what's basically a horizontal pull-up, and I make it about three-quarters of the way around before the pain in my arms peaks. I slide down the pole and into a heap on the dance floor.
Peeling myself off the ground, I survey the other students. They're hair stylists, event planners and executive assistants who are tired of the same old gym routine; singles looking for self-confidence or some moves to show a new boyfriend; and wives and mothers who—between chasing toddlers and laundering spit-up-laden clothing—can't recall the last time they felt the least bit sexy.
Several have come for the first time and are also struggling, giggling self-consciously as they tackle The Swing. Then there's the tall girl dressed in pink up front. She has big eyes and blond, waist-length hair. She moves with such poise that I imagine she must have emerged from the womb swinging around a pole and wearing a G-string. Next to me, a brunette with long, curly hair and perfectly toned legs is able to make it two full times around the pole without stopping. I feel like an elephant attempting to scale a chain-link fence. My second try, I make it half-way round and flop to the ground like a bass on the bottom of a boat, whacking my left shin hard.
"Come up with your booty!" Laster shouts, her voice warm and encouraging as she demonstrates how to rise to standing slowly, dragging your backside along the pole. "That's right! Sexy!"
I have better luck with The Warrior. The stance, swinging around with one bent leg held aloft behind you, is at least slightly similar to sports with which I'm familiar—skiing, rock climbing, tennis. OK, maybe I can do this.
But the next move is dizzyingly complicated—we go from facing the pole to swinging around it backward and finish on the ground straddling the thing. In the end I'm the only one still standing, confused, and Laster tells me to get down on the ground. On our stomachs now, we shift our weight onto our hands and arch our backs.
"Teasers up!" Laster says cheerfully. Pole dancing, I learn, has its own vocabulary: Breasts are teasers, ass is booty, and a woman's genitals are summed up merrily as the pleaser. Laster shows us various ways to slide up the pole. "Come up with the booty or the pleaser," she says. "If you mess up, just finish the trick [wherever you are]. A man won't know you messed up."
So is that why all these women are here, I wonder, to prep for a performance on date night?
Laster splits us into two groups. Oh, no. I'm going to have to sashay up to a pole and string these tricks together without the cover of all nine other students. I flash back to seventh grade when I briefly broke my no-pink rule and found myself botching a jazz recital while wearing a unitard the color of Barbie's Corvette. Trying to be as sultry as possible, I approach a nearby pole while Laster cheers us on. "Touch your teasers!" she cries. "That's right! Play with your hair!"
I arrive at the pole, reach out to touch it and promptly forget everything I've just learned. As the other girls spin in circles, I stand there, my mind blank. It's as if I'm back in the seventh grade, sweating onstage under the lights. My stomach does flips, and I fight the urge to sprint out of the room. Why, exactly, am I doing this?
In a nod to the showgirl era, the Girls Room is unmarked except for a bright red door on Lower Greenville numbered 1921 1/2. Karyn Pentecost, a petite woman with a mane of curly, russet-colored hair who has worked as an exotic dancer, Playboy model and personal trainer, opened the studio in January.
"We all have the desire to be strong mentally, emotionally and physically, yet still feel feminine," Pentecost says. "We're taking pole dancing and making it mainstream, taking something that's considered sexual and making it fitness."
In the last few years, pole dancing has emerged from strip clubs to become a nationwide exercise trend. A Google search for pole dancing and fitness turns up nearly 300,000 results, from classes and home videos to mail-order poles and advertisements like this one: Is there a stripper inside of you clawing to be free? Then pole dancing may be the new fitness craze for you. It's no longer just for strippers, but also soccer and P.T.A. moms. Pole dancing and striptease parties have even caught on in well-heeled suburbs, with women gathering to learn tricks at homes in Highland Park and Plano as if they were attending book clubs.
Pentecost came up with the idea for the Girls Room in late 2007, when she bought a pole for her 33rd birthday and began holding impromptu classes at The Candle Room lounge near Knox-Henderson. "I didn't even advertise," she says. "But soon there were 20 girls each week, just from word of mouth."
She seems to have tapped into a powerful thirst among women, though precisely what's driving it is a matter of perspective. Some authors and scholars say the sensual fitness trend is merely more evidence of the troubling pressure women feel to look and act sexy in order to please men.
