“Keep going until it feels unpleasant!” shouts Sam Star, the petite, tattoo-covered brunette leading the class. Oh Sam, we bypassed unpleasant about 45 minutes ago when you told me that my nipples should be over my shins. (Just think about that for a second. Think about what position would allow both of one’s nipples to be lower to the ground than one’s shins.)
My body is currently being broken in the basement of Manhattan’s Body & Pole, a boutique fitness studio specializing in pole dancing fitness. I was tricked into coming here by Star, who promised that her Saturday evening “Flex” class would be a good “warm-up.” Consequently, I’ve found myself lying, facedown, with a skinny Asian chick’s ass in my face.
A few minutes before the ass-in-face-incident, Star sang out, “It’s time for the froggerrrr!” Everyone else in the class made pained noises, save for a gorgeous girl in the back row called Alicia, who’s also an instructor here. I’ve snuck a peek at her a few times throughout the class, and her body always looks dislocated. Dislocated, but as if she’s comfortable. Like she’s at peace with it. It’s quite unnerving, really.
Now, when I say “ass in my face,” I mean it quite literally. This girl is wearing a see-through white tank top, thigh-high black socks, and cheeky black panties. No pants. I was relatively successful at averting my gaze for the past 45 minutes, but then Star instructed us all to turn to our right and lay on our stomachs. Then we were supposed to spread our legs and bend our knees, so that each leg is making a 90-degree angle.
Star goes around the room, assessing each person’s position. Somehow, I feel surprisingly comfortable here. (Physically, at least. Still not over the butt.) Then, I feel a pair of strong, warm hands grab my love handles and yank my torso downwards. I shriek. I am a human goalpost.
“This is fucked up,” groans the panties girl, and the entire class bursts into a pained laughter. Star looks at me: “I tricked you here, didn’t I? You’re gonna write about how awful I am!”
While being bent into a pretzel is incredibly enjoyable, the real reason I’m here is to get schooled in Sam Star’s area of expertise: Competitive Pole Dancing. Over the past few years, Star has achieved InstaFame (@LithiumKitten) and dip-turned her way to “Polebrity” status. Not only is Star a top instructor at Body & Pole, but she’s also the 2014 IDSA World Pole Dancing Champion, is sponsored by pole gear outfitters like X-Pole and Bad Kitty, and is flown all over the world for pole conventions and events (next on the itinerary: New Zealand).
Unlike most professional athletes, Star was completely self-taught in the art of pole. And contrary to what you may be thinking, Sam Star did not find her pole passion in a strip club. She found it on the jungle gym. “Iiiiiii…always, really, liked, the monkey bars,” she punctuates. She spent her childhood hanging from old-school swing sets and spinning around basement water poles at friends’ houses. The strength came naturally to her. “In the 8th grade, when we had to do the Presidential Fitness thing, I did 24 pull-ups,” Star remembers. “I beat most of the boys,” she follows up with a smirk.
“I’m kind of like a monkey,” Star ponders. “I’m a monkey ninja.”
To any naysayers out there, athletic pole dance is a very real thing. Believe me, Star made me do it. The athletic pole world (read: non-exotic pole world) is incredibly multifaceted, in terms of style. “The way that I pole is a lot different than a lot of people,” Star explains. “I’m more on the athletic end of it.” Star explains. While she considers herself a “trickster,” other athletes use the pole to express more traditional dance styles: contemporary, gymnastic, even modern. “It’s interesting, too, how people choose music, and how they find self expression within it,” says Star. “Some people get waaay deep.”
One such artistic poler is Star’s fellow Body & Pole instructor, competitor, and roommate, Irmingard Mayer. Whereas Star uses the pole for insane tricks, Mayer uses it to tell stories. “I call pole dancing an athletic art form,” states Mayer. “I don’t necessarily think it should be classified as a ‘sport,’ traditionally. But I do think it’s very athletic, obviously.”
