Smile Politely

Defying gravity: Pole fitness trend takes off in C-U

As the members of Illini Pole Fitness attempt a fireman spin, shouts of encouragement can be heard all around the room.

“Keep your arms straight. Do not bend that arm.”

“Step into it.”

“You want to kick those knees back.”

And later, as the lights are dimmed and the neon lights that surround the mirror cast a blue tint to the room, they are feeling the music, wrapping themselves around the pole, flipping their hair, and crawling on the floor in a performance of seduction as the rest of the class looks on.

This is what pole dance embodies — two parts intense fitness, dedication, and strength and one part fun, sexy, graceful dance. And that’s what keeps the members of the pole fitness group coming back — the blend of both into something they hardly recognize as a workout.

“You have no idea how many calories you’re burning and I hate going to gyms anymore because it’s totally boring to me,” said Cassie Landry, the president of the student club. “I’d rather be flying and twirling and screaming.”

Illini Pole Fitness began in August after University of Illinois student Miranda Dashut realized there wasn’t a place in the Champaign-Urbana area to practice the pole techniques she had learned while taking pole fitness classes in her hometown where she attended community college.

So Dashut obtained her certification and decided to bring pole fitness to Champaign, first teaching her friends and then setting up shop in her own living room as she and another student started the registered student organization. Dashut also began teaching lessons for members of the community.

“I wanted to give more women an opportunity to try it even if they weren’t students or if they weren’t going to be able to come to the practices,” she said. “It was just another opportunity to get pole out there and help grow pole fitness in the community and connect people.”

Illini Pole Fitness now holds practices at Evolve Fitness Club in downtown Champaign and has between forty and fifty regular members, including four or five men. Many members began learning basic tricks like the fireman spin and the crouch spin and can now perform more advanced moves.

“The first semester we started out just teaching them the basic fireman spin and by the end of the semester, we had a special invite class for teaching inverting, which is flipping yourself upside down,” Dashut said. “It was really cool to see, just over that short amount of time, how far our members progressed.”

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For Cassie Landry, pushing her body above normal limits is not something out of the ordinary. As a silks and trapeze artist and lifelong dancer, finding new ways to move her body has always intrigued her.

Pole fitness was no different. After seeing a segment on Oprah where the benefits of pole dance were discussed, Landry, a Ph.D. student at Illinois, decided to travel to Chicago with a friend and see what all the fuss was about. That first class is burned into her memory. “I’m a dancer and I’m used to seeing performances, but to see all these women so high in the air and so graceful really moved me,” she said. “From that moment on I knew it was something that I had to continue. I had to have it.”

What attracted Landry to pole dancing is the exoticness of the exercise and the realization that she could work out and change her body and feel amazing while doing it.

“It’s sort of not allowed in a kind of way, and I think that bit of exoticness is very, very attractive,” she said. “What keeps you there is the exhilaration of flying and that feeling of weightlessness, and I think that it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

But that exhilaration and feeling of weightlessness do not come easy at first, says Landry. The hardest thing for beginners is to learn to turn off your brain.

“You have to stop thinking about what your neighbor looks like and what you look like and who’s judging you and what you can and can’t do,” she said. “You have to turn all those things off; turn off your inner voice and focus on how it feels.”

A sore neck, back, and shoulders, calluses and bruises, or “pole kisses,” are common in pole fitness, says Landry. But despite the injuries, members feel the benefits of working out their core, back, shoulders, and arms and gaining a strong grip.

“Women always want to maintain a certain size and fit in a certain size of clothing, and with pole you kind of have to put that aside,” Landry said. “I used to wear small button-down shirts, but I put one on the other day and I felt like I was going to pop buttons because my back and my shoulders are so much more built than they used to be.”

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Kelly Halpin, a student at Illinois, likes to joke that she has a blatant disregard for the laws of gravity. With a lot of other types of workouts, you finish and don’t want to do more, but the opposite is true of pole fitness, she says: “It wears you out so much, but in the best way possible.”

And that’s one thing most members of the group can agree on — this is not your typical workout. “I think it’s really about women embracing their bodies,” said Sydney Thompson, a recent Illinois graduate. “We’re doing it not only to get strength, but to have fun.”

For Landry, pole dancing changed not only her perception of art and dance, but also of her relationship with her body in a world where women are told to look and act a certain way. “It gives you sort of a new perspective on how you should move and how a woman can look,” she said. “It’s very empowering to be able to lift yourself with your own hands and know that your body weight is maintained by your own strength.”

The club hopes to not only break conceptions of what a woman can do, but also the stigma that is still associated with pole dancing. “Strippers don’t do the kinds of things that we do,” said Landry. “Strippers don’t get paid for doing amazing tricks on the pole; they get paid for stripping. The fact that it has such a stigma is unfortunate.”

The beautiful thing about pole fitness, Landry says, is that there is no upper limit. There is always a way to make a trick more beautiful or advanced or the chance to sustain the movement longer and make it more exquisite.

“The sky is the limit,” she said. “There’s no stopping point, and that’s a really good feeling.”

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