"It seems as though our only understanding of feminine sexuality is based on sex work—pole dancing, go-go dancing, prostitution," says M. Gigi Durham, a professor at the University of Iowa and author of The Lolita Effect, a look at the commercial sexualization of young girls. "That's very troubling, I think."
The use of provocative clothing, surgical enhancements and striptease's modern offshoots to define women's sexuality is not only limiting and anti-progressive, Durham argues, but it exaggerates the importance of pleasing men instead of celebrating oneself. "Because there's so much emphasis on appealing to the male gaze," she says, "we don't have the space to think about our own desires, our own pleasures."
Pentecost and her students counter that pole dancing is a way to exercise that's not only fun, but lets women feel sexy and celebrate their sexuality.
"I think about 70 percent of the women who step through these doors think they have to learn this to compete with each other for men's attention, and that's sad," Pentecost says. "What we believe here, and what we teach, is the empowerment of femininity. When they come in here, there's no masculine symbol telling them they're not good enough—not thin enough, not pretty enough—it's all positive reinforcement from another woman."
When I tell women I know that I'm off to pole dancing class, they invariably say something like, "Oh, I've heard about that! I want to try it."
Pentecost's explanation? Women have become imbalanced, uncertain about how to integrate their femininity into a professional world that puts a premium on masculine qualities and a sexual culture that veers between ultra-sexy vamp (Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera) and asexual intellectual powerhouse (think Ruth Bader Ginsberg). On top of all that, there's the challenge of looking and feeling attractive while remaining businesslike above the neck.
As a 30-year-old single professional, I know how hard it is to strike that balance. After years of working hard not to be judged by my looks or sexuality, some of the habits I've developed at work don't necessarily play so well in my personal life—bluntly pointing out a man's flawed logic over dinner, for example, or failing to show any interest in a date and then wondering why he doesn't call. A girlfriend recently used this mock headline to describe my attempts at flirting: "Megan chats with guy at bar as if he's a 70-year-old lady."
"But what am I supposed to do?" I whined to her. Do I have to wink or giggle, act in ways that don't seem at all natural to me? Besides, I've put up barriers to fend off unwanted advances, and I don't intend to encourage them. Last month, for instance, an attorney I called about a story asked me if I was "hot," looked me up on Facebook and invited me out for cocktails.
Karyn Pentecost says a regular dose of pole dancing in a healthy, girls-only environment can help a woman navigate these thorny quandaries.
"I treat you as if you're Megan Inc. and your business is your life experiences, past, present and future. For most of us, part of the past is that sex and sensuality are considered dirty, that femininity is weak," she tells me one recent afternoon in her office at the Girls Room. "A lot of women don't feel safe around men; they feel they have to be more masculine to be strong. But I believe that if you were born a woman, you have an innate desire to be feminine." The goal, she says, is to balance our feminine and masculine sides.
"You have to believe that your feminine side is just as smart and powerful as your masculine side," she tells me. "Which means you have to go back to when did you stop feeling safe expressing your femininity?"
Easy. Seventh grade. K.C. Lucas sits behind me in economics class and every day comments about my breasts or lack thereof, asking if I'm wearing a bra and saying I'm probably not, calling me a "scrub" and for an assignment, inventing a product called "Scrub-away Spray!"
Who knew pole dancing could be a veritable trip to the shrink? I return from my middle-school reverie to see Pentecost looking at me with her piercing, aquamarine eyes. Then she's off on another philosophical tangent about the merits of using exotic dancing techniques to enhance mainstream gender equality. "Women are repressed," she says, pointing at me. "They tell you to wear a turtleneck and cut off all your hair, because 'You know how men are...'"
I glance down at my short-sleeve red mock turtleneck and touch my hair, which I recently cut short. Is she saying I look manly?
"We need to work on your feminine side," Pentecost says, "get that creative side moving."
Though you'd never imagine it from looking at her, Pentecost says she had to deliberately develop her own femininity. "I was a tomboy growing up because I felt safe with boys that way," she says. "I was always taught that feminine equaled weak." Raised in Tennessee by a Catholic mother and Pentecostal father, she was the middle child of six and says she emulated her older brothers "because they got more attention."
In high school and college, though, she fell in love with dance and began competing in hip-hop competitions. She noticed she was competing against many dancers who performed in strip clubs. One night while she was working the register at Arby's, one of them walked in for a sandwich and whipped out a big wad of cash. "She said she made $800 a night," Pentecost recalls. "It became a game. I said, 'If I'm beating them at contests every week, I could probably beat them at their own dance style.'" At 21 she embarked on a seven-year stripping career and posed for Playboy about a decade ago.