As would be expected, flipping oneself upside down on a metal pole takes a hell of a lot of upper-body strength, which sets pole classes apart from other group fitness classes. “I think when women take a class at the gym,” Mayer explains, “one of the first things they’ll say is, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get bulky.’” But the women who get involved in pole dance begin to see strength as sexy, something Mayer says makes pole incredibly empowering for women.
Of course, we can’t talk about athletic or competitive pole dancing without bringing up—you guessed it—strip clubs.
As Star and I were chatting, I casually dropped in a comment about pole dancing and naked ladies. Her guard immediately went up, and she hastened to explain pole dancing’s roots in Chinese and Indian Pole. “They do some crazy-ass shit,” she spouts, “And that’s been around for longer than American strip clubs have ever been a part of anything.” Star finds it “unfortunate” that so many people immediately associate pole dancing with stripping.
Mayer used to have similar feelings, but no longer minds the association. “It does hold us back in some ways,” she says of the connection, “but it also is part of what makes it what it is. You’re borrowing from a culture—it did grow from that.”
Both Star and Mayer firmly state that not all pole dancers can strip, and not all strippers can pole dance. However, one of the biggest names in the competitive pole universe succeeded by doing both. Annemarie Davies got her start as a stripper, and later founded United Pole Artists, one of the only media companies dedicated to covering athletic pole.
As the fitness world infiltrated exotic pole dancing, the activity became more acceptable. When Davies started as a stripper in the early 2000s, other women would avoid talking to her if they “knew.” But boutique fitness studios heralding “pole for fitness” have spread like chicken pox—a result that Davies, like Mayer, believes has been empowering for women. “I think its important for people to understand that there’s several different aspects of pole dancing,” Davies says. “I don’t think that anything should be taken away from where it came from.”
Many non-exotic pole dancers, especially newbies, are quick to separate themselves from strippers. Mayer thinks this has something to do with the still-taboo aspect of pole. Davies agrees: “It sort of bothers me, and some other people, when there’s certain types out there that say, ‘Well, we’re not strippers and we don’t want to have anything to do with it!’ Well, there are strippers that pole dance, and that’s where it came from.”
It seems like Star is one of those “types” who would prefer that the stigma of pole dancing change. Back in November, she attended a competition that was trying to do just that. The event took place at an outdoor theme park in Mainland China. “You know how, like, in Disneyland there’s really bad singing and awkward dancing? Yeah, we did that.” The theme park set up poles outside, and the competition basically ran as demos for the park’s visitors.
“I think they were trying to get people’s minds out of nightclubs and into, like, pole dancing can be outdoors! And in theme parks! In front of children!” Star explains. As for the visitors? “People were enjoying it. For sure.”
China is just one of many places that Star has traveled in her pole adventure. She’s never had a 9-5, and isn’t at all bothered by moving around a lot. Growing up, Star was about as wanderlust-y as you can get. For starters, she grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, but “vacated” after high school. Following her high school graduation, Star travelled the world: “I went to Israel for a little while,” she says, “met a boy, fell in love…followed him around for a while.” Add Sweden, Denmark, and Scotland to her list of residences, before semi-settling in Boston for about a decade.
It was there that Star began to take her pole career to new heights. One of Star’s girlfriends worked at a pole studio, Boston Pole Fitness, and offered her a job. Star was hired over the phone, without the studio even seeing a video of her skills. “They’d heard of me,” Star shrugs.
While living and working in Boston, Star would travel into Manhattan to train at top studios. She described her own studio in Boston as “functional,” so when Manhattan’s Body & Pole called her up one day and asked if she wanted to teach? “It was pretty much my dream job,” she says. “I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll be there…immediately!’”
The façade of Body & Pole is relatively unassuming. Tucked in a shadowy stretch of West 27th Street, the exterior can’t be more than 10 feet across. As I rush in, the warm, bright studio instantly relieves me of the biting November wind. The cherry-colored hardwood floors of the entryway sit in stark contrast to the white walls. As in just about any boutique fitness studio, there is brand-stamped merch available for purchase—everything from sports bras to itty-bitty shorts.
