I Took a Pole Dancing Lesson & It Transformed My Sexuality in 10 Minutes
I was 52, and I yearned to get out of my comfort zone, my self-imposed straitjacket.
You walk in the glass door of Body & Pole on West 27th Street in New York and a friendly receptionist enters your name in a computer. Beyond the desk, a wide, glassed-in staircase ascends to the second floor, and more stairs run down to the basement. When I arrive, it’s between classes and people are rushing up and down the stairs in preparation for the next hour. Some sit on benches and seats, chatting or removing their shoes. Dance music plays in the background, not too loud.
The receptionist tells me to go upstairs to room E for my Introduction to Pole class. They say I can use the changing room that I’ll see to the right when I get to the top of the stairs. They ask if it’s my first class, and I say yeah, with a flimsy façade of composure. They grin and wish me a great class.
Somehow, already, this isn’t what I expected.
I came to New York for two weeks in April specifically to take pole dancing lessons. It’s part of a project where I’m taking dance lessons in different places around the world — cities associated with each specific dance. I call it the Year of Dancing, and I started out hoping it would change my life. It already has, in incredible ways.
When I started, I considered myself a non-dancer. I think the best way I can validate that is to confess that I sat in a Righteous Brothers concert and didn’t move. My non-dancer-ness was that bad. I was practically the Anti-dancer. And it was beginning to feel symbolic of my life. I was 52, and I yearned to get out of my comfort zone, my self-imposed straitjacket. I hoped the combination of dance and travel would shake me around, transform my self-concept, and open up some new worlds of experience.
Ballet lessons in Paris came first — finally fulfilling a childhood fantasy. I visited the Eiffel Tower, ate baguettes and fromage every day, and bought a ballerina music box that plays Swan Lake. In Paris I learned adequacy — but that’s another story.
In the second month of my project, I wanted to stand face-to-face with the erotic, sexy, flirtatious, seductive aspects of dance. Because they scared the shit out of me. I had plans to learn dances like tango and belly dance later in the year. But even the Texas two-step terrified me. I needed to neutralize the fear and discomfort up front. Pole seemed like the perfect antidote to my terror — the diving-in-the-deep-end kind. I’d also heard pole was super fun, a great workout, and potentially empowering.
What would you expect to find inside the doors of a pole dancing studio? Flocks of athletic, self-possessed, supercilious young women, unabashedly at ease with their sexuality, wearing six-inch platform heels and not much else, right? Whereas I’m a nondescript, middle-aged, slightly overweight, bottled-up woman with weak shoulders and bad hair. I figured my classmates probably wouldn’t even see me. I’d have to keep dodging out of their way while they levitated by.
Some pole dancing studios might be like what I’d imagined. But Body & Pole? Could not have been more different from the picture I walked in with. I saw teenagers and septuagenarians and all ages in between. I saw people with round bodies and people with non-round bodies, and a few with amazing muscular physiques. But mostly I saw people who seemed to be much like me — trying something new for the sake of fitness and personal development. Most of them, a bit nervous. Some, when we talked about what brought us there, said they were making an effort to get more comfortable with their femininity or their sexuality, like me. One mother had brought her 14-year-old as a birthday present, and they were taking the intro class together. At first, I didn’t see a single person I would identify as a male. And I never saw a platform shoe.
I changed into yoga clothes. The door to the changing room stood ajar, but everyone else was stripping down without paying any attention to that, so I did the same — facing the far wall in order to pretend no one could see me because I couldn’t see them.
I approached the door to room E and walked right in without hesitating. That’s something I’ve learned: When you walk into that kind of a room, you can’t hesitate. No lameass standing around to think about it and get cold feet. You just stride in like you belong there. Momentum is key in life.
The first thing I see: a tall, hirsute, marvelously sculpted figure spinning and winding around a silver pole like some kind of dragon-human, all bare chest and long arms and legs, wearing only a tight pair of shorts, hair in a fantastic updo. This sight blinds me to everything else in the room. It’s still the first image I see when I remember Body & Pole — this incredible, strong, masculine/feminine, one-of-a-kind human, filling the space with athleticism, grace, selfhood.
For a split second, in all my own lack of sense of self, I think, Is that what I’m supposed to be? And instantly the thought evaporates in its total absurdity.
Of course I’m not, goes through my mind. I couldn’t possibly be, because I’m not him. Her. Them.
First lesson of the day: I’m only “supposed” to be me.
Right? Unbelievable how it can take so long to get simple things.
Second lesson of the day: My gender-perception circuits are permanently blown.
After seeing that stunning person when I first walked into the room, I now feel like I no longer assume anything. I still say “men” and “women” because that’s how most people seem to present themselves — matching the cultural conception of either male or female. That’s what I mean by those words when I use them now. But I don’t like them, those words. Because I think I’ve begun to understand that the reality, probably for every single one of us, exists as infinitely more complex, nuanced, and individual.