"I made a lot of money, and I saved it," she says. "I wasn't a typical stripper who went into it for the money and then created a lifestyle that demanded making $1,000 a night." She moved to Dallas with a boyfriend in 1999, modeled for advertisements, got certified as a massage therapist, personal trainer and beauty specialist, and opened and operated both The Garden Spa and Gallery and ProModels, a staffing agency for marketing campaigns throughout the Southwest.
She puts a positive spin on her years as an exotic dancer, talking about how "it felt good to be in an environment where I was admired, cherished and worshipped," but concedes that there were dark aspects to it too. Some of the girls drank or did drugs to get through their shifts, and it wasn't uncommon for women to lose themselves in addiction or abusive relationships. Eventually, she wanted out.
"I enjoyed the power, the dancing, hypnotizing people through movement, so I took something I loved and made it into a curriculum that could be taught in a positive light," she says.
Which brings us to Striptease Bootcamp, Pentecost's 90-minute specialty class that costs $150 for four sessions and offers instructions on how to strip. Unlike the pole dancing classes, which take place in the studio's large central room and are generally filled with 10 or so women, this one is held in a smaller room off to the side. Since I'm still recovering from my first pole dancing class—my arms are so sore it hurts to drive, and I have a medallion-sized bruise on my right thigh, which Laster refers to as a "passion mark"—I'd just planned to watch. But only two students have showed, and Pentecost beckons me to join them on the yoga mats that cover the small room.
To my right is a 30-ish blonde named Holly, a wedding planner who saw the Girls Room advertised in D magazine and thought it might give her a confidence boost after a tough break-up—"two-and-a-half years, wouldn't marry me, that sort of thing," she says. To my left is Angelle, a brunette in her late 30s who couldn't bear another step aerobics class and had heard of the pole dancing/striptease fitness fad popularized in workout videos such as S Factor.
Pentecost, in fitted yoga pants and a white Girls Room tank, begins by settling onto her knees. She places her hands on her thighs and, snakelike, rolls first her chest forward, then her hips. "This is the art of the takeaway, The Teaser Pleaser," she says. "You put it out and take it away." Imitating her, I resist the urge to giggle. The next move is called The Pin-up Girl. As she shows us how to sit provocatively on one hip, legs folded behind us, Pentecost launches into motivational mode and talks about Bettie Paige and how the pulp beauty queen had really wide hips but was incredibly sexy anyway.
She moves her hands over her thighs, hips and breasts. "It's like you're adoring yourself," she says. "If you love yourself, it'll reflect in your relationship." Then comes The Spread Eagle. "Open your business," Pentecost says. "And when you touch your poonan just give it a pat or a stroke."
At the word "poonan," I collapse into a fit of laughter.
"This is where we learn to love our vaginas," she goes on, stroking her inner thigh.
My mind flashes to the scene from Fried Green Tomatoes when the miserable housewife played by Kathy Bates spreads her legs in a class of women gazing at their privates with hand mirrors, then welcomes her husband home while wrapped in Saran wrap. My cheeks burning, I wish for this part to be over. I feel like I did in the first grade, when a friend and I laughed at our teacher's description of the letter M as "two humps" and wound up in the bathroom getting our mouths washed out with a dirty bar of white soap.
We move on to hypnotic stripper legs, which entails sitting on the ground, lying back and waving your legs around in the air. I feel about as sexy as a daddy longlegs.
Pentecost says I'm moving too quickly. "The slower it is, the more hypnotizing it is," she explains.
I stop laughing, slow it down, look at myself in the mirror and see what she means.
It's Saturday night at The Lodge,the upscale Dallas club that offers steak and lobster dinners, a walk-in cigar humidor and scantily clad women dancing onstage in a hunting lodge atmosphere filled with dark wood and taxidermied animals.
Pentecost has brought a group of her students here for a "field trip," an opportunity to see the origin of the moves she teaches in class.