Leaning casually against the concierge desk is Star. While she is certainly attractive, in a fishnet-y, dominatrix-y, super-intimidating sort of way, her physique is like that of a tiny body-builder. Today, her billowing black hair is hastily tied into a side braid, reaching the top of her loose-fitting tank top. “It’s a skull,” she explains the design of her shirt, “made up of cats!” She smiles coyly and looks at the ground out of the corner of her eye, “…I love cats.”
Upon entering the studio, I start stripping off my layers immediately. “Holy Christ, it’s hot in here,” I mutter, detangling myself from my scarf. “Yeah, they just turned the heat on,” replies Star. “It’s great…I’ve been sliding off the poles all day.” She gestures to a clipboard on the counter top: “Sign your life away!”
Black and white portraits of all the instructors line the walls. Star points to one photo—a woman hanging upside down from a pole, her long hair covering her face. “That’s me!” Star exclaims. She’s only recognizable by the star-shaped tattoos on her ankles—just one set of many. She also has thickly-bordered stars running down her spine, as well as two thick black bands around each of her lower calves. She’s also got white stars on her inner forearms, which I mistake for tattoos. “They’re actually scarification,” she says, like a proper badass. Yes, you read that right. Scar-ification. “I had somebody cut it.”
Apparently, pole requires a certain level of pain tolerance, which Star has no shortage of. “Pole…it’s a little abrasive at first,” says Star. “But your body toughens up to it!” As if the knife-seared star “tattoo” wasn’t evidence enough, Star says she has an ungodly tolerance for pain. “And I love it.” It’s unclear whether she loves her tolerance, or loves the pain. Somehow I get the idea that it’s both.
When I convinced Star to give me this lesson, she warned that it would most likely end in soreness and bruises. She was not wrong. But apparently in the pole-iverse, bruises are a cool thing: a sign that you’re in the club. “We have people who take pictures of their bruises and post them!” Star proudly proclaims. “Like, ‘Look at my new bruise! Because I did this new move!’ And people get really excited about it.”
For pole-rs, Instagram acts as a common bonding ground—particularly when it comes to learning new moves. “There’s so much content now, going up, that people can try,” she says. “I started to get a lot more people being like, ‘Oh, Sam Star taught me this!’” One of Star’s most popular moves is something called a “fonji.” It originates from Chinese Pole, which is a more circus-style type of pole, and involves the athlete flipping back and forth between their shoulder and their armpit.
In October, Star was bubbling with excitement that @LithiumKitten was almost at 10,000 followers, or “a crap ton” as she defines it. Now, she’s well over 11,000. She posts about once a day—generally short videos of her doing new tricks, everywhere from in a studio to in the airport. Star’s Instagram fame has also helped her travel the world. “That’s one of the things about becoming a polebrity,” she says,” is that people want to take classes from you.” Every time she travels, she teaches. “I can literally travel anywhere in the world, and have somewhere to stay.”
Star’s co-athlete Mayer mentioned the international aspect as well, but credits it to the “sub-culture” feel of pole dancing. “There’s also this little bond, because they kind of get you. You’re in on this secret,” Mayer says. “You’re kind of a member of a secret society.”
According to Star, the pole community is “super tight.” This is another one of the reasons why Mayer sees pole as such an empowering activity. “There’s a very supportive and unique energy in a room full of women when you’re trying to learn a new trick,” Mayer says. Not to mention that women almost exclusively dominate the industry—Annemarie Davies being a prime example. Women own the majority of pole businesses and studios, as well as new lines and products. Mayer calls the sport “a celebration of the femininity between women.”