Once that magnificent person left the room — evidently they’d been in the previous class or practice — I was able to look around. Six gleaming poles stretched between the high, industrial ceiling and a polished wooden floor. Sunlight glowed through pull-down shades covering the windows in the back wall. The opposite wall, facing into the building, comprised a series of glass panels, heavily curtained to block anyone from seeing inside, for total privacy. The instructor would also tell us no photography was allowed unless he specifically said so.
There were twelve women in my class. Men aren’t prevented or discouraged from signing up at Body & Pole; apparently, from what I saw, it’s just that very few do.
The instructor enters the room. He’s a compact, lithe Puerto Rican named Armando. He makes a few opening remarks, we all introduce ourselves, and then he puts club music on and we start warming up.
Stretch the neck. Stretch the shoulders. Stretch the back and legs. Then we’re moving side to side in place, feet planted wide apart, legs bent in a wide squat. Side to side, side to side with the beat of the music.
So far so good. I get into the rhythm of following Armando’s movements, imitating him without thinking about it.
Then we start the hip swivels.
And my world ends.
Because, along with everyone else in the room, I’m now rotating my hips in a massively sexual way, and, bizarrely, this is how it feels: not sexual. Only it also is.
There was this moment of bewilderment like when you open a door and the room isn’t what you thought it was going to be.
Slowly, it dawns on me that the movement feels not-sexual because no one is projecting at me. No one’s watching me. Not quite true: Armando is, and people in the class are glancing at one another to check out what other people are doing. But you know what I mean: No one is watching me. There’s no “men” in the room. No one’s getting off on what I’m doing. No one’s assuming that because I’m doing this hip-swivel thing, I’m available or making a suggestion or doing this because that’s what he’d like me to do.
So it feels non-sexual, because the feelings and situations I’ve always associated with sexuality are missing. The projections, assumptions, and fears. The demands on me to fit what someone else wants or expects. The sensation, ranging from mild to intense, of being exploited for someone else’s pleasure or ego or identity. Also missing, the feeling of potential physical danger that’s always been in the background, if not right up front.
I look around at the others, look at myself in the mirror, notice as Armando watches me for a second and then turns his attention to someone else, and have the feeling that, in a vitally important way, it’s just me here.
But at the same time, gyrating like I’m doing is sexual. I know that, as I’m doing it, because it feels sexual. Within my body. Purely within myself. It feels erotic; it feels like it could be a turn-on to myself. It feels really good.
It’s just me here, I think to myself. Being sexy.
And that’s how I learned, at 52, that my sexuality is my own.
If there had been one “man” in the room, one person causing me to feel “watched,” exploited, or unsafe, I wouldn’t have been able to make that discovery. It would have been just like every other sexual or sexually tinged experience in my life. Only in that safe space was I able to learn that my sexuality exists within me, as part of me, individually, completely separate and apart from anyone else’s desires, expectations, and projections.
And that’s when I also realized that I had never in my life experienced sex or my own sexuality without those projections. For fuck’s sake: Even when I masturbated, alone, I’d always had a strong awareness that what I was doing would be a turn-on for men. As if that was the main reason for it. I’d been serving men’s expectations even when they weren’t there. It was like I didn’t know how not to. I had not known an alternative existed. I think I’d always assumed “it takes two to tango” (something my father used to say, come to think of it).
I don’t know whether that’s a common thing, or if it was more deeply ingrained in me than most other people — maybe because of the kind of person my father was. Hypersexualized. He made everything about sex. Our household was drenched in it, and he never looked at me without leering — or scowling, if I wasn’t what he wanted me to be in that moment. And I learned how to pleasure myself from my first boyfriend, in the context of turning him on; I didn’t discover masturbation on my own. It had never belonged to me. Till that day in pole class.
I had never realized the extent to which I dressed for men, had sex for men, pleasured myself for men, was a “woman” for men. I existed as a female — for men.
The class went on. No one seemed to notice that my world had just been shaken like a snow globe and I was still trying to figure out what had just happened.
After the intense warm-up, we went to the poles and learned to prance around them, hanging from one hand gripped high up on the pole. Then how to spin backwards and forwards and land semi-gracefully on our knees. We hugged the pole tight with our arms and shoulders, supporting our bodies that way so we could lift our feet off the floor and, theoretically, be able to do the splits in the air. Down on the floor, we tried a few “sexy push-ups” for fun. Then the official class was over, and Armando turned the music up and gave us a few minutes to play on the poles on our own and take photos of each other.
I loved it, all of it. I took three more classes while I was in New York — which was all I was physically capable of. Pole dancing is super fun, a great workout, and it’s potentially deeply empowering. But that one moment when I took possession of my own sexuality was what I hadn’t expected, and really needed.