As the six of us look on from a large table opposite the main stage, most of us a little uncomfortable but pretending we're not, a tall young woman dressed like a schoolgirl with brown pigtails strides onto the platform. She does a few turns and then methodically removes her clothes—first the tight white button-up, then the short plaid skirt. A burly 30-something man walks to the edge of the stage, tucks a few bills into her waistband and plunges his face into her breasts. Meanwhile, next to us, a thin dancer in a skimpy black dress does a lap-dance for a clean-cut man in a polo shirt who pays her to sit on his lap and talk to him for the next hour.
I notice that as the mostly naked women throughout the room gyrate their hips and touch their breasts in awe, as if they've never seen them before, none of them actually grabs a pole to do any tricks.
"There's not much pole dancing in titty bars anymore," Pentecost points out. "It's too hard—and they figured out that men are easy."
There are various ideas about the precise origins of pole dancing, whether it began in ancient times with the pagan tradition of the Maypole or perhaps was influenced by Mallakham, the sport that for hundreds of years has been used in India to train gymnasts and wrestlers. Some scholars trace it to the early 20th century, when performers like Gypsy Rose Lee performed striptease acts in traveling tents supported by poles. What most can agree on is that pole dancing as we know it came from Canadian strip clubs in the '80s and migrated south to Hollywood and the rest of the United States.
One Girls Room student, a receptionist who began pole dancing several months ago for a better workout and to learn a few tricks for her fiancé, tells me she's a bit uneasy at the club. "I've never been to one of these places before," she says, looking tense. "I don't know what I think about it."
The one Girls Room student who seems unfazed is Layla, a 25-year-old former exotic dancer who now works as a makeup artist.
"One day I'll have a husband, and I want to do things for him—I mean, if you're gonna be with someone for the rest of your life you gotta learn to spice it up," she says of her decision to learn pole dancing. She adds that she hasn't had sex for two years and is "saving it for her husband."
Curious, I ask about her stint as a stripper. "I just did it to help my mom pay the mortgage," she says. "I used to think it was dirty and demeaning, but it's not." She points to the blonde dressed only in a black thong twirling in front of us. "Look," she says. "These women are powerful. These guys are melting over her. I felt empowered—I mean, yeah, I was naked, but they were the ones holding out their billfolds."
It's an argument I hear many times and one that Pentecost had touted in Striptease Bootcamp just days before—that in the dimly lit sphere of sexual fantasy, the women, not the men, are the real kingpins.
"In stripper land," Pentecost told us in class, "we're in control. Men worship the poonan in there, and they pay good money for it. We think that they need to be in control, that they're the ones who determine whether we're good enough to marry. That's why a lot of women come here to these classes, because they know something's missing." Many of the women who come to the Girls Room or hire Pentecost to teach private classes, she says, are wealthy, middle-aged wives and mothers who have found something lacking in their professional and domestic lives. At one lap dance class at a party in Highland Park, she says, the prim, proper women initially giggled condescendingly and refused to emulate any of her tricks. By the end, though, they were asking her advice on sex positions and how they might be able to feel desirable again after years of marriage, work and childbearing.
This age-old dynamic between traditional dames and "women of the night" goes back centuries, from the mix of disdain and envy that the wives of Venice held for their courtesan counterparts' independence and lack of inhibitions to the fascination some American women felt in the '30s when they watched showgirls perform. When I raise these questions to Noel, a friend of a friend who used to dance at The Lodge and is now a married, stay-at-home mother of two, she says that while a lot of the time she was dancing she felt in control and even empowered, there were times it was degrading. "It boils down to, 'My looks equate my financial means,' and that's a shitty place to be in sometimes," she says. "You're trying to sell your body to a certain degree. You are the product, and that's kind of demeaning."
While I'm drinking a Corona at The Lodge and thinking about the post-feminist implications of frolicking naked for money, a pair of dancers walks up to our table. One greets Layla, who has done her makeup before, with a kiss on the cheek.
"Hi," the dancer says with a grin. "We're the vagina welcoming party!" She introduces herself to the group and perches on the edge of Layla's chair. She's wearing a long turquoise skirt and matching bikini top. Her dark hair is pulled back and curled into a prominent wave above her forehead in the elegant way of 1940s starlets like Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and her features have a classic look to match. She's in her early 20s and tells me she's finishing up a marketing degree. Of course she is. I ask what it's like to work here, and before any term along the lines of "degrading" crosses my lips, she's justifying her job.
"People say strippers are being victimized," she says. "But the women are in control. The second a man walks in we can smell how much money he has on him. It's like walking into the lion's den."