By some stroke of luck, I make it through Star’s 90-minute Gumby fest. The other victims and I all detangle ourselves from ourselves, and shuffle into the dressing room. I hear Star answering a few individual questions as I hobble to a bench for a breather. She sticks her head around the doorframe: “Are you trying to hide?!” Damn. She’s found me.
It’s time for my one-on-one lesson. Star puts on some chill electronic music, and we each stand next to a pole. “We’re gonna start with math and science,” Star instructs. “Angles, centrifugal force.” Star hands me a wet dishrag soaked with rubbing alcohol, and tells me to wipe down the pole. The alcohol helps remove any bodily oil or grease from the pole, thus making it easier to stick. I find that “sticking” is the most challenging thing for me, and apologize to Star profusely for my obscenely sweaty palms. “It actually happens to everyone,” she reassures. Except for her, of course. She shows me her palms, which are basically like two pumice rocks. She shrugs like it’s no big thing: “I get holes in my hands sometimes.”
We’re learning a basic move called the “dip turn” first. This involves hanging on to the pole with your inner hand, extending your outer leg and arm away from the pole, and letting the centrifugal force pull you around. I find that this is a lot harder than Star makes it look.
After my first attempt, I turn to Star for reassurance. She looks back at me and purses her lips: “Not quite.” Star warned me earlier that her approach to teaching is more “tough love” than most. I try again. And again.
I learn that there is really only one basic of learning pole, and that’s upper body strength. I tried to warn Star about my lack of strength beforehand, to which she retorted, “Yeah but, how are you gonna get it?” Fair point, coach.
Before I came in, I had some very serious questions for Star:
“So, like, what am I supposed to wear?” I asked.
“Shorts and a sports bra,” she responded without hesitation.
Over my dead body. “You mean…I can’t cover up my tummy?”
“I mean you caaaan…,” she rolls her eyes. “At a certain point, you need your skin to grip the pole.” Ouch.
I find out exactly what she means when we move from dip turns to fan kicks. The fan kick requires grabbing the pole with both hands, hoisting yourself off the ground, and swinging your legs around like a fan. Star dances over to me, grabs my tank top, and yanks it up so my stomach is completely exposed. “Now go,” she says. “Put the pole between your butt cheeks.” Um, what? I take one attempt at the fan kick, and don’t even get myself off the ground. “Don’t jump!” Star instructs, sensing my next move. “You’ll just land harder, because of gravity. Lift.” She turns her back to me, flexes, and pats her lat muscles. It takes 5’1” Star to grab 5’10” me under the knees and give me a boost.
After numerous failed attempts at the fan-kick, Star decides that we should put a short routine together. As we’ve already established, by body strength is…well…subpar. But if we had to compare my lat muscles with my ability to be “sexy,” I suddenly seem like the Hulk. Luckily for me, Star’s routine style is heavier on the athleticism than the sexy.
Watching Star execute these moves so flawlessly made me want to improve. Which, according to Star, is why she loves competing. “It forces you to do more and do better, and challenge yourself,” she says. “I want to do shit that other people can’t do, and I want to make it look easy!” She makes it look so easy, which made me so envious, that our brief one-on-one turned into an hour-long session.
After getting a taste for what a proper pole routine feels like, I felt my competitive fire burning. As Star and I fine-tune our routine to Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” (better known as the House theme song), I start to get frustrated.
“I’m still not entirely satisfied with my dip-turn,” I express to Star.
“Let’s film it! That way you can watch…” she suggests, “…and so there’s evidence!”
So that we can do the routine at the same time, Star adjusts her iPhone to the front-facing camera, and leans it against a corner. We do the full routine at least three times. When we take a break to watch the videos, I notice a bruise forming near my armpit. There are blisters on my wrist and the bottom of my foot, and my right bicep has a visible knot.
As the video ends, Star sets the phone down and walks back to the music. “Do you see what I mean?” She asks over her shoulder. “You can extend more.”
Star puts “Teardrop” on repeat and turns back to me, eyes fierce. “Let’s do it again.”