“You should take a pole dance class with me,” a friend once told me. My stomach churned as if it were performing backflips. I never thought of myself as the kind of woman who could move as salaciously as the women in Hustlers. The thought of it was mortifying; I felt like I’d rather stand at the DMV for three hours on a Friday afternoon than subject myself to such embarrassment. She sensed my hesitation and followed up: “Natalie, when was the last time you did something that scared you?” I tried to pull an example from recent memory—any example. I had nothing.
“Fuck it, I’m in,” I said. “Let’s get uncomfortable.”
I walked into my first class with the same apprehension as a shy kid on the first day of school, nervously taking the room in. I expected a room full of scantily clad women, the kind who look like Instagram models. What I saw was nothing out of the ordinary: students, mothers, neighbors, businesswomen, and yes, even grandmothers.
We took a slow walk around the room. I felt like a baby giraffe learning how to walk. I was unsteady. Uncoordinated. Unsure. These women, all different colors, shapes, and sizes, each moved in their own beauty and truth. Watching them, I realized something was missing inside me. I wanted to feel that comfortable in my body. I wanted what they had.
Saying “yes” to a moment changed my life for the better. After three years as a practitioner, here are the lessons from my time on the pole:
1. It’s not about stripping. It’s a feminine movement.
Dubbed #Stripperbowl2020 on Twitter, JLo and Shakira’s halftime show drew over 1,300 complaints to the FCC, with many citing their performances as “vulgar” and “exploitative.” What is exploitative is how our culture stigmatizes a movement that marries physical strength and sensuality.
Is the movement sexy? Yes. It’s carnal. It pares us down to the simplest versions of ourselves. When I move, I am not a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister. I am a woman, connected physically, mentally, and emotionally to my body.
None of this is to denigrate women who pole dance for a living. Pole dancing has evolved to mean different things to different people.
2. It’s not about my boyfriend. It’s about me.
Many women begin their pole journey “for their boyfriends” in an effort to “spice up their relationship” or “satisfy” their man. And then something changes and many women begin to realize that sensuality is a form of expression, not consumption. As I grow older, I become more grounded in the conviction that it is perfectly acceptable to have moments that are solely for my enrichment.
I was a year into pole dancing when I met my boyfriend. I waited until the sixth date before I uttered a word about it. It was not for fear of the stigmatization or that he would expect a performance. I wanted to be confident that if I shared this part of me, it would not compromise the practice that had become so sacred.
My movement does not have to be for anyone unless I choose to share it.
3. Ugly emotions are beautiful too.
Cultural norms dictate behavior for women. We are told that anger should be tempered, melancholy should be cheered up, and happiness should be celebrated.
All emotions have a purpose, and to be human is to embrace them for what they can teach us. Pole dancing has taught me how to tap into darker emotions. I have learned that slow and controlled movements on the pole make my muscles burn with pleasure, tapping into feelings of anger. That emotion can break down barriers and help me move fearlessly in the real world. A gentle surrender to gravity on the pole exposes softness and vulnerability. Sometimes the fragility of the movement can usher in feelings of sadness, which helps me draw upon empathy for others.
We often embrace happiness because it leads to contentment—as if that is the end goal. But are we ever truly content? It was a life-changing moment when I learned that my darker emotions are what make me feel most alive.
When I honor and process the emotions that move through me, they become the magic ingredients for my growth.
4. My body will show my mind that I am capable.
The mind creates obstacles the body must overcome. One of the first spins I learned required me to hold on to the pole with one hand and thrust my body forward. Letting gravity take me, I had to trust that my leg would catch the pole. For weeks I attempted this, and I did not think I could do it. The fear of face-planting on the hardwood floor stopped me cold every time.
“Don’t worry,” the instructor said. “Your body can do this. You will nail this when you learn to trust yourself.” Mind blown. Was she speaking to my technical ability or my outlook on life?
When I commit myself in movement, I am not thinking about the email I should have sent before leaving the office or the load of laundry I haven’t started. My mind is clear. I am fully committed to a moment in time, focused solely on my breath and my body.
The moment I stopped thinking about the mechanics and trusted my muscle memory was the moment I nailed it.
5. I’m not getting skinnier, but I am getting stronger.
A former water polo player and swimmer, I’ve had an athletic build since I was a teenager. Taking up pole dancing has not and will not make me look like those skinny pole girls. But it has changed my body. I am a stronger version of the same build I have always been.
My shoulders are broad. My hips are curvy. My legs are like boa constrictors, strong enough to squeeze the life out of their prey. I can climb a 12-foot pole with one leg, flip upside down, and spin around it using just one hand.
I’ve learned to celebrate my body for what it can do, not for the size it is.
6. Start from a place of yes—the outcome may surprise you.
I am healthier and more connected to myself because I chose to say yes to something that scared me. Had I said no, I would not be as strong, as confident, or as comfortable in my skin. I do question how many more opportunities for growth I have missed because I was afraid.
This journey doubles my desire to lean into the uncomfortable and to embrace all the beautiful emotions that are there to guide us. I never know when the next opportunity just might change my life.