Perhaps. Yet a few minutes later, she and her co-worker are showing us their surgically enhanced breasts—she grabs hers and laughingly refers to them as "$7,000 worth of titties"—and I have to wonder: If some of us professional, overly prudish women have swung too far to one extreme, aren't these women, dancing half-naked for men paying for a fantasy, equally imbalanced?
In my second Level 1 pole dancing class, with the first one plus a Rock 'n' Pole hip-hop class and the Striptease Bootcamp session under my belt, I'm feeling a bit more confident. Several girls are attending for the first time, and even though I'm still a beginner, I feel like I have at least a bit of a leg up—no pun intended. As we move through the Indian Swing, Warrior and finally, the challenging 180-Degree Fall that eluded me before, I'm amazed by my progress. While a first-timer up front swings tentatively and immediately falls, I swing around so many times I begin to feel nauseated.
When I tell Pentecost, she says, "Well, it just takes some getting used to. Just be glad you're not on the spinner pole." Apparently, the spinner pole rotates in its fixtures on the ceiling and floor.
At the end of class, we come to the part I hated the first time, taking turns employing a range of different walks—cute, sexy, runway-style—to approach a pole and display our new skills. I still feel slightly ridiculous during the slinky, shoulder-rolling walk, but when it comes time for The Dominatrix, a determined, shoulders-down, Dolce & Gabbana-esque runway march, I'm shocked to find that I feel right at home.
Pentecost takes notice. "You've got that Dominatrix one down, Megan! I guess that's who you really are—no wonder people probably think you're intimidating."
All righty then. Don't know how I feel about that, but maybe I've found my Halloween costume.
After class, I talk with some of the students about what keeps them coming back.
"When I leave, I'm always happy," Lauri, an executive assistant and mother of four, says. "No matter what went on at work or with the kids, I'm in the best mood."
Rose, a hair stylist, agrees. "This is the best workout I've ever had," she says. "I'm never going back to the gym. You're engaging your mind to concentrate; you're learning how to feel sexier and boosting your self-confidence; it's cardio and weights in one. What more could you want?"
Pentecost says a number of her students also report feeling more magnetic after class, getting asked out on dates while wearing their workout clothes, for example. I notice that after attending the classes I feel similar to the way I do after practicing yoga or having great sex. The morning after Striptease Bootcamp, a middle-aged man made a grand show of throwing the door open for me at Starbucks, flashing me a kindly, beaming smile and breaking into song. "There she is," he sang, "Miss America..."
That's never happened to me before.
On my last visit to the Girls Room, Pentecost asks if I'll continue taking classes. I nod, thinking I'd like to do more of the Rock 'n' Pole, which consists mostly of fast-paced, complex dance routines that minimally employ the pole. The full range of pole tricks and striptease classes, while fun for a weeklong novelty, aren't for me. Aside from getting nauseated every time I manage to spin around the pole, there's something about the routines, which include lingo like "set your table" and "reach back for your money" that strike me as cheap, even ridiculous. Maybe it's the awareness that I'm imitating a caricature of femininity that was developed and mass-produced with the express goal of turning on a male audience.
I agree with Pentecost's view that sexuality begins with one's self-perceptions, and that in order to be sexy you have to feel sexy, which in turn comes from appreciating yourself and your body. And maybe for some women, pole dancing and striptease classes are a healthy way to achieve that. But as a girlfriend of mine remarked recently, "Doesn't there have to be a happy middle ground between striptease classes and total sexual repression, even in the Bible Belt?"
I've come a long way from my seventh-grade horror at puberty, my high school rejection of heels and my initial unease with sex ("Doesn't it feel like being skewered?!" I recall wailing to one of my friends). I've managed, in some 15 years, to construct what I consider to be a fairly healthy sexual identity. Sure, there are still the challenges of how to be feminine without attracting undesirables and yet uninhibited and approachable enough to actually get a date, along with myriad other quandaries that come with working and loving amid a dizzying array of gender stereotypes and pop culture-promoted expectations. But for me, at least, pole dancing isn't the key to unraveling such mysteries. The best thing I got from whirling and swinging around poles at the Girls Room was the freedom that comes with putting myself in a situation that renders it absolutely impossible to take myself too seriously—always a good thing for a type-A personality. And hey, at least if I ever get married, I'll have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep things interesting